The phrase “World War III” is trending, and the exaggeration involved is so flagrant one might be tempted to laugh it off. It is a very long way indeed from the poisoning death of one suburban neighborhood to the kind of all-out destruction that puts half of the people in the world at risk. But in a deeper sense, the point people are making by talking about World War III is correct: even what seems like a small war is better avoided if possible. War is so horrible that one looks for a way to make it stop. Yet the horrors of war are precisely why it is better not to add one’s own stamp to the conflict.
Recent history tells us that the damage done by war never quite heals, at least not while any person touched by the war or their immediate family members remain alive. We know this personally in America, where in 2013 millions of people are still fighting the American Civil War, where even TV celebrities may have to have someone explain to them that the war is over. In half of the world, the local memory of war is more fresh than this, and this memory is the main reason war breaks out again. A tyrant in Syria could not have gone out to blow up one of his villages in response to an isolated incident of graffiti, but for his own memories of wars past. War cannot fade away until we stop going to war, and that is a puzzle for our age.
This is not to say that remaining passive in the face of war is a viable option. Up to a point it may be, but in a matter of weeks the fading Syrian regime could lose its road to the sea, and if nothing is done, this may open up the possibility of a pirate port on the Mediterranean, a base for pirates who hijack oil tankers and cruise ships and invade tourist beaches from Egypt to Italy to kidnap tourists for ransom. At some point, international action will be required, and when that moment comes, the need may not be so obvious.