If you put a gun to my head on Wednesday and demanded that I define the word "Yazidi," my best guess would have been somewhere in the culinary category.
"Chaldean?" I might have gone with a water mass: "The Chaldean Inlet" or "The Chaldean Bay." I never would have guessed these were ancient ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
But by Thursday night, Yazidi and Chaldean were beginning to roll off the tongue semi-fluently, as though I've been keeping an eye on these groups all along.
"The president is right; we can't let the Yazidi starve on Mount Sinjar!," I actually found myself saying into a telephone receiver, as if I'd heard of Mount Sinjar before.
Hatred and war have become an adult education class in culture and geography for Americans like me, and I consider myself a bit of a history and foreign policy nut. I mean, really, who among us could pronounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Iranian madman began his anti-Semitic rants? For non-Middle-Easterners, Ahmadinejad might as well have been word scramble on a movie theater screen in 2005. (Handmade Ija . . . ?) But by 2008, American showoffs were flaunting the "ach" sound in his name around office water coolers, sounding idiotic in the process, albeit.
It's sad and a little pathetic how we end up learning about peoples and places in this world. Tikrit, Kandahar, Montagnards, Hue, Tarawa, Chosin, Khmers -- all these people and places entered the American consciousness through war and tragedy.
Now, we're learning for the first time -- most of us anyway -- about the Yazidis and Chaldeans who have stubbornly survived Middle Eastern travails for more than 2,000 years. And the first thing we know about them is that they're in an existential crisis.
Some unconfirmed reports claim that Chaldean children have been beheaded by fanatical Islamic State group fighters -- formerly known as ISIS, another new name for us -- and the bulk of the Yazidi population on Earth, 40,000 of them, has been chased onto a mountaintop where it's being left to die of exposure and dehydration. Yazidi children have reportedly been thrown from the mountaintop by desperate parents terrified that their children will die horribly or be captured and sold into slavery by the Islamic State group. The image recalls an American household name of a past generation: Saipan, the site of the Allied victory over the Japanese in 1944.
The more we realize how little we know about the world beyond our borders, the greater the disinclination should be to get involved in affairs that have little to do with us. But who except Americans are willing or able to save those Yazidi from almost certain death? The answer, of course, is no one.
Commentators will soon begin talking about "mission creep," and they will be correct in pointing it out. Humanitarian aid already involves targeted airstrikes. What if American pilots are shot down? Won't we have to send in ground troops to save them? Good question.
But while most of us don't know much, or anything, about the Chaldeans and Yazidis, we do know about ourselves, about the soul of our own nation. And maybe that's the more important thing. We're the people who ran the Berlin airlift to prevent tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans from starving. We're the ones who organize famine relief wherever and whenever starvation breaks out. We're the ones who deliver food, clothing and medicine to tsunami victims a world away.
We may not know much about the Yazidis, but what we do know is that Americans don't sit back and watch children starve en masse on a mountain. Not if we can avoid it, and even if we can't pronounce their names.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.