Truman National Security Project

Idealism or Realism When It Comes to Syria?

Iraq War Name

This week, the United Nations will be discussing ways to end the civil war in Syria and eliminate President Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The Obama administration’s push for military action seems to have given way, for now at least, to diplomacy. Yet an American military strike against Mr. Assad’s forces remain a real possibility if diplomatic efforts fail. I’m not so sure how I feel about all of this.

One unanticipated effect of my service in Iraq has been the running debate in my head about what justifies our involvement in future conflicts. I’m not naïve enough to ignore the widespread perception that the conflict I served in was an unnecessary mistake – a strategic blunder made by policy makers who expected quick victory, but which instead devolved into a nearly decade-long slog of bloodletting. Sometimes the wars we get involved in are worth the cost, and sometimes they aren’t. Anecdotally, at least, it seems the majority of Americans think that mine wasn’t.

I often agree, and with the heavy heart of a man who has watched other men die, I’m far more hesitant to support military action these days. It wasn’t always this way.

I was eight when President George Bush began Operation Desert Storm, but I probably paid considerably closer attention to what was going on than the average third grader. I quickly learned the difference between an Iraqi Scud missile and the American Patriot batteries that would shoot them down. I thought the F-117 stealth fighter (cutting-edge technology at the time) was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was far too young to understand the causes of the conflict; it didn’t matter so much to me – I was 8. I thought war was cool.

Ten years later, when it came time to head to college, I chose to go to West Point. I remember proudly answering in the affirmative when, during my high school civics class, one of my classmates asked, “Wait, so if we go to war, you have to go, too?” Little did I know, my bravado would eventually be tested. One sunny Tuesday in September of my plebe (freshman) year, Al Qaeda attacked America, forever changing the future for me and my classmates. The seniors were chomping at the bit to get into the fight, and the younger cadets even worried that they might miss the war altogether. Only a few months later, the drumbeat of another war got louder and louder, eventually leading us toward the invasion of Iraq.

I was proud of NATO’s air war over Kosovo and disappointed when we didn’t intervene in Rwanda. I didn’t care so much about the strength of the intelligence case against Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons – I had joined the Army to punish the bad guys and protect the good guys, and on the surface, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to be doing just that. My fellow cadets and I were tired of the cat-and-mouse game we had seen play out with Mr. Hussein since we were kids. We wanted to go knock off the tyrant. He was a bully to his own people and a menace to the world. It was time to give this jerk what he had coming.

Between the invasion and my own deployment, however, my enthusiasm began to wane. People I knew started dying. My roommate was killed. I had seen videos of the burned corpses of contractors being dragged through the streets of Falluja. This didn’t seem so fun anymore. I had chosen this path, though, and I would do my duty. I signed up for the infantry and volunteered for Airborne and Ranger training, because I couldn’t look at my classmates and ask them to take on that burden while I chose a less dangerous, more comfortable role. My idealism might get me killed, but I wasn’t going to let one of my friends get killed in my stead.

I deployed in 2007 as the leader of a 46-man Stryker infantry platoon. When I first set foot on Baghdad soil, I remembered being 8 years old, watching CNN as the antiaircraft fire rose from the very city in which I stood. My unit was tasked with high-intensity nighttime raids in the heart of Sadr City, the most dangerous district in Baghdad at that time. Getting shot at became a regular occurrence, and politics was the farthest thing from my mind – I simply wanted to do my job well and bring my soldiers home alive. Fate would have it otherwise, and in a tragic episode none of us will ever forget, we lost two of our brothers.

In the months after their deaths, I wondered what we – my unit and my country – had accomplished during our time in the desert. What did my men die for? What in the world could possibly be worth such a sacrifice, or the nine years of my own life that I spent willing to die for America in a conflict which many view in retrospect as a poor idea, myself included?

In the years since, these questions have not faded, and today, I hear the drumbeat sounding again. In my mind, I hear echoes of the past – of my initial position on both Kosovo and Iraq. I hear a case that appeals to my instinct to protect, and I feel a strong desire for our country to crush Mr. Assad with the ferocity with which he has abused his own people. While I appreciate the recent possibility for a diplomatic solution, I remain distrustful of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Assad, and I’m reminded of the decade of cat-and-mouse we played in the 1990s. Part of me asks, “Why play this game again if we have the power to end it now?”

Then again, will bombing Mr. Assad actually make a difference? If our goal isn’t regime change, are we just doing this to make ourselves feel better about the fact that, until now, we have watched more than 100,000 people be massacred by their own government, and we have done nothing to stop it? And if we did want regime change, we’ve learned that doing so essentially means we own another country for another decade. I think we can all agree not to do that again. Who are we supporting, anyway? Some of the rebel groups – not one of which is strong enough to take control of the country in Mr. Assad’s absence – are allied with Al Qaeda, our darkest enemy whose actions kicked off these past 12 years of war. Do we really want to help them?

Military action never comes without cost. Despite popular perceptions of our military strength, we don’t just get to do whatever we want around the globe. People shoot back. Whether pilots or sailors, our people can be harmed or killed. These decisions fill cemeteries. They tear families apart. Each life matters – it’s not just a statistic, a price tag. It’s someone’s father or mother, son or daughter. Our leaders in Washington don’t always feel it, but for those who serve, it’s our brothers and sisters whose lives are at stake.

I don’t offer answers to these questions, and I don’t envy any president for having to answer them. But as the military-civilian divide in our country grows, I think it’s valuable to understand (and critical to take into account) the experiences of those who have served, especially when deciding whether or not to send more of our finest into harm’s way yet again. As a veteran, I am torn between the idealism which led me to join and the realism I’ve earned in the process, and I’m sure I’m not alone. It’s the burden of being a soldier, I suppose.

Dan Savage is a Truman National Security Project Fellow. This article originally appeared on The New York Times.