Mar 29

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

In Charles Krauthammer’s world, if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it will hang a “sword of Damocles over Israel”, threatening it with “a second holocaust” and “annihilation”.

When it comes to war with Iran--which, to clarify, we mean something as small as a limited air strike to something as large as a full-on invasion--proponents for war with Iran clarify the threat: nuclear armageddon. However, when it comes to the costs of such a war, they muddle their words more than Obi Wan Kenobi trying to claim Darth Vader murdered Anakin Skywalker. (Which is true, from a certain point of view.)

For example, take Matthew Kroenig’s defense of his Foreign Affairs article on Stephen Walt’s blog:

"I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign. As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region..."

A teacher once told me that you win a debate by defining the terms. In this case, frame the war with Iran as a possible nuclear holocaust while ignoring the very real threat to US and Israeli troops by using phrases like “many negative consequences”. More importantly, under no circumstance actually put numbers to any possible military operation. Kroenig, Krauthammer, et al understand this. They mention “Iran missile and terror attacks” without clarifying those could mean hundreds or thousands of dead Americans, Israelis, Iranians and Arabs, soldiers and civilians.

As we wrote last Thursday, the American people favor war with Iran. If pundits, politicians and academics specified the costs of war, I believe its support would plummet. With the war drums beating louder, why don’t pollsters ask Americans what price they will pay to prevent a nuclear armed Iran?

Pollsters usually frame this question straight up, “Do you support military intervention in Iran?” I say we should change it to: Would you support military intervention in Iran...

...if it meant the deaths of 4,000 sailors in a two week period?

...if it meant Iranians dragging U.S. airmen through the streets of Tehran?

...if it meant a series of terror attacks on U.S. travelers and business people in the Middle East? Or possibly terror attacks on our home soil?

...if it meant gasoline prices rising to $10.00 a gallon?

...if it meant losing your job?

...if it meant doubling the number of casualties in Afghanistan for U.S. troops for the rest of this year?

I know one reason why pundits, pollsters and politicians avoid the costs: in most cases, they don’t have enough experience with war to properly judge the Iranian response or guess how war with Iran could unfold.

I do though. In the second half of my military career, I practiced intelligence, focusing on the Middle East (beyond Iraq). Moreover, the Army provided me with the perfect tool for this task: the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB). A well-put together IPB looks at various scenarios: the best cases, worst cases, unique cases, and the possibilities. In other words, the perfect tool to answer the question, at what cost?

For instance, take my hypothetical questions above. Based on my analysis of the relative military strengths of America, Israel and Iran, I believe each of the above events is possible (say over a 1% chance of occurring). Some are probable (over 50%); some are not (between 1% and 50%).

One final caveat before I start: this is not a doctrinal IPB. I am not using specific doctrine--I could, if I wanted to; I could doctrine off with anyone anytime; I’ll go doctrine all over you--because it would bore our readers. Instead, I will use the same ways of thinking about the problem, but transform them into prose. I mean, planning for war with Iran is being and has already been done by staffs of hundreds of people. I am just one guy with writing on the back of an envelope, so I won’t/can’t reach the same levels of detail.

With war looking increasingly likely, it makes sense for me to dust off my IPB skills. (I did it once before for Iraq.) We won’t definitively predict the course of war with Iran, but hopefully we’ll help Americans answer that key question, is the juice worth the squeeze?

Mar 28

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As I dived deep into academic research on Iran’s nuclear program, I swear I entered a militarized version of Groundhog Day. If you aren’t familiar with the movie (and how can you not be?), a sarcastic weatherman, played perfectly by the Bill Murray, finds himself reliving the same day over and over. No matter what he does, he wakes up on Groundhog Day, February 2nd.

In my Iran War version of Groundhog Day, Iran remains perpetually stuck one to five years away from having a nuclear weapon. By my calculations, in 1992, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and this year, 2012, either a pundit or politician warned the world about an imminent nuclear armed Iran. In the worst example, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran would have a nuclear weapon in one year...twenty years ago.

With this prediction of imminent Iranian nuclearity comes the perpetual Israeli threat to strike Iranian nuclear facilities...and pundits guarantee an attack will occur almost every year.

(I mentioned in an earlier post that war with Iran comes up almost every calendar year we hold an Olympics. Researching this post, I double down on that idea. Something about athletic competition must get the juices flowing in Israel.)

Here’s a quick timeline for how doomsaying on Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel or the U.S. will attack Iran:


Time Away: 3-5 Years.
Source: Then Parliamentarian, now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Did Israel threaten war?: Yes.
Quote: Then Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from producing a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US." (Also that year, then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, told French TV that, “Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999.”)


Time Away: “Could be less than five years”
Source: “Several senior American and Israeli officials” in the Old Grey Lady
Did Israel threaten war? Yep.
Quotes: “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought, and could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb, several senior American and Israeli officials say.”

Time Away: No estimates, but everyone repeats the talking point, “Iran is aggressively pursuing WMD.
Source: President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham
Did Israel threaten war? Not exactly, but President Bush added Iran to the “axis of evil”.


Time Away: Three years...if not sooner.
Source: Sam Gardiner Colonel (Ret.) in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? The war game in the article all but assumed this scenario.
Quote: The Atlantic runs a war game on war with Iran, something reporter James Fallows describes as, “barely mentioned in America's presidential campaign”. Using the most accurate reports at the time, Fallows reported that, “The [intelligence] community believes that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in three years.”


Time Away: 5-10 years.
Source: The Bipartisan Policy Center using a National Intelligence Estimate
Did Israel threaten war? Not in this report.
Quotes:  “Portions of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate leaked in August 2005 reported that the Iranian regime was between five to ten years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb”.

(Actually, The Bipartisan Policy Center is pretty funny on this issue. Look at these titles ranging from 2008 to 2012: Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development then Meeting the Challenge: Time Is Running Out and then Meeting the Challenge: When Time Runs Out and then Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock. Oh my, time has been running out since 2009! Eep!)


Time Away: No estimates.
Source: Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker
Did Israel threaten war? Yes, imminently.
Quote: Seymour Hersh reports that a strike is imminent. He also speculates that the U.S. military may use nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
(For the next three years, Seymour Hersh would write an article each year characterizing Israeli attack as “unavoidable” or describing Iran as “five years away” from a nuclear weapon.)


Time Away: Soon, but no estimates.
Source: Former U.S. Ambassador to U.N. John Bolton
Did Israel threaten war? Bolton predicted war before 2009.
Quote: “Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicts that Israel will attack Iran before January 2009.”

Time Away: 1-3 years.
Source: Secretary Robert Gates, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? Goldberg predicts war in spring of 2011.
Quotes: Secretary Robert Gates, “Most people believe that the Iranians could not really have any nuclear weapons for at least another year or two. I would say the intelligence estimates range from one to three years.”

Jeffrey Goldberg said, “Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability”.

Time Away: 1-5 years.
Source: See our post from Friday and Jeffrey Goldberg.
Did Israel threaten war? Absolutely.

I am not the first person to point out this unique trend. The Christian Science Monitor has a great roundup, so does Jeff Emanuel on Redstate, and this blog post’s 26,000 words, no kidding, probably round up every mention of Iran ever. Finally, this Wikipedia article shows the limits to crowdsourcing research: tons of research, poor organization and even worse writing.

Mar 26

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Despite huge flaws in his argument, Matthew Kroenig’s article in Foreign Affairs, “Time to Attack Iran”, probably sums up the case for war with Iran about as well as any article I’ve read--and I spent the last week trying to read them all. Like all Iran-war-pushers, Kroenigs forces his readers to perform amazing feats of mental dexterity, asking them to believe two contradictory ideas at the same time.

But don’t take my word for it, here are a bunch of Doctors of Philosophy saying so:

“When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take.”

Stephen Walt

“The same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things, according to Kroenig, turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S.-declared “redlines,” once the United States starts waging war on it.”

Paul Pillar

“Ironically, Kroenig believes that a nuclear-armed Iran would be deeply irrational and prone to miscalculation yet somehow maintains that under the same leaders, Iran would make clear-eyed decisions in the immediate aftermath of a U.S. strike.”

Colin H. Kahl

Iran’s leaders can’t have the bomb; they’re irrational. But don’t worry, if we attack Iran, they’ll respond rationally. Huh? Realistically, rationality doesn’t matter; Iran’s leaders will probably escalate if America attacks and kills scores of Iranian civilians, rational or irrational.

The anti-war-with-Iran crowd has almost universally called out this argument for being (in my words) schizophrenically contradictory. But another contradiction has, so far, avoided a rhetorical thrashing at the hands of fellow academics. I call it the intelligence problem:

1. On the one hand, we cannot definitively prove that Iran has a nuclear weapon.

2. Despite poor intelligence, we can wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities. All of them.

Let’s start with the intelligence. The bottom line: we don’t have it. If we did, Israel or America would have already launched (or made the case to launch) a military strike. Two different “National Intelligence Estimates” have failed to prove the existence or threat of Iran’s nuclear program. While the IAEA would like additional inspections and can’t rule out an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it can’t rule it in either.

The inherent difficulties in gathering accurate intelligence--and publicizing it--shouldn’t lower the bar required to start a war. One would think Iraq showed the need for excessively thorough intelligence.
Nevertheless, without evidence to even prove the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, supporters of war with Iran believe we have enough evidence to completely wipe that program off the face of the earth--the very program whose existence we cannot prove. More confusingly, if we launched air strikes against Iran, how will we verify we truly wiped out their nuclear program if we couldn’t prove that the program existed before we launched the war?

Just one wild card can disrupt the entire mission against Iran. The Economist wrote an article about “ultra high-performance concrete”, an Iranian invention to guard against earthquakes. It also, conveniently, guards against explosives, like bombs. From their article:

"It is therefore anyone’s guess (at least, anyone without access to classified information) how the MOP [the largest bunker busting bomb in the U.S. arsenal] might perform against one of Iran’s ultra-strong concretes."

Concrete is only one variable. Iran could have hidden centrifuges in smaller facilities. It could store uranium in locations we don’t know about. Even the facilities we do know about could have thicker walls and different layouts than planners suspect. By listening to war hawks, though, this mission seems like a walk in the park. Like Matthew Kroenig:

“We have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent [Iran obtaining a bomb]...According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.”

All this is topped off by an unwavering belief in American military might. At least two recent articles--in The New York Times and NPR--express doubts about the abilities of Israel’s military to destroy Iranian targets, but none about our own shortcomings. Sure, the American military could defeat Iran in any military conflict, but could the U.S. destroy their nuclear program in a limited strike? I have my doubts. The U.S. military only has 20 of its “mother of all bombs” to drop; do we have enough accuracy and lethality to do the job?
As I said before, it amazes me that anyone in the U.S. could argue for another preventative war. Another preventative war based on the same schizophrenic contradictions as the last war.

Mar 22

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Every now and then, Eric C or I will write a post and the other person will ask, “Who actually argues for this?” With that in mind, today we want to justify our series, “The Case against War with Iran”. We’ve broken down the voices into four areas, the four P’s: people, politicians, pundits and professors.

(A quick note for today’s post: many of the arguments for war with Iran have been debunked or rebutted in the blogosphere. We’re not making the case against war with Iran today; we just want to show how many people are arguing for it.)

(American) People

As often as we hold Olympic games, Israel threatens to attack Iran, bringing the U.S. along with it. To chart this, I went to Google Insights, and searched for the terms “nuclear weapons Iran” and, more importantly, “war Iran”. In the last two months, Americans have searched for those terms more than at any other time since Google started keeping records (which apparently only goes back to 2004. What gives Google?). The people have heard the war drums banging, and want to find out who wrote the beat.
And according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans already support military action against Iran. A majority also believe the U.S. will “wait too long” to deal with Iran. (Though their questions tend to ignore the issue of “At what cost?”, as I’ll write about next week.) A Quinnipiac poll found similar opinions about Iran as well. If President Obama does decide to go to war, he can point to polls justifying his decision. However, a majority of Americans oppose a military strike on Iran, according to a World Public Opinion poll. Like many issues, the phrasing of the question can change the results, “wait too long” versus “favor a military strike”.

The point is: the American people are not united against war as they are with Afghanistan and were with Iraq. Americans love starting wars, and hating fighting them.


If the American people can hear the drumbeats of war, that must means politicians started banging them. And everyone knows who plays the role of Neil Peart: Republican presidential candidates. Take the words of their three major candidates for president:

If President Obama is reelected, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change.” Mitt Romney (Or read his opinion piece on Iran here at The Washington Post.)

"We need to say to the Iranian government, the time is now. You will stop your nuclear production now." Rick Santorum

“The red line is now.” Newt Gingrich

While readers might deride those quotes as standard stump speech fare, campaign fodder for pro-war GOPers, presidential candidates aren’t the only ones in the Republican party banging the drums. Also unleashing epic war drum solos include the John Bonham’s of the political world, Republican Senators and Congressmen.

“There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat.” Senator John McCain

"We need to make sure that this president is also going to stand by Israel and not allow his administration to somehow speak contrary to what our ally thinks is in its best interest." Representative Eric Cantor

“No greater threat exists to the security of Israel, to the entire region and, indeed, to the United States than a nuclear-armed Iran...The Iranians now face a choice to either meet their international obligations and rejoin the community of nations or violate their international obligations and face the consequences.” Secretary Leon Panetta

“And that is why, four years ago, I made a commitment to the American people and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And that is what we have done.” President Barack Obama

Oh, those last two were Democrats. I guess that makes them “Keith Moon”.


The politicians bang the drums, the people hear, and the pundits turn up the volume. A small sampling from the punditocracy:

“After speaking with many of the Israeli leaders and chiefs of the intelligence and the military, I have come to the conclusion that there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran during 2012, because Iran is getting too close to what was coined by Minister of Defense Ehud Barak as the zone of immunity.” Ronen Bergman, the senior political and military analyst for Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper.

“The United States should have the legal right to use military force when it removes dangerous threats not just to our security, but to regions and the world -- and that is, I argue, exactly what is posed by the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons.” John Yoo in National Review. Yep, that John Yoo.
Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, repeatedly and finally, Foreign Policy’sShadow Government” blog--again, repeatedly--all chimed in as well.

Professors (Academics)

Our final section covers the thinkers who give the pundits, politicians and people something to talk about: the professors and academics working for think tanks who chime in to say, “Let’s go to war with Iran.” (To finish the tortured analogy, I guess they build the drums?)

For example:

- Matthew Kroenig in Foreign Affairs, “Time to Attack Iran

- Brent J. Talbot in the Journal for International Security Affairs, “Stuxnet and After

- The Bipartisan Policy Center in Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock

- The Heritage Foundation

- The American Enterprise Institute

When enough people want war, call for war or threaten war, guess what might happen? War. So we’ve (hopefully) justified the series. On Monday, we start making the case against war with Iran.

Mar 21

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

"Iraq Is All but Won; Now What?"

The Los Angeles Times posed that question on April 10th, 2003. In seven words, that (formerly) esteemed southern California paper captured why we don’t make predictions here at On V: much of the time, predictions will make you look foolish.

We bring this up because, to make the “case against war with Iran” omelet, we’ll need to break a few On V editorial rules (eggs).

Rule 1: We hate making predictions.

To say, “The US should not go to war with Iran” predicts that:

1. War is more likely than not.

2. If the US does go to war with Iran, it will go badly. At least the benefits will not outweigh the costs.

As Eric C pointed out to me, many pundits, journalists and politicians declared victory in Iraq within weeks of the initial invasion. Unfortunately, the mission was not accomplished. (Regarding those two links, one of which comes from a forum, we have checked the quotes and the majority are not “quotes behaving badly”.) Eric C’s especially favorite quote comes from Chris Matthews, “What's [Howard Dean] going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it's over?”
Take Libya too, which flips the narrative on its head. Few forecasters predicted Iraq would turn out horribly; plenty predicted that Libya would mire the U.S. in another ten year war. Iraq turned out horrible; Libya did not.

And like a mouse who gets a cookie, making one prediction means making two, then three and so forth. I think the war will go poorly; that means that either Iran or the U.S. will escalate the conflict, a prediction. Escalation begs the question, “Will the U.S. put ground troops into Iran?”, another prediction. And then how will all of that effect US operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Predictions, predictions, predictions, and we will invariably miss on a few.

Yep, we’ll get something wrong, but that’s why we hesitate in the first place.

Finally, we need to make careful predictions. I dislike bold, all-or-nothing predictions. Predictions, like ours about Iran, should always be couched in terms of probability. Preferably, what are the odds that Iran has a nuclear weapon? Or what is the likelihood that following a U.S. military attack on Iran, they can sink a U.S. capital ship? I don’t trust predictions couched in terms of near certainty, so, as we wade into a sea of predictions, we will try to avoid them.

Rule 2: We don’t “chase the news”.

We’ve rarely written about current events like this. Though we completely supported repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a policy, we never wrote about it. Though we had thoughts about the recent National Defense Authorization Act, we avoided it too.

We don’t chase news stories because, unlike say an op-ed columnist, we just don’t have insights on every single foreign affairs event. For example, the shooting in Afghanistan last week. We don’t necessarily have a must-read take. We have an opinion, but not an earth-shattering, groundbreaking one. I mean, how many blog posts to do you read around the interwebs that begin, “Well, I guess I have to comment...”

When it comes to war with Iran, unlike other topics, Michael C’s intelligence training gives us that unique viewpoint. Current events will probably outpace our three to four times a week posting schedule, but we’ll make do.

Further, chasing one news story means ignoring another, Syria, just like we ignored Libya last year. What gives? Well, we believe that the Iranian situation--with nuclear weapons, Israel, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, terrorism and Hezbollah, JSOC, oil prices, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the straits of Hormuz involved--is a much more complicated, dangerous and potentially explosive situation. Apologies Syria, but we believe--and again, this is a prediction--that a conflict with Iran has a better possibility of turning into a full-scale war.

Tomorrow we will discuss why we have finally started making these predictions.

Mar 20

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

I spend a lot of time daydreaming, retroactively replaying the past, thinking and dreaming about what I could or should have done to change the course of my life, knowing what I know now. (Buy stock in Apple, for instance.) More a fun diversion than a punishment, I usually don’t daydream wistfully or with regret.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming about stopping the Iraq war. If someone smart enough had reported the right information about Iraqi WMDs in the lead up to the war, they could have stopped it. (I even have a pet theory on how to do this: you convince two, just two, senators to go in, read the appendix in the Oct 2, 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on “Curveball” and leak it. Then you would go and talk to Joe Wilson. How would you disprove the al Qaeda link? I don’t know.)

This day dream does fill me with regret, because at the time, I knew I should have said something. I should have been louder. Outside of a marching a few symbolic protests in an already liberal city, Santa Barbara, I did nothing to stop it.

I felt then, and feel now, that war with Iraq was a mistake. The WMDs never materialized; neither did the connection to al Qaeda. The war lasted longer and cost more than any official predicted. We didn’t lose nearly as many soldiers as we thought we would--relative to previous wars, American soldiers came out okay, casualty-wise--but what we saved in lost American lives, Iraqis lost in the tens of thousands. We destabilized a country and strengthened Iran.

As Michael mentioned yesterday, we weren’t blogging at the time. Hell, I didn’t even write. I protested the war, but with a tenth of the energy I put into environmental activism. My senior year of college (2006), I helped out the anti-war protesters, even though that movement, chaotic and run by anarchists, embarrassed me.

Which brings me to the present day. I graduated from college, and now Michael and I run a (relatively) popular and somewhat influential blog.

A few weeks ago, Michael approached me about writing something on Iran, and I rejected it. Then I remembered my history with the Iraq war. We need to say something about war with Iran. At the very least, we need to provide one voice, that says, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.”

Because in 2003, we didn’t have enough voices making that case. In a gross over-simplification of the run up to the war in Iraq, the counter-voices to the war consisted of a handful of reporters writing articles that landed on page A18. (More on this in a later post.) We want to be a mega-phone putting that information on page A1, if for no other reason so that pundits can’t say, “Well, everyone felt this way when the war started”, like they did with Iraq.

And now, a caveat, and it’s a big one. I’m not taking this task lightly.  After I agreed to do a series on Iran, I laid out the issues for Michael C:

1. I want us to be right.

2. I want to know we’re right because we’ve done as much research as two bloggers without access to classified information can do on this topic.

3. Finally, I want us to add to the debate. We don’t want to regurgitate other people’s argument; we want to add to the discourse.

I believe we’ve met those criteria. So we’re starting this series. As The Who said, we won’t get fooled again.

Mar 19

To read the rest of "The Case Against War with Iran" please click on the following links:


The Drums Beat Again - This post begins below this series outline.

Iraq, Iran, Eric C, and a "Who" Song - Why Eric C wanted to write this series.

To Make the Anti-War Omelet, On V Needs to Break Some Eggs - A post on predictions and chasing the news.

Breaking Down the Media's Rhetoric:

A Sampling of Those Who Want to Go to War with Iran - Why we believe war is likely.

The Schizophrenic Debate over War with Iran - On contradictions in the intelligence about Iran's nuclear program. This post answers why Michael C wanted to start this series.)

Will Ahmadinejad See His Shadow? The Groundhog Day Debate over War with Iran - Repeating the same drum beats year after year.

Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze? - The cost to war largely ignored in the War with Iran debate.

Michael C's IPB for War with Iran:

The IPB for War with Iran: How War Could Play Out  - Michael C lays out Iran's options for a counter-attack against America. 

What Do I Think of Iran's Military? - Michael writes about Iran's sparse, but possibly asymetric, military.

Fighting the Last War: Disruptive Change, Iran and Millennium Challenge 2002

Asymmetric Guerrilla Naval Warfare Comes to a Theater (of War) Near You! - Michael C describes the capabilities of Iran's asymmetric navy. 

The Naval War Summary - Iran's Naval Courses of Action

A Quick History of Iranian/U.S. Proxy Wars - An incredibly brief history of U.S./Iranian proxy wars.

Iran IPB: Afghanistan Proxy War Edition - I describe a dangerous battlefield for the U.S.

The Enemy Courses of Action, Afghanistan Proxy War Edition - I describe Iran's options in Afghanistan.

Robert Ludlum's Missing Iran Novel: The Escalation Scenario - How war in Iran could get much, much worse.

Rep. King Tries to Scare You: An Intro to Iran’s Asymmetric Capabilities  - A warning against a warning against terrorism.

Iran IPB: The Asymmetric Threat, Terrorism  - The first post of two on Iran's asymmetric options, asking, "Will Iran launch terrorist attacks around the world?"

The Iran IPB: The Asymmetric Domain, Ballistic Missiles - Michael C discusses the veyr real threat of Iran's ballistic missiles.

The Iran War IPB: The Air War - Air defenses, the least threatening domain of Iran's military.

Updates to Our Iran Coverage:

Iran and the Battle of Historical Analogies

Unique Takes on War with Iran

On V's Solution to the Iran Problem:

Have a Take: Unique Solutions to Avoid War with Iran

Which Country Do You Prefer? Putting Iran's "Evil" In Context

My Solution to the Iran Problem

We Can't Be Allies with Iran...Iran Is So Mean!

We Can't Be Allies with Iran...Iran Hates Us!

Guest Post: Computer Games, Siege Warfare and Iran

The Words Behind "But Iran Hates Us!"

The Best Comment On Violence Has Ever Received

The History Behind My Solution to the Iran Problem

On V in Other Places:

Small Wars Journal "The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield"

Prior to deploying to Iraq, I (Michael C) read that Baghdad, Tehran and Kabul all lie within two degrees of one another, on a rough band heading across south Asia. Pull up Google Maps right now. Center on Iran. There they are: three capitals lying on roughly the same latitude. When I first deployed to Afghanistan, I didn’t even realize this. I had studied Iraq, a bit, and started studying Afghanistan, but like any good American, I don’t count geography as a specialty.

Looking at that map again, I cannot help but wonder: why has the U.S. spent the last twelve years so preoccupied with these three countries? We invaded and occupied two of the countries for a combined twenty years. Now, the drums of war beat again for the country in the middle.

The sound of those drums has put Eric C and I in a very weird, contemplative, and existential mood. Should we say something about going to war with Iran? Should we agree or disagree? If we disagree, should we take a stand?

In 2001, we watched from our home in Orange County as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. It inspired a co-authored opinion piece in the high school paper lamenting the invasion. Michael C also wrote a senior thesis predicting that the war in Afghanistan would become another Vietnam. (At first we were wrong, then we were right.)

In 2003, we each watched from our respective colleges as the U.S. launched another war, this time with Iraq. Eric C marched in rainy, winter protests in downtown Santa Barbara; Michael C joined the Army ROTC. Neither of us blogged. Eric C, particularly, thought that going to war was a terrible idea. Horrid. Disastrous. Michael C thought it would turn out badly too, so he joined the Army, not to fight terrorists, but to keep the war effort from going off the rails. We each had misgivings, but we said nothing.

Many years later, we started blogging. Before we knew it, the U.S. initiated several other military actions, including drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, and an air war in Libya. Meanwhile, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued, with Michael C deploying to each. So in our adult lifetimes, we have seen the U.S. initiate two full blown wars, one psuedo-war with Libya, and air strikes and raids in at least two other countries, if not more.

Our blog’s tag line reads: written by a soldier and pacifist. More than a soldier and a pacifist, we are now a vocal soldier and a vocal pacifist. So people ask our opinion. And in the last few months, one topic has come up again and again: a possible war with Iran. As soon as I stopped being able to count on two hands the number of people who have asked me, “So what do you think about Iran?” I knew we would have to address it.

More importantly, Eric and I feel we should take a stand. If we think military action in Iran will not go well, we should say so. We have to say so. We should use our (limited) position as military/philosophy/foreign affairs bloggers to lay out the case against military action against Iran.

We completely buried today’s lede (unless you read the title), so let’s get to the point: the U.S. should not go to war (or limited military action) with Iran. President Obama should discourage Israel from doing the same. I’ve done the research. I’ve studied this possible war. I do not believe the benefits are worth the costs. Americans need to know that.

We plan to spend a good portion of the next few months making the case against war with Iran from military, intelligence, economic, and political perspectives. We want to add to the discourse by using my military and intelligence experience to explain why we think war with Iran could turn out horribly. In the end, the U.S. does not need to invade three countries abutting each other in the central Asian/Middle East heartland.

Mar 15

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.) 
Inspired by this post over at The Red Animal Project, I re-read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and discovered his war literature.

In short, it’s amazing.

I already loved Salinger, but like Melissa Cooper, I hadn’t quite realized how deeply Salinger’s experience in World War II affected his writing. For one thing, it’s pretty clear that Salinger suffered from PTSD. (In the parlance of the time, “battle fatigue”.) If he didn’t, his characters certainly did. There’s not really much to add that Melissa Cooper or Wikipedia hasn’t already said. (Except, maybe, that Catcher in the Rye might be considered a World War II novel.)  

Instead, I will add “War at its Worst” to the mix. Unlike past “War at its Worst” posts, the “worst” in this case isn’t a besieged city, a terror stricken retreat, babies dying in a hospital, or a violent massacre of men and horses. In this case, the worst is a young man who has become “battle fatigued” (or ruined) by war. I’ll let the passages speak for themselves:

“...he was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact, and for more than an hour he had been triple-reading paragraphs, and now he was doing it to the sentences. He suddenly closed the book, without marking his place. With his hand, he shielded his eyes for a moment against the harsh, watty glare from the naked bulb over the table.

“He took a cigarette from a pack on the table and lit it with fingers that bumped gently and incessantly against one another. He sat back a trifle in his chair and smoked without any sense of taste. He had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue, and he seldom stopped experimenting; it was a little game he played, sometimes by the hour. He sat for a moment smoking and experimenting. Then, abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning, he thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack. He quickly did what he had been doing for weeks to set things right: he pressed his hands hard against his temples. He held on tight for a moment...

“When he let go of his head, X began to stare at the surface of the writing table...He reached behind the debris and picked out a book that stood against the wall. It was a book by Goebbels, entitled “Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel.” It belonged to the thirty-eight-year-old, unmarried daughter of the family that, up to a few weeks earlier, had been living in the house. She had been a low official in the Nazi Party, but high enough, by Army Regulations standards, to fall into an automatic-arrest category. X himself had arrested her. Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman's book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, life is hell.” Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” He started to write Dostoevski's name under the inscription, but saw--with fright that ran through his whole body--that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book.”

Finally, Sergeant X reads a letter and opens a package from a young girl he met in England, before he deployed to the war. And he thinks...

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac — with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

Mar 14

Eager to write another post on the philosophy of violence, I thought I had stumbled upon the perfect question, “Is executing an innocent man violent?” When I posed this question to Eric C, he had a simple answer, “Yes. Are you seriously asking me this question?”

I am. If it had such a simple answer, than society would fight more vociferously to prevent wrongful executions. When I first started writing for On Violence, I defined violence by linking injuries with injustice. A death is not violent; a murder is. For centuries, a majority of Americans have seen the death penalty--capital punishment euphemistically (Conservatives use “capital punishment” but blame liberals for politically correct language.)--as fitting punishment for murder. Fitting equals justice, in some people’s conception.

Last year, Georgia executed Troy Davis after the witnesses who identified him as the murderer recanted their testimony. Forensic evidence now exonerates Cameron Todd Willingham, who died in Texas adhering to his innocence until the end. DNA evidence overturned hundreds of death sentences--most recently in Virginia. Yet most Americans do not consider these executions, or near executions, “violent”. Why not? Is executing an innocent man unjust. Can we hold anyone responsible?

(To be clear, I am ignoring the issue of executions as inherently violent--like Eric C insinuated above--or structural violence--that poor and minority defendants fare much worse than the rich or the majority. We will explore those issues in later posts.)

To determine if executing an innocent man is violent, I want to break that action--an execution--down to its component pieces. Every violent action has a perpetrator, a victim and the motivations of the former. Somewhere in those pieces lie justice or injustice. In the case of the state executing an innocent man, the state is the perpetrator and the victim is the defendant.

Let’s start with the hardest category: the motivations of the state. When I answered the question, “Is bombing civilians in wartime ethical?” I specifically blamed the Allied Air Command officers for knowingly targeting civilians, despite centuries of just war theory and tradition saying they should not. Their motives were sound--ending the war--but their means violated all ethical norms. That case, though, had a single actor to blame, the people giving the orders.

In this case, I have to determine the motivations of the criminal justice system. So who do I blame if an innocent man dies? The investigators? The district attorneys? The judges? The juries? The defense counsels? The appellate courts? The governor? The people who elect all those individuals?

Maybe all of them. Looking at the motivations doesn’t give us an answer; I assume everyone acted with good intentions. They believe in capital punishment, and don’t want to execute innocent people. Everyone would agree on this point. While researching “Intelligence is Evidence”, in nearly every case of corrupted justice I found, the prosecutors and investigators believed, and most still believe, that the people they prosecuted had committed the crime. Even in the massively corrupt investigation of the Norfolk Four, the family of the victim still has not forgiven the wrongfully convicted defendants.

So let’s move on to the perpetrator (the state) itself--ignoring their motivations. When the state executes an innocent man, something went wrong. It could be an unfair trial. Or it doesn’t have enough safe guards or checks and balances. Worse yet, the people of the state believe in the death penalty, and as a result force elected officials to over-pursue death penalty cases. In the most egregious examples, almost every part of the criminal justice system made a critical mistake. Ignoring the issue of structural violence, it seems that the system itself might have problems if the system can send innocent people to their deaths.

Which might just condemn the system itself. It doesn’t matter if someone’s intention are pure; if their actions are violent--and executing an innocent man is violent--than their actions are violent. Unjust actions can be unjust by their very nature.

And even though it is hard to assign blame, we still can. The system isn’t the problem. A system is made up of individuals who can influence its behavior. As I said before, the state is made up of a lot of actors--prosecutors, investigators, judges--and in some way they are all to blame. Dresden had a host of people responsible for the final outcome--bomber pilots, intelligence officers, generals from Air Command up to the Commander in Chief--but we could still assign ethical blame. When it comes to capital punishment, if an individual’s self-interest--say getting re-elected--encourages them to ignore compelling evidence of a person’s innocence, and that leads to an innocent person’s execution, well, that decision is on that person, not the system.

If the individuals in a system contribute to the death of innocent people, we can call that violent, and blame them for that violence.

Philosophically, I have convinced myself the state can commit a violent act, and probably has. But why do so few people agree? Knowledge. Most people don’t watch Frontline or read The New Yorker or those other “liberal propaganda machines” that feature scathing exposes about justice gone awry. Sure, they follow every nuance of the Casey Anthony case, and want to get rid of the jury system (a constitutionally protected right), but they don’t care about Troy Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham or other people put to death whose guilt is in doubt.

And why not? That’s a question I can’t answer.

Mar 13

Finally, after three “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, we’ve finally gotten to current events and recent-ish articles. Enjoy.

Update to War: It’s Still Unfair

After an Afghan soldier killed two Air Force officers in a secure building in Kabul, General John Allen labeled the perpetrator a “coward”. It reminded us of an excerpt from The Battle for Algiers we posted in “All’s Fair in War: Guerrillas, Justice and Counter-Insurgency”,

"When I watched 'The Battle For Algiers', I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, 'Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?'

"Ben M’hidi responds, 'Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.'"

If the Eric C/Left Hand of Darkness definition of war--”War is the opposite of civilization”--is true, than civilized norms like honor, valor and cowardice don’t exist in war. “All’s fair in love and war” is another way of saying that nothing in war is.

Update to Cultural (Un)Awarness

Michael C has long written that the U.S. military should improve its cultural awareness. Say what you will about the U.S. burning Korans in Afghanistan, it demonstrates a massive lack of cultural awareness; a blind spot so big we could drive an AT-AT through it. This quote by Nancy Youssef on Washington Week sums up my thoughts:

"You know, Yochi, I was talking to some of my Afghan friends this week and one of the things they said was they couldn’t believe that 11 years into the war, that the United States through all its training and exposure to Muslims, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, were making these basic mistakes of not respecting the Islamic holy book, which is a basic tenet of Islam. What are you hearing in the Pentagon about this? How are they explaining this kind of mistake this late into the war?"

Afghans are not over-reacting. Cultural awareness is putting oneself in another’s shoes. So the Americans who say they don’t get what the big deal is should just imagine a situation where Barack Obama lit an American flag on fire, which was surrounding a bible and pocket Constitution. Would Sean Hannity’s head would explode?

In seriousness, many Americans so value the flag they want to pass a Constitutional amendment forbidding flag burning. The same motivation that inspires Americans to want that amendment motivates Afghans to protest against a burned Koran.

The Debate about Social Media and Revolutions
Consider this another “discovery” where we link to articles that aren’t new temporally, but just a series of good links we have never shared here at On V. In “On Violence's Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2009”, Eric C and I discounted the role Twitter and other social media played in fomenting revolution. Since that post in 2009, the debate around new social media and revolutions has only gotten more complicated:

- First, Malcolm Gladwell in September of 2010 wrote a skeptical New Yorker article about the use of social media in future revolutions.

- Then, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote an article which disagreed with a few of Gladwell’s core points.

- In February of last year, Gladwell responded in two paragraphs on the Arab Spring, again saying he doesn’t believe social media inherently caused the revolutions.

- Finally, he and Fareed Zakaria debated this point on GPS 360, with Zakaria arguing that social media had some impact while Gladwell points out that a million people got together in East Germany to overthrow the Soviet Union, and they didn’t need Facebook.

- Finally, in December, The Economist wrote that social media helped cause the reformation in the 16th century, well before the Arab Spring.

In the end, we’ll have to wait, probably years from now, to see if studies--subtracting other factors--prove that social media helped cause the Arab Spring, more than they have from time immemorial.

On Killing the Right People...

A recent Small Wars Journal article--“We Own the Night” by Jonathan Smith--debunks a lot of the perceived effectiveness of kill/capture missions, especially when they kill civilians. “Carl”, commenting on my post “Fixing Intelligence is Evidence in Counter-Insurgencies”, argued that instead of saying “don’t kill civilians”, I should write, “Kill the Right People.” I think this article shows how even “killing the right people” can counter-intuitively hurt the long term mission.

More Bad News for Pessimists

But more good news for those few of us who believe the world is, indeed, getting better. Two academics, Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen, argue that the U.S. national security establishment has severely inflated the dangers facing America in an article called, “Clear and Present Safety” in Foreign Affairs. I still haven’t read a a coherent debunking of “the world is getting better” theories.

Update to Whistleblowing

David Carr excellently points out the gulf between the Obama administration praising reporters who seek to uncover wrong doing overseas, and die in the process like Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid, while harshly prosecuting legitimate whistle-blowers uncovering legitimate waste, fraud, abuse and illegal actions under the espionage act.

Mar 12

(Last July, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

Also, On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

When Matt LeBlanc--the productivity expert, not the Friend’s star--enters a Starbucks, stopwatch and legal pad in hand, he doesn’t just want a cappuccino; he wants to measure the productivity of that cappuccino and the coffee shop making that cappuccino.

He times the barista. How long does it take to make a cappuccino? To take an order? To stock the fridge? If it took the barista five minutes to make a drink, why? Was it heating the milk? Was it reaching to get ingredients?

If Matt LeBlanc can decrease the amount of time spent brewing a cappuccino--say by two and a half minutes--than a Starbucks store could make twice as many cappuccinos. Shorter lines mean less waiting, which means more customers. More productivity means more efficiency which means more money.

That’s all great, but why, on a blog ostensibly dedicated to the military and violence, am I writing about a productivity expert who has the same name as the actor who played Joey on Friends?

Because the Army--and the military as a whole--does not value productivity or efficiency, and it shows. I think we should completely overhaul the Army’s culture to emphasize these values, avoiding past temptations to half-heartedly stop “waste, fraud and abuse” in the name of productivity, but continue on as we have for decades.

I’ve never met a productivity expert in the Army. As far as I can tell, the Army doesn’t have any. Or they do, but they never visit line units. Before more people complain about cutting defense spending, before politicians try to buy more overly-expensive, under-performing weapon systems (check out anyone of our On V updaters for an example), the Pentagon should hire an efficiency expert (or a whole team).

Let’s back-up. Matt LeBlanc--who I heard about on NPR’s "Planet Money" podcast--uses Lean Manafacturing to evaluate workers. Like Six Sigma and other efficiency systems, “lean manufacturers” looks for waste. Matt LeBlanc finds waste in seven categories: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and “not meeting customer demand”. Sometimes he can cut the waste; sometimes he can’t. Even if his customer cannot fix the waste, at least LeBlanc points it out.

Do any of those wastes relate to the U.S. Army or the Pentagon? Hmm. Transport? (See Air Movement Command.) Motion? (See “logistics in Afghanistan”.) Waiting? (See “hurry up and wait”.) Over-processing? (See the Littoral Combat Ship.) Not meeting customer demand? (See the F-22.)

While productivity experts normally live in the realm of manufacture and sales, that shouldn’t stop the Army from embracing them. In this brilliant 99 percent invisible podcast, a hospital administrator in Virginia, after nearing bankruptcy, went to an unlikely source to save his hospital, Toyota. Embracing the Toyota Production System, the hospital started turning a profit. More importantly, the health of their patients improved along with the bottom line.

The Army needs a new mindset. Every leader should have one priority: how often do my soldiers train on combat or combat-related tasks? How can we train more soldiers faster and safer? How many soldiers are combat--infantry or engineers--or combat support--like intelligence and signal--and how many are service and support--like finance, human resources or logistics? (Short hand--have more combat and combat support and less combat service and support.) Every soldier I know complains that higher headquarters orders lower units to waste time on unneeded tasks. An efficiency mindset would fight the impending drive of bureaucracy and paper.

I recommend that everyone listen to this “Planet Money” episode. Listen to 99 percent invisible too.  Then, someone who can make the decisions, hire an efficiency expert. Hire a team if possible. Have them answer this question, “How efficient is the Army?”

Mar 08

So yesterday I (Eric C) laid out a problem: we (by “we”, I mean anyone who speaks) mis-pronounce other country names. For Americans specifically, we anglicize European country names, but force (possibly racist, definitely orientalist) pronunciations on Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries.

Let’s get rid of this shortsighted and needless linguistic quirk. I’d like to create a smarter, more universal system with consistent pronunciations. Our modern world, flat and cosmopolitan, doesn’t need out-dated and inaccurate pronunciations of city and country names.

The On V proposal? We’d replace Germany with Deutschland, Italy with Italia, Rome with Roma, and so on. We propose a universal naming system, based on as close an approximation to the native tongue’s pronunciation of the name as pronunciation allows--also known as an endonym. (Endonyms are what countries call themselves country; exonyms are the names countries give other countries.) If I became the king of the world, I’d make this decree on the first day. (The second day? America adopts on the metric system. Third day? The 24 hours clock.)

But the world can make this happen without a global monarchy. The question is how. My five proposals on how to change the system:

1. Wikipedia changes to a universal naming system. If the world’s most comprehensive knowledge source adopted this system, then its inter-linking articles could teach confused newcomers--who, possibly reading an article on Hofbrauhaus, don’t know where/what Munchen is--the native pronunciation of every country and city in the world; every reader will be one link click away from learning the (new? proper? native?) name. If Wikipedia adopted this system, we could make it a reality.

For example, Wikipedia already has this wonderful article, “List of countries and capitals in native languages”. Let’s use and adopt that list.

2. Next, Google Maps (and Mapquest, and so on.) makes native pronunciations the default setting. And just like Wikipedia, they can include links to the old name, helping people to learn the new name. (Maps in general should convert to this system.) Currently, Google Maps has the worst of both worlds, combining English exonyms with country names written in the native language. But since I can only read Roman letters, we recommend that Google Maps makes English-based endonyms the default setting.

3. Change high school curriculum to teach the universal pronunciations. Though it usually isn’t, we should require high school students to take a geography course. And in that geography course, teachers should teach the native country names/endonyms. This will also help Americans compete in the globalized world.

4. The media should adopt the universal naming system. Pretty straightforward. If every news outlet uses the universal system, we’d all catch on pretty quickly.

5. Finally, don’t be an jerk about it. As I wrote yesterday, if you’re going to correct people, be consistent. Correct both Asian and European country names. Or don’t correct at all.

This process won’t be simple; smarter people than us have already recommended it--apparently the UN has a commission on exonyms--and there will be disputed pronunciations. That said, this system, in the end, is a smarter system.

Which brings it around to us...will On Violence adopt a universal naming system? Probably not. We want to, but it would be trendsetting in a way that would confuse our readers. If a handful of our suggestions were ever adopted--especially the Wikipedia one--then we would do it in a heartbeat. And if we had more time, we’d probably try to lobby Wikipedia to make the change.

Until then...the mispronunciations remain. But at least we know about it.

Mar 07

During one of many late night discussions about the coming invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003, a fellow anti-war activist and college friend turned to me (Eric C) and said, “It’s ‘ee-rack’, not ‘eye-rack’. If you pronounce it ‘eye-rack’, you’ll sound ignorant.”

This was a common technique used--mostly by liberals, I’ll admit--in the run up to Iraq war to discount those who disagreed with you: make your pro-Iraq war opponent sound ignorant. Dismissively shake your head and say, “These people can’t even pronounce the name of the country we’re about to invade.” Or, “The President can’t even pronounce ‘nuclear’ correctly, how would he know if they had nuclear weapons?”

(To be fair, the last point is disturbing. Either Bush affected an intentionally ignorant pronunciation--what does that say about voters?--or he didn’t know any better. Which is worse? I thought this might be a “Fact Behaving Badly”. It isn’t. Here’s a good Daily Show clip from back in the day on it.)

So is it “eye-rack” or “ee-rack”? Or is it “ih-rahk”? Or is it “Ur-ahk” as they originally called the region thousands of years ago? Wikipedia has two pronunciations (“ee-rack” and “ur-ahk” ). Which is it? Personally, I prefer to pronounce Iraq “Ur-ahk” (and Iran “Ur-ahn”), with a nod to their ancient histories. When Michael C went to Afghanistan, he heard debates over “Konar” or “Kunar”, and “Koo-ren-gal” or “Kor-en-gal” Another friend and I debated “Beijing” or “Peking” in a bar sometime back.

None of these technicalities actually matter, because we butcher most country’s names. If I learned anything from Spanish class in high school, (and I’ll be honest: fluency in Spanish wasn’t one of them) it was that every country pronounces most every other country’s name differently. (In other words, we refer to countries by using exonyms.) Germany, to Spanish speakers, is Alemania. To Germans, it is Deutschland. America, to Spanish speakers, becomes Los Estados Unidos, and Mehico, to English, becomes Mexico.

Then I moved to Europe. What was an academic understanding became an everyday nuisance. Munich or Munchen? Firenze or Florence? Rome or Roma? Vienna or Wien? Who changed these city’s names? Why the hell did they do it? Just to confuse me on the train? Some of the changes are particularly senseless: why did Padova, Mantova and Genova have to become Padua, Mantua and Genoa? Americans barely visit these cities; who even took the time to change their names? (Michael C’s answer: the British.)

(Personally, the Firenze to Florence change pisses me off the most. I love the sound of “Firenze”; Florence is the name of a grandmother or a hipster band leader.)

More disturbingly, the linguistic game of geographical one-ups-manship is racist (or orientalist in the Edward Said-sense). “Whoa,” you may be saying. “Racist?” Yes, racist. No one has ever corrected my pronunciation of “Rome”--a white, European city--but I’ve been chastised for my pronunciation of middle Eastern countries and Chinese cities. White countries, sure we’ll goof your names. Non-white Asian, Middle Eastern or African countries, your names must remain odd and unpronounceable.

In other words, we can anglicize European city and country names to sound familiar, but we keep Asian, African and Middle Eastern country names different, foreign, furthering their otherness. Non-white countries “get” to keep their strange sounding names; Iraq has to be ee-rack, but Deutschland can be whatever. All of this enforces the separation, the non-whiteness of those regions.

In the end, the whole debate is pointless; we change country names for a very obvious reason: pronunciation. Every language emphasizes different syllables. As linguist Geoffrey Nunberg explains, no American, unless they grew up speaking Arabic, will successfully pronounce most Arabic city and country names. (The vice-versa is true as well.)

Why we keep the mis-pronunciations? That’s the real issue. Tomorrow, I offer a solution.

Mar 05

Let’s start with some honesty, I (Michael C) hate articles about cyber-warfare. I hate articles warning of the “next cyber attack” in the U.S. I hate articles warning about the dangers of terrorism in general, but more specifically, I hate articles warning that “cyber-terrorism” will cause the next 9/11.

Like this one or this one or this one or this one or this one. Search cyber and 9/11; that generates 26 million results. Just last night, 60 Minutes headlined their show with the Stuxnet virus. Conversely, I love articles dissecting the cyber threat, like Thomas Rid’s “Think Again: Cyberwar”. Until today, we have avoided dissecting the “cyber-war/warfare/terrorism” issue, instead settling for articles about our lack of hiring the right people to build our cyber defenses.
Still...and I cannot believe that I am about to write this...I think...I have finally been convinced...that the next 9/11 or Pearl Harbor will be...a cyber-attack.

Here’s why: though I think interested groups (politicians searching for funding, contractors also in search of funding, and media watchers in search of a good story) over-hype the threat of cyber-warfare, cyber-terrorism, and cyber-attacks, the US, for the most part, is still not prepared for it. More importantly, a cyber-attack would succeed for the same reason the terrorists succeeded on 9/11. September 11th didn’t become 9/11 because it involved planes, or because of the death toll, or even because Muslims attacked us. Forget the who, what, when, where and how.

9/11 was 9/11 because of the why. We weren’t ready for it. It was shocking. Throughout history, terrorism has shocked governments into action through surprising violence. In Munich in 1972, terrorists take members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Hostage situations become the go-to terror attack. As a result, from metropolitan police departments to the FBI to the Army, in every country, everyone fields a hostage rescue team. Hostage taking goes out of style.

Then come bombings. The World Trade center the first time, then the Federal building in Oklahoma City. Now most public buildings have subtle, but impenetrable anti-terrorism measures. More importantly, we beefed up security and aggressively targeted al Qaeda everywhere on the globe. Then terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into buildings. As a result, future passengers on a captured airliner would defend themselves against terrorists. Since 9/11, al Qaeda hasn’t launched a single coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S.; instead, we have lone wolves who can’t even light their own underwear on fire.

So, when experts discuss the threat of Al Qaeda, I shrug. The next 9/11 won’t come from a threat we already expect. Al Qaeda or an affiliate might still launch a terror attack in the U.S, but it won’t be on the scale of 9/11, and more importantly, it won’t shock anyone. However, if Al Qaeda hoarded away a dozen or so hackers in a compound and let them develop the world’s most dangerous computer virus...that might worry me.

As Mark Bowden--of Black Hawk Down fame--writes in Worm: The First Digital World War about the Conflicker virus, a truly coordinated and unexpected virus could do real harm. The Conflicker virus seems ten times more dangerous than any terror attack. Imagine the Stuxnet worm without any restraint hitting every (or just some) power plant in the U.S. or world. Even with the (seemingly) never ending news stories, most Americans would not expect this type of attack, so it would qualify as “surprising” and “shocking”. If you can’t get the book, this Fresh Air article is a good summary.

Worst yet, law enforcement ignores the dis-enfranchised people who could conceivably try to cause havoc with a cyber-attack. From the far political right to the far political left--libertarian to anarchist--I could see a group dedicated simply to overthrowing the system using a cyber-terror attack, and these Americans would likely have the cyber know-how. Despite some investigations into domestic terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation spend an overwhelming amount of time tracking suspected Muslim terrorists.

So two final thoughts. First, the government is not the best actor to stop cyber-terrorism. Bureaucracies move slowly, and intelligence agencies move slower than any of them. Moreover, politicians only care about Al Qaeda because of its tremendous Q score. I just don’t see the government reacting until a cyber-9/11 happens.

Second, this is a prediction. And I recognize that. So let’s say that this isn’t 100% going to happen, and I won’t put a date on it. It probably won’t happen soon. In fact, it probably won’t happen for dozens of years. But if another 9/11 happens, it won’t be planes or bombs, it will be digital.

Mar 01

As I’m wont to do recently, I’ve compiled a small selection of some of my favorite passages from Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War. With stellar prose and crisp, frightening details, these are some of the best passages war literature has to offer.

Without further ado...

       “They’d [Afghans] look at you and you’d think, Jesus, they are not killable. They’re from another world”

       “Talking to Wali that day, and Mohammedi and the other Talibs, it seemed obvious enough that what lay at the foundation of the Taliban’s rule was fear, but not the fear of the Taliban themselves, at least not in the beginning. No: it was fear of the past. Fear that the past would return, that it would come back in all its disaggregated fury. That the past would become the future. The beards, the burqas, the whips, the stones; anything, you want. Anything but the past.”

Another poignant part from Afghanistan:

       “People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans had arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got underway. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs...War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of every day life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

       “Battles were often decided not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.”

And from Iraq:

       “Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in The New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I’d find our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Baghdad...In one of the videos, some Baath party men had pinned a man down on the floor and were holding down his outstretched arm, while another official beat the man’s forearm with a heavy metal pipe until his arm broke into two places. There was no sound in the video, but you could see that the man was screaming...

       “I tried to recall these things when I got impatient with the Iraqis. Sometimes, when readers from America sent me e-mails expressing anger at the Iraqis--why are the so ungrateful? why can’t they govern themselves?--I considered sending them one of the videos.”

And then there is this haunting reference to Lara Logan near the end of the book.

       “There were some guys standing around a sign-up sheet...They were talking about Lara Logan, the sexy CBS correspondent who had visited a couple of weeks before. The sign-up sheet was recording suggestions for the logo on Kilo Company’s T-shirt. The boys were going home soon.

       “‘Kilo Company,” one of the Marines had written. ‘Killed More People Than Cancer’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Iraq’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Ramadi’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Lara Logan’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck us!’”