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War with Iran, or Not

The news has lately been an unserious psychodrama, and journalists reduced to reporting an inane tweet punched out on the Presidential iPhone, or the latest entry in the impeached-or-not-impeached saga. The lack of seriousness, partisanship, and pettiness that has marked these proceedings is indicative of the twilight-zone level mediocrity that characterizes American public life at the moment.

Congress can not perform its basic duty of passing a budget in regular order. It has little to no control over foreign policy proceedings. The Democrats bow before whichever way the wind of their base blows, and the Republicans are hopelessly subservient to an executive branch operating on the edges of the law. These sides are bogged down in intractable disagreement that seems to be a show for their electorate in a never ending campaign. And then there is the public war between officials in the previous administration and early in this one and the current government each trying to undermine the other. No one it seems acts in the objective interest of the public, or acts in the interest and reputation of their branch of government.

Over this gridlock I recently learned to tweet. Simply to show many of these pundits what a coherent, principled argument looks like. And to troll for my own self amusement. Which on my accounting is perfectly fine for an unemployed young man whose words barely register at the quantum level on the scale of public opinion. It was during one of my many descents into this morass of unsolicited opinion that I received a text message from my father asking to check the news. And it was ironically on a social media service that I considered completely silly that I learned what could have been the most serious news in my lifetime.

Iranian missiles were raining down on an American military base. It seemed Iran was responding in full force to the assassination of their general. No one knew if this was the only attack, if a more widespread attack was under preparation, or what the ultimate intent of the Iranian regime was. News that Iranian and American fighter jets seemed to be scrambling was extremely forboding. This would suggest preparations for a major widespread attack. This was very serious, as the Iranians have a larger conventional military than any nation the United States has directly fought since World War II. Any retaliation that sparked an all-out war would be unlike anything all but a handful of living Americans have experienced.

And I was learning of all of this on Twitter.

If their goal was to force a wider US withdrawal from the region, which they had been advertising in recent days, this could be the first blow of a Pearl Harbor style campaign to cripple the US military presence near its borders. The reported attack on two bases would be followed by more missiles on all US bases in Iraq, fighter jet attacks, launching of ship destroyer missiles to cripple our naval presence, and then movement of ground forces to quickly overwhelm the American bases near Iran’s border with Iraq. Such a lightning attack would be the Iranian regime’s only chance to attack America and force it out of Iraq without the widescale obliteration it would face in an all-out conflict.

This was obviously the most concerning scenario. The other was that Iran wanted to launch a small symbolic attack to save face, without inviting a wider conflict. But again, the Trump administration’s vague talk of consequences for retaliation for the assassination of the Iraninan general Qassam Soleimani two days earlier ran in contradiction to the former red line of American deaths previously staked out by the same administration. So it was unclear if Iran would be inviting an attack on itself with any military reponse, no matter how small. Their options were basically three-fold: they use a small strike to cover their political backs and minimize the risk of full-scale war, they do nothing and risk protests and civil unrest, or they respond with overwhelming force to give themselves the best chance for victory in a war.

But the fog of war concealed intentions. And the flow of information on my Twitter feed, while useful from reputable sources, also contained chatter consisting of unconfirmed reports, hearsay, and a train of newly minted Iran experts. It seems that the hourly news cycle and flood of information provided by social media is next to useless to reliably track an ongoing attack. We might as well have been back in the days of the telegraph. We could only hope that those in charge, the seemingly erratic President and his courtiers, were recieving a stream of information in real time from intelligence sources and personnel on the bases under attack.

But one change I noticed in real-time was an increase in seriousness of the commentary on Twitter. People were debating the efficacy of the President’s extensive war powers. They were discussing possible counter-attack measures, the concept of deterrence, and whether war existed only de facto and not de jure. It was a level of seriousness not expected in the days of the Instagram “influencer.” It satisfied me that we would be prepared for a serious disaster, which an Iranian war would bring about. We would be okay, the people here. And in that moment, world historical questions fade in the background as the concern turns towards protecting those nearest. Which should be the appropriate fount of the patriotic fervor needed to sustain us through a major conflict.

As the fog faded, the limited nature of the attack became clear. Just 12 missiles were launched at two U.S. bases with limited damage to infrastruture and no casualties. I grabbed my pack of American Spirits cigarettes and walked briskly accross my apartment complex to the rooftop lounge, without my phone. A smoke and a nightime view of downtown San Antonio were the perfect balms to the stress of the potential beginning of an era-defining war. Everything seemed more serious and tenuous at the same time. We had opened the time capsule to the old era of great power conflict and stared down that demon until it went back to that place in history that she was never supposed to reappear from. This is serious, it is not a game. And we should stop treating it as one.

History often repeats as farce. Our modern Duke of Austria-Hungary turned out to be an Iranian spymaster. Or not. Serbia is not the United States, and we have a fleet of drones as opposed to a clique of anarchists. Though it could be argued that drones bring an anarchic quality to warfare (it being so law abiding). This aside, national annihilation is not a small price to pay for revenge. It is likely that if a nuclear superpower had used a demonstration of force, the Central Powers would have stood down. Even so, the Iranians could not resist a parting shot, before accepting their inevitable backing down.

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