The Dead of Syria: A Reflection

Photo by Renato Danyi on


On a recent Monday evening, as I was watching the ABC’s panel discussion program Q&A, one of the panellists, Laurie Penny, responded to the notion that Australia (and other Western nations) owed an “obligation” to the people of the Middle East by participating in an aerial bombing campaign against the ISIS insurgent group in Syria, by arguing:

The idea that if the West was in any way involved with ISIS that gives us, therefore, a moral obligation to bomb Syria, that seems to me there’s several stages of logic missing from that equation. I’d say it is much more likely that the West actually, whether or not we have a moral responsibility in creating ISIS but particularly if we do, we have an obligation to take in Syrian refugees. That is where we start. You get those people out. It is a mess there and instead we’re saying, no, no, no, we turn those back. Just last year in Australia, I believe you had discussions of how to repatriate the few Syrian migrants who made it here to the offshore detention centres, how to send them back to Syria. This is monstrous. It is monstrous that more aid isn’t being sent to Jordan where there, I think, there are over a million refugees in camps in Oman. It is monstrous that more isn’t being done to help the people rather than saying, oh, we have a big moral duty to strut our stuff on the world stage and send in tanks. These people need to get out. They need help right now.

In other words, the “answer” to the “Syrian problem”, the most humane and moral response that also involves accepting our collective responsibility for what has happened in the Middle East, is not first military action and then aid assistance, but first helping the humanity that is suffering as a consequence of our foreign policy before turning to the military issue of dealing with the ISIS insurgency.

In reflecting on Ms Penny’s words (with which I wholeheartedly agree), I was unexpectedly taken back in time to the American Civil War, that destructive conflict waged between the United States of America and the secessionist Confederate States of America between 1861 and 1865.  Specifically, I was drawn to the Battle of Antietam, and the surprising aftermath of this horrific encounter between North and South.

The Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) took place on 17th September 1862, in Maryland.  After fending off the initial Northern invasion of the South, Confederate commanding General, Robert E Lee, decided to take the war to his enemies by invading Northern territory.  Technically speaking, Maryland was one of the so-called “Border states”, disputed territory whose citizens’ sympathies were somewhat divided between the Union and Confederate causes, but which had been occupied by Union forces from early in the War.  By invading Maryland, Lee hoped Southern sympathisers in that state – and other “Border states” – would rise up to his assistance, forcing the Union to divide its forces as it dealt with Lee’s invasion on the one hand, and the internal insurgency on the other.

Lee’s hopes, however, were dashed; no such rising occurred.  And on the 17th September, his army was confronted in its defensive positions by a Union force commanded by General George B McClellan that was almost twice its size.

The battle that took place was the most horrific day in American military history.  Over the whole course of the day, the two armies pounded away at one another through a series of attacks and counter-attacks that were characterised by vicious hand-to-hand combat, with massed ranks firing at one another and artillery batteries engaged in duels at point-blank range.  At the end of a day of catastrophic fighting – in which one Confederate officer, when asked the whereabouts of his unit, could only reply, “Dead on the field” – the Northern armies suffered 12, 401 casualties (2108 dead), while the Southern forces lost 10,316 casualties (1546 killed).  This represented 25% and 31% of the respective armies.  The result – although a technical victory for the North, since Lee was ultimately forced to withdraw to Southern territory – was a bloody stalemate in which no advantage was gained by either side.

Two days after the battle, a photo journalist by the name of Matthew Brady and his assistants arrived on the battlefield.  Brady had received special permission from President Abraham Lincoln to take pictures of the battlefield in the aftermath of the engagement – and the result was a startling exhibition entitled The Dead of Antietam, which Brady staged at his own private studio in October 1862.

Reviewing the exhibition, one journalist, in a article published in The New York Times, wrote:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.

The photos Brady displayed were unprecedented, and both shocked and fascinated the crowds who flocked to see them.  Not only did more than one person recognise a friend or relative among the subjects of Brady’s camera, but the pitiable humanity of the victims of conflict was brought home to the exhibition’s patrons in a way that was not otherwise possible – indeed, which was actively covered up by the propaganda and “war sentimentality” generated through the media and by the government to facilitate the war effort.

Even today, the images captured by Brady have the power to horrify and move us:

antietam 6

And in recent times we have again had the horrible reality of war brought home to us, pictures that lay the bodies of the dead at our homesteads and in our streets – in our churches, in our schools and places of business, and in our parliaments.  These are images of dead Syrian children, refugees who drowned while trying to escape from their war-torn country into Europe.  These are images that Matthew Brady might have captured, to bring home to us the terrible reality of war – a war for which we in the West bear a significant moral responsibility.  These are images that bear out the truth of Laurie Penny’s words:

It is monstrous that more isn’t being done to help the people rather than saying, oh, we have a big moral duty to strut our stuff on the world stage and send in tanks. These people need to get out. They need help right now

It is indeed monstrous – and this is the stark reality of that monstrosity for us all to see with clear and unambiguous eyes:


These are not gratuitous pictures designed to shock and generate headlines and media sales.  These are photos that illustrate the ghastly reality of our failure to see the humanity in what is happening in the world today.  These are photos that make me sick and angry.  These are photos in which I cannot help but see the face of my own daughter.  These are photos that make me stutter into appalled silence when I consider the implications and consequences of the criminality in which we are all implicated.

Because every time we scream “turn back the boats!” we are complicit in this tragedy.  Every time we affirm our nation’s support for indefinitely detaining asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps, in which they are subject to physical, sexual, and psycho-emotional harm and assault, we are complicit in this tragedy.  Every time we dismiss those who come to us for asylum as “economic refugees”, or imply that they are arriving on our shores to commit acts of “terrorism” or to “take over” our culture, we are complicit in this tragedy.  Every time we justify our inhumanity and illegality by claiming that it “prevents deaths at sea”, we are complicit in this tragedy.  And for every minute we refuse to do more to take on our share of the burden of assisting those in need in genuine compliance with our moral responsibility toward them, we are complicit in this tragedy.

It has to stop. It has to stop now.  And it can stop.  But not until we stop pretending that these children don’t exist; not until we stop pretending that it somehow isn’t our problem or our responsibility.  Not until we stop blaming the victims of this damnable tragedy with the smug assertion: “They caused their own problems; let them work it out for themselves!”.

The list of things for which I suspect future generations will never forgive present generations is starting to pile up.  Climate change is one.  The surrender of our human sovereignty to the corporate imperative is another.  But in this awful, gut-wrenchingly real horror of drowned refugee children we have the most damning, and the most reprehensible.  We frankly don’t deserve to be forgiven for allowing this to happen.  God alone knows how God will forgive us.  All we can do is try something – anything – to prevent this from happening again, to make up for the lives lost with lives saved.

And for starters, that something doesn’t begin with dropping more bombs on Syria.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2015. All rights reserved.