EL PASO — In this border city that is home to a major military outpost, residents engaged in a heart-rending debate Tuesday evening over whether to use force against Syria.
The town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, came on the same day that congressional leaders said that a strike was warranted against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons last month in that country’s civil war.
Although President Obama has proposed a limited and surgical strike without “boots on the ground,” most who spoke at Tuesday’s forum said this combat-weary community doubted that was possible. They questioned what the domino effect of U.S. intervention would be and wanted to know the costs of the effort during a government sequester.
“We need to fix the problems within our own military first,” said Maria Espinoza, a combat veteran who served in the U.S. Army for seven years. Problems high on her list, she said, included minimizing military suicides and eliminating sexual assault within the ranks.
El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, which includes the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division. It contains more than 33,600 active-duty soldiers, about 1,800 reservists and more than 44,800 family members of those men and women. Most here laud soldiers as heroes: They are heralded by city leaders, often recognized publicly, given discounts and allowed to board airplanes first at the city’s international airport.
And concern for the troops was, in part, the reason most of the voices heard here quavered with anger, concern and resentment over the looming decision.
O’Rourke, who is serving his first term in Congress, said that he had not decided on how to move forward with what he said was the most important vote of his young career. Instead, he said, his decision would be based on local input and what he learns during the classified briefings he will attend next week.
“What we are talking about, ladies and gentlemen, is going to war — however it is declared, however it is articulated,” he told the crowd of about 150 people.
The congressman was pressed on what was really known about the situation in Syria and whether the mainstream media and Washington were duping the public.
“Syria is not what you are reading about in the public,” said Bryan Haddad, an immigrant from Syria who last visited his homeland about five years ago. “We’re building the entire case through an emotional, gang-style hanging. This is the beginning of an explosion you’ve never seen.”
Others said the rebel forces fighting al-Assad were as equipped with chemical weapons as the regime, and doubted they had no connection to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
Most who spoke against the military strike were greeted with applause and cheers when they explained their opposition, but others said it might be, although unpopular, in the country’s best interest to act.
“If you ask anybody, they will tell you, ‘No, we don’t want to go to war,’” said Paul Johnson. “In this case it is the United States’ moral obligation to defend the weak.”
But most questioned why a humanitarian crisis in Syria was different than in any other country. Thousands are killed elsewhere in the Middle East, some argued, as they are in Africa and Latin America. Some mentioned Mexico, where a drug war has killed tens of thousands since 2006, strained the relationship between the U.S. and its southern neighbor and directly impacted some of these West Texans.
Vietnam War veteran Lewis Arbogast asked, simply, why the U.S. cared.
“If those people are so intent of killing each other, let them,” he said. “Can I go to your house and tell you how to run it?”