Military Intervention, Syria and the Trolley Problem

Ok, disclaimer: I disagree with the proposed air strikes in Syria. I don’t think they’re well-thought through, with no clearly-defined ground strategy needed to dislodge IS forces, nor any end-plan besides hurting IS. It reeks of Cameron trying to flex his muscles and appear as the man of the moment, rather than any genuine belief these strikes will either reduce attacks in Europe, or help those fighting IS. The most shameful part of all is that he is using the tragedy of the Paris attacks to push through something on his long-term agenda, in effect trying to score political points on a matter that is quite literally of life and death.

However, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated at some of the posts I’m seeing about the topic. It’s not that I disagree with the judgement that the strikes are wrong, but that I disagree with the reasoning behind so many of these judgements.

Far too many people are opting for an idealised, pacifist view on a a complex issue, and have clearly never even considered that military intervention may be necessary and even the right thing to do. To put it another way, too many people made their minds up the moment they saw the words “bomb Syria” without even thinking why, besides the idea that military intervention is inherently wrong.

Too many assume that civilian casualties are somehow avoidable, when in these situations they are not. 200,000 people have died in the Syrian war, which is a figure that will continue to rise. Lives are being lost every day, and in such a circumstance there is no inherent victory to pacifism. The reality of a situation such as the one in Syria is that innocent lives will be lost regardless of what we do, so the only choice we have is to minimise this – the ruthless arithmetic of war sometimes boils down to a hundred people dying so that a thousand can live. Sometimes, the only choices you have are bad ones, but that doesn’t give you the right to refuse to choose out of an arrogant unwillingness to dirty your hands.

It’s the classic trolley problem – a choice between killing one person to save another five, or letting the five die so you don’t get the blood of the one on your hands. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it does have relevance to our situation – we are at a crossroads. As a military power in NATO, we have the power to act. We can either chose to act and accept that some innocents will die, or sit back and allow untold more innocents to die. Either way, a country in our position will ultimately bear responsibility for those that end up dead – be it through our misguided action, or through our misguided failure to act.

Of course, I’m not saying that these strikes will really help the civilian population in Raqqa – I don’t think they would, and again I personally don’t support them – and things are of course nowhere near as simple as the trolley analogy. The strikes probably will harm as much as they help, and aren’t combined with the ground strategy needed to dislodge IS forces. Neither do they reflect an underlying strategy to tackle global Jihadism that is desperately needed in the battle against IS.

Really, though, whether or not the strikes would work is irrelevant to the point I’m making. The point I’m making is that they could work, but that too many people appear unwilling to ever entertain such a possibility – which is truly worrying. Coming to any conclusion on an issue of life or death from a closed perspective is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Without considering all the possibilities and all the eventualities, you are risking a narrow course of action that reflects dogma rather than reason.

By refusing to properly engage with both sides of the debate from the start, you end up ignoring any evidence and points that jar with yours. In effect, you are thinking and behaving with the exact same mindset as Tony Blair and George Bush did in 2003.

So basically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with opposing military action in Syria – but please, please do so with an open mind.

Conor Dunwoody