September 3, 2013, 7:08 pm

(Guest Post! David Fitzpatrick is a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who taught military history at the United States Military Academy and who now teaches United States history at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Yesterday, while enjoying a football game in The Big House with 112,000 of my closest friends, President Obama took the relatively unprecedented step of moving away from the precipice and stating that he was going to ask Congress for authority to attack Syria. The question of whether or not he already had that authority under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, or under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force is now rendered moot. Yet, a more interesting and somewhat philosophical question remains: why was the use of chemical weapons by Syria a “red line” for the president? Why is there near-universal outrage now when there has been little over the last two years?

I think there is a historical context here that is worth considering. For many years I have pondered the reasons why so many historians and much of the global public find the use of atomic weapons against Japan to have been so abhorrent. Depending on one’s source, the number of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki range from 150,000 to 250,000. Horrible numbers to be certain. Horrible injuries and trauma for the survivors, to be certain. But the same could be said of Hamburg in 1943 (50,000 dead), or of Tokyo in 1945 (100,000 dead). And the same could be said of literally dozens of others cities in Germany and Japan. And yet, with the sole exception of Dresden (and there for some idiosyncratic reasons), none of the bombings of those cities have evoked outrage similar to that concerning Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why? It cannot be the high number of civilian casualties, because there would then be an outcry about the events that led, beginning in the skies over Germany, small step-by-small step, to Hiroshima. But there is little if any. The issue therefore cannot be a moral one. The only thing I can conclude is that it is the weapon that mattered—that killing 100,000 people with one plane carrying one bomb is far scarier than killing 100,000 people employing several hundred planes carrying thousands of bombs.

Which brings us back to Syria.

The Syrian Civil War has been raging for more than two years and has led to more than 100,000 deaths. During that time, though there has been a fair amount of hand-wringing in the West, there has been no serious discussion of intervention into that conflict. But the use of chemical weapons has changed that and, as with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth trying to understand why. The West, it appears, was more than willing to permit the death of 100,000 at the hands of the Assad regime, but killing 1,400 more by chemical weapons is a game changer, at least for President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and a substantial number (if not majority) of the public. Why?

So here’s the $64,000 question: why does the method of death seem to matter more than the number of deaths? Why are we and our leaders willing to stand by while scores and scores of unarmed people are killed “conventionally” yet the use of gas to kill roughly 1,400 is seen as being beyond the pale?

I wish I knew the answer. I remain puzzled.

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