How do you do what is right when everything is wrong?

John Skylar, PhD
7 min readApr 7, 2017


Here we are, facing another Republican President who is fixing to entangle us in Middle Eastern wars, who appears to be willing to take military action without regard for the laws that require the consent of at least one of Congress, NATO, or the UN Security Council.

Our President attempted to make the case that his actions — something reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s tendency to bomb Sudan or Iraq when the headlines went against him — were motivated by his deep sympathy for babies murdered and paralyzed by chemical weapons.

Considering his love of ridiculing reporters with physical disabilities, I find his sudden empathy questionable at best. I find his use of unilateral action reprehensible. I feel great fear at the idea of Donald Trump becoming a wartime President.

At the same time, I find myself so conflicted over the events in Syria over the past few days — I mean week — I mean six years.

The past few days, I believe we can all agree on, represent a fundamental re-positioning of the rules and players in this conflict.

Naturally my friends on the radical left are condemning this as an act of foreign Imperialism (with the characteristic Western obtuseness that fails to recognize the Alawis as agents of Iranian Imperialism to begin with) and my friends on the center right are variously lamenting the possibility of another foreign entanglement or decrying the fact that our government did not do this sooner. My libertarian friends are lamenting that Congress was not consulted on this action. I don’t have any far-right friends, but I bet they are probably upset that Trump wasted bombs on people who weren’t Jewish.

I am, as always, deeply conflicted. So much so that my typical actions — such as writing a long and public blog post on the matter — seem foolish to me. I do not know how to feel on this matter, and my moral compass has entered a magnetically unstable Bermuda triangle.

On the one hand, the actions of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were a war crime and undoubtedly a war crime. I believe in the idea that there are actions so reprehensible that they cannot be considered acceptable by the community of nations. The use of chemical weapons in a deliberate attack on civilians is one of them. There are situations where war “necessitates” the use of conventional weapons in urban areas. I do not like this. I do not believe it is truly as necessary as today’s norms of war would have us believe. But I also believe that there is a difference between bombing a civilian area and gassing civilians so that they experience the slow and agonizing death that comes with the gradual lung atrophy that is caused via these horrible — and useless — weapons. I also believe that if you are going to go to war against anything, it should be against fascist murderers like Bashar al-Assad.

Warfare is about denying your enemy its objectives. The objectives in the Syrian civil war are similar to any war, where one side wishes to control more territory than another. But the use of chemical weapons against civilians shows that the objective of the Assad government is one that goes beyond the simple control of territory. The objective that this act wishes to deny to Assad’s enemies is one where popular support for their insurgency gives them aid and comfort. Instead of fighting over territory, this act fights over the wishes of civilians to aid one side or another.

The goal is, of course, to use fear to antagonize the goodwill that Syrian civilians may have towards insurgent fighters. The Syrian “government” is trying to capture territory in people’s minds through the use of fear. If the goal were simply to end the lives of civilians, there would be more efficient and less brutal ways to accomplish this task. The goal is instead to colonize their minds with fear in such a way that their will to support anyone other than Assad is lost.

That is a desire darker than anything I have ever conceived in even my worst moments. There is no action so terrible as the use of force towards a goal of what essentially amounts to mind control. Genocide stems from that same goal; you do not want the ideas of the tribe that you have elected to murder to be perpetuated, so you eradicate them utterly.

As a result, I find it rather challenging to condemn President Trump for his actions in attacking Syria. If anything, I am concerned that he has not gone far enough. I cannot agree with his past positions on the conflict, particularly his lack of will to provide aid to those seeking to flee. But I also feel that I cannot allow my condemnation of his selfishness to cloud the fact that attacking a Syrian military target used for war crimes is something that seems morally right to do.

There is no defending the Syrian government here. There isn’t a silver lining or a good action that they have taken. While the US is morally complicated and an heir to ideologies that are even more deeply problematic than what it currently represents in the world, the US has certain moral lines that it will not cross, and even someone who I regard as unrestrictedly amoral as President Trump appears to recognize this.

On the other hand, I am frightened that this principled action will yield an outcome that kills us all. War between the United States and Russia would be a disaster assuming that the Russian nuclear arsenal remains even vaguely functional — and by all reports it is the only aspect of the Russian state which is still fully operational. War between the United States and Russia is an extremely likely outcome of future military action in Syria. The Obama administration allowed that fact to overcome its moral compass in this respect, believing its responsibility to avert global war to supersede moral responsibility for intervening when war crimes are being committed without restriction.

I am not sure which is the greater evil, but what I do know is that if this does lead to war with Russia, it will be on the Russians as defenders of a criminal regime. The United States refused to stand by any longer, and that is not something that was a direct attack upon the Russians. It was about Syrian civilians and a desire to stop seeing them murdered in obscene ways.

There is also the chance that it will lead to another unstable, Iraq-like situation, but Syria already is an unstable, Iraq-like situation. That is happening with or without our input. That will continue to happen, without our action, until Russia reinstalls Bashar al-Assad as an undisputed dictator and he brutally murders everyone who opposed him. If we intervene, at least that last bit may not happen. If we intervene, at least there is a chance that someone with some sort of moral compass will survive in Syria.

At the same time, if we intervene, more civilians will die. There is no war where civilians do not die. Civilians will also die if we do not intervene.

The problem is that it is obviously possible to be morally right and still lose. And that is the thing that gives me pause here. There will be no tombstone for the human race and our epitaph will not read what it should read, which will simply be: “They were too immature to stop killing themselves.”

I don’t know that what I want here is the end of Bashar al-Assad, and I am pretty certain that if his end is to come, it should not be the United States that makes it happen. There is too much history of our failed efforts at regime change. What I do think we can do is force a humanitarian balance in the conflict. We can stop the terror airstrikes that the Syrian Air Force visits on civilians, and we can enforce a strict policy against the use of chemical weapons. We can create field hospitals and sanctuaries in Syria, for those who are not able to flee, and we can defend them with the full might of our military. We can ensure that the fighting in Syria stays out of civilian safe zones that we designate. We have these capabilities, but we have not used them. We have instead done nothing.

President Obama wanted to do something, but he was blocked by the very Republicans who now praise Donald Trump’s attack on an air field. He was also decried by Donald Trump for his desire to do something. He played politics with the lives of civilians, and he is doing it again. But unfortunately, he is also the only President we currently have, and if someone is going to do something, it is going to be him. And that means my fear of the consequences, and what will happen to the people of Syria, is even greater.

I don’t really have any answers. I know we could be doing more, and we are not. I have a few ideas I have shared. I have more worries than ideas, and am aware of stakes that go far beyond anything that happened in Libya or Iraq. And yet, something must be done, because atrocities beyond what happened in Libya or Iraq are being enacted here.

It is at times like this that I can only default upon faith — in something. In anything. Whether it is chance, God, Russell’s teapot, or the furious AI that guards the undiscovered jump gate hidden in the Oort Cloud, I sincerely pray that it will have mercy upon us for the events that our leaders have just put in motion.



John Skylar, PhD

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at and Opinions my own, impressions yours.