Syria: “Lives in the Balance”

Like many in the United States and around the world, reading the news about Syria has untapped within me a well of emotions.  But along with so many emotions and opinions, a single song has been running through my head – “Lives in the Balance” by American singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.

You may have heard the song.  It was released in 1986 on Browne’s album of the same name.  The chorus tells the gist of the song, the first and perhaps most obvious reason for the song to re-surface:

“There are lives in the balance,
There are people under fire;
There are children at the cannons,
And there is blood on the wire.”

This refrain seems like just the right music to go with our government’s debating a military strike, as some of that fire may well come from us.

As a young adult, a “millennial,” as we are called, I came of age in a post-9/11 world.  That definitive moment in US history occurred the same year I began high school. Our country has thus been involved in wars following that event for the entirety of my adult life.  Will it now continue to escalate, adding war to war: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya… Syria?  This is the narrative of the US in which I have grown up: a super state policing the world in an attempt to save the world from itself.

Students of history–and many who have lived longer than I have– know that our interventionist foreign policy is far from a post-9/11 phenomenon.  People point to Vietnam, the US invasion of Panama, Grenada, and a host of others.  Jackson Browne wrote “Lives in the Balance” as a commentary on the Iran-Contra Scandal.[i]  It is a well-known narrative, dare I say the dominant narrative of US policy in the 20th and 21st century?

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, can we truly say that this interventionism comes from benevolence and goodwill?  People will cite the Holocaust and World War II as evidence of the need for outside intervention in the face of human rights violations, and those are important precedents.  But what are we to say about cases in which the US witnessed immense human rights violations and yet turned the other way – cases like the Rwandan genocide or Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds in the First Persian Gulf War?[ii]

Even more sobering are the instances of which Browne sings – those instances in which our own country has been involved in orchestrating the human rights violations.  Browne sings of what took place in Nicaragua in the 1980s; perhaps our minds wander to other examples – the CIA’s assistance in a coup to overthrow President Arbenz in Guatemala,[iii] or the similar CIA role in the coup to overthrow President Salvador Allende in Chile, also on a 9/11.[iv]  Browne’s words are provocative as he sings,

“There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interest runs.”

 Perhaps I am too cynical.  And yet, as I look at these interventionist wars outside our borders, whether fought in the name of national security, access to oil, or human rights, I see one common thread.  Our actions, even when we label them “humanitarian,” seem consistently to serve our own interests, whether economic, political, or otherwise.  We must critically ask – is this also the case in Syria?  A military strike may very well be the strategic solution for US interests, and perhaps a “realist” would always want that.  But is it the ethical solution the President is claiming?

In the last two weeks in Syria, we have witnessed a tragedy so heartbreaking that is nearly unspeakable: the use of chemical weapons on innocent people, even innocent children.  My heart broke and my stomach churned as I watched the videos, saw the images.  My heart continues to break as I read the news.  As a person of conscience and a person of faith, I am no doubt called to respond to such a tragedy.  The US is no doubt called to respond.  But whose interests would a military strike serve?

I keep coming back to Jackson Browne’s song because it speaks to my fundamental question concerning a potential military strike on Syria: Is it about politics, or is it about people? Our interests—or an improved situation? Jesus in the Gospels reminds us we can only serve one master.[v]  Which will it be for the US?

There are “lives in the balance” in Syria, and some of them have already been tragically lost.  In the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”[vi]

Will Rachel be comforted if more of her children are killed?  Will one human rights violation be healed by another?  Are we to add violence to violence?  Are we absolutely clear about who is culpable if we are to take up the responsibility to punish? Must our “post-9/11 world” always be one of fear and preemptive strikes?  Or are the followers of the Prince of Peace called to advocate for a different path to healing?


Ms. Ginna Bairby, M.Div., is the managing editor of Unbound and a Candidate for ordination to Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the James.  She earned her Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary (2013) and a Bachelor of Arts in both Religious Studies and Music from the College of William and Mary (2009).  Ginna is passionate about music and acknowledges that she is reaching back before her time in using the work of Mr. Browne.  She promises to catch up to the music of her own generation in future posts.

[i] Rolling Stone, “100 Best Albums of the Eighties,” November 1, 1989.

[iii] See Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Harvard University Press, 1982.

[v] Matthew 6:24, NRSV.

[vi] Jeremiah 31:15, NRSV.


What do you think the United States ought to do at this crossroads in our foreign policy?  How does your faith affect your perspective on this issue?

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