In today’s New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff responds to critics of his support for targeted missile strikes on Assad’s regime to send a lesson about the use of poison gas. I agree with his opening comment that columny (whether by a columnist or not) is not a very useful way to think about a complex issue. There is indeed a lot of bluster, so much so that one might metaphorically call the debate over the use of a retaliatory strike on Syria poisoned from the start. For President Obama, drawing a red line in a public speech was bound to be seen as a red flag by the bullshit artists of the Tea Party anti-Obama-anything club. For Republicans who wore their hawkishness on their sleeves under Bush to criticize Obama for daring to apply American military power to a foreign conflict, the irony is very much the epitome of politically expedient hypocrisy. Then we have the normally peace-promoting liberals who want to make a principled statement about the horrific results of using chemical weapons. How could there be anything but contentious calumny?

American public and political outrage at Assad’s callous use of poison gas has a red line as well: virtually unanimous agreement on all sides that there shall be no American boots-on-the-ground. Given that the U.S. has an arsenal that makes that possible, as was evident in Kosovo and Libya, we can forge ahead with smug assurance that as long as our sophisticated missiles do not carry any Sarin gas we are on higher moral ground. There is an ethical dilemma here that transcends who you support in the civil war that is raging in Syria. In sheer numbers Assad’s forces have killed 1,000 times more with so-called “conventional” weapons than the lobbing of several canisters of gas at a Damascus neighborhood. Even if you believe that poison gas is so horrific that its use must be punished, then there is the obvious retort that the U.S. knew Assad had used poison gas earlier, as it knew Saddam used it against the Kurds and against Iranian troops. At best this is a case of situation ethics, where the ethical point only matters if the situation is politically expedient.

Also in today’s news on Al Jazeera is a report that Philippine troops are securing the southern port city of Zamboanga, where an estimated one hundred Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas have taken a number of hostages in a failed attempt to take over city hall. Although the “Moros” are a nationalist movement, they are also a brand of Muslim extremists who kill fellow Muslims, like the current morass in Syria. I suspect that most Americans are unaware that the Philippines were once under the direct control of the United States, as part of the spoils of the Spanish American War. Most are no doubt also ignorant that there has been a large Muslim presence in Philippines for centuries and an ongoing civil war in this region against the former U.S. backed administration and succeeding governments. And for a third lack-of-knowledge strike, how many Americans (no matter what party they drink to) are aware that U.S. military boots were indeed on the ground in the Philippines a little over a century ago?

Mark Twain, a humorist who had little patience for political or religious hypocrisy, wrote a newspaper column in 1906 about a U.S. massacre of some 900 rebel Moros, including women and children, who were holed up in a crater and were ordered killed by the U.S. General to the last “savage.” Here is how Twain concludes his ethical indictment of the incident, starting with a cable sent by President Teddy Roosevelt to the military commander:

Washington, March 10. Wood, Manila:- I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag. (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.

His whole utterance is merely a convention. Not a word of what he said came out of his heart. He knew perfectly well that to pen six hundred helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day and a half, from a safe position on the heights above, was no brilliant feat of arms – and would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but had done as they have been doing continuously for eight years in the Philippines – that is to say, they had dishonored it.

The next day, Sunday, — which was yesterday — the cable brought us additional news – still more splendid news — still more honor for the flag. The first display-head shouts this information at us in the stentorian capitals: “WOMEN SLAIN MORO SLAUGHTER.”

“Slaughter” is a good word. Certainly there is not a better one in the Unabridged Dictionary for this occasion

The next display line says:

“With Children They Mixed in Mob in Crater, and All Died Together.”

They were mere naked savages, and yet there is a sort of pathos about it when that word children falls under your eye, for it always brings before us our perfectest symbol of innocence and helplessness; and by help of its deathless eloquence color, creed and nationality vanish away and we see only that they are children — merely children. And if they are frightened and crying and in trouble, our pity goes out to them by natural impulse. We see a picture. We see the small forms. We see the terrified faces. We see the tears. We see the small hands clinging in supplication to the mother; but we do not see those children that we are speaking about. We see in their places the little creatures whom we know and love.

The next heading blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith:

“Death List is Now 900.”

I suspect that calumnists who focus on the death of women and children might use this as a reason for sending a missile-bound message to Assad for his killing of women and children in a clearly savage way. But then here is an example where American boots-on-the-ground committed an atrocity with conventional weapons, but surely as atrocious in its actual consequences as Assad did by using Sarin. Despite isolated cases where a few of our military have murdered civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, our boots-on-the-ground today do not routinely wipe out civilians as though they were following the orders of Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek in 1864. But air strikes and drone strikes today kill far more than the bullets from individual soldiers’ rifle fire.

I do wish that Mark Twain were alive today to weigh in on the ethical dilemma of how to respond to a dictator’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. I suspect that he would no more be in favor of boots-on-the-ground in Syria than he was in the Philippines. But short of actually pulling down Assad’s pants and spanking him, I doubt Twain would have a kind word to say about the excuse that we can have a surgical strike and avoid civilian casualties. And perhaps he would conclude his take with the following line about any future casualties our military action might entail: “As for those killed, they died with their boots on but thank God not from the bullets of any of our boys’ boots-on-the-ground. Death list is still growing.”