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Who's the war weariest of them all?

Two debates about war are going on right now. The first is a serious one about whether America should attack Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for slau
Image: Secretary Of State John Kerry Speaks On Syria At The State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement at the State Department August 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Kerry spoke on the current situation in Syria.

Two debates about war are going on right now. The first is a serious one about whether America should attack Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering 1,400 Syrians in an Aug. 21 chemical attack. The second debate is a trivial one about who is most war-weary after more than a decade of U.S. wars in the Middle East.

The stakes are sky-high with the first question, which is maddeningly difficult to resolve. How do you enforce international limits on the usage of chemical weapons without harming innocent civilians and helping Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels?

With the second question, the stakes would seem nonexistent. Who cares who is most tired of war? But this childish competition is swiftly becoming a proxy for the more serious one. All sides are acting as though a Syria intervention hinges on establishing who is exhausted by war the most, the hawks or the doves. The weariest is the wisest, and the wisest one wins.

In any competition over war-weariness, the doves would appear to have an insurmountable advantage. What demonstrates how tired you are of war more persuasively than your refusal to fight one? This is what John Kerry is up against when he says:

Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.

This is a classic call to arms: We do not seek war, but when war seeks us we can’t avoid it. But does war truly seek us? Longing for peace won’t bring peace to Syria, but it will maintain peace for the United States (apart from about 60,000 troops still in Afghanistan, which will drop by nearly half early next year).

Kerry’s war-weariness credentials rest on his biography. He first came to the public’s attention in April 1971 when, wearing military fatigues and representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,

Each day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say they we have made a mistake. … How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

But that was then. Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid floundered in part over the migraine-inducing complexity of his position on the Iraq war, caricatured as “I was for it before I was against it.” (In fact, Kerry said “I actually did vote for [an $87 billion supplemental to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it.” The statement did not refer to his earlier vote in favor of a resolution authorizing military intervention in Iraq—though Kerry’s refusal to disavow the latter vote after he became a critic of the war made his  2004 stance on Iraq even more inscrutable.)

Rand Paul threw Kerry’s 1971 statement in his face on the Sept. 1 Meet the Press: “I would ask John Kerry, 'How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?'”  Elsewhere, Paul has said “The American people are not excited about a new war,” which sounds very war-weary indeed. (As the journalist Michael Kinsley has pointed out, “The American people” is a Washington colloquialism for “I” or “me.”) Paul lacks Kerry’s combat credentials, but in July he told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that he visited Walter Reed Army Hospital as a physician and was “profoundly impacted by wounded men and women, many of them not much older than my kids.” Paul has not seen war first-hand, but he’s seen the suffering that results from it.

Paul may be a rare player in this competition who is too tired of war. Paul has opposed arming Libya, Pakistan, and Egypt. He is tired even of wars the U.S. is unlikely ever to fight. When asked in June by Laura Ingraham of Fox News how, as president, he would deal with Russia, Paul replied:

You know I think the most important thing for any president would be that we need to have a constitutional foreign policy. And our Constitution actually mandates that Congress has a role in this and that we don't frankly go to war without the approval of Congress.

The disconnect might have meant Paul wasn’t listening to the question, but in a subsequent interview Paul said he was worried that an attack on Syria might “bring the Russians into the battle.”

Sen. John McCain has better war-weariness credentials than Kerry, because he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Yet he is more consistently hawkish than Kerry.  “The American people have grown sick and tired of war in Iraq,” McCain said in 2008 when he was running for president. But pulling out, he said, would be “a mistake of colossal historic proportions.” McCain lost, and three years later the U.S. pulled its weary troops out of Iraq.

“I assure you,” McCain’s 2008 opponent, President Obama, told reporters on Aug. 30,

nobody ends up being more war weary than me, but what I also believe is that part of our obligations as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on ... people, including children, that they are held to account.

Obama’s weariness cred is much weaker than McCain’s or Kerry’s, since he’s never fought in a war. Paul would likely want you to believe that Obama’s cred is also weaker than his own, since the president is not a doctor. But since Paul only visited Walter Reed (he didn’t actually treat patients there) Paul’s cred is no deeper than those of the president--who has visited Walter Reed too—though it’s a good deal wider, since the president doesn’t worry about an impending war with Russia.

McCain, to his credit, has said in the past that he is weary of fighting about what people did or didn’t do in Vietnam--which before Iraq and Afghanistan was America’s principal font of war-weariness. You might call McCain’s a sort of meta-weariness. "I'm sick and tired of re-fighting the Vietnam War,” McCain said in 2004, as Kerry was getting smeared by the hard right with untrue allegations disparaging his Vietnam service. (Kerry’s opponent, President Bush, had avoided Vietnam by enlisting in the Texas Air National Guard, where—perhaps a bit weary of war himself—he accumulated a spotty attendance record.)

All parties to this competition could take a leaf from McCain’s book and impose a similar ceasefire over who is most war-weary from the past decade’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely the people most tired of those wars are the soldiers who fought in them and their loved ones at home. What politicians should be squabbling about isn’t who’s most tired of war. It’s what we should do in Syria—a question wearying enough in itself.