The Iran crisis has demonstrated that Americans are geographically, historically, and politically illiterate. There could be terrible consequences.
Years of hegemonic influence in the world’s political and cultural makeup have rendered the American public prone to black-and-white thinking. Any and all actions can be justified under the banner of buzzwords such as “preserving freedom” or “fighting terrorism.” Without a complex understanding of motivations, the underlying causes that drive members of the public to commit violent acts go unchecked. Our solutions, as a result, treat symptoms rather than actual diseases. Over time, this evolves into a veritable game of whack-a-mole in which the United States continuously tries to beat new enemies into submission before the next ones appear.
Such black-and-white thinking creates ripple effects than can destabilize our positions the world over. These ripple effects were on full display in the recent confrontations with Iran. The fact that the Iranian government has ties to terrorist groups does not make them terrorists in and of themselves; Republicans have taken to defending the president’s international actions on the grounds that he killed a terrorist, and that since “terrorists” are “evil” this is “good.” In political terms, however, The United States carried out an assassination of a public official in a foreign government, which is against international law. Such actions invite potential violent responses by our opponents. It is true that Iran sponsors terrorist organizations. At the same time, it is also true that we have, as well.
The United States is the architect of international law. If we are willing to bend the rules to pursue our self-interest, we should not be surprised when our enemies do so as well. Losing the moral high ground isn’t just a symbolic notion, it’s a strategic one. Perhaps the most egregious flaw in the American public is that large sections within in routinely encourage actions against our enemies that they would never tolerate being done against ourselves.
The end result is actions without understanding of consequences. When Americans beat the drums of war in regards to Iran, they imagine an impending conflict as a fast and easy one. Iran, however, possesses the eight largest military in the world. Its land area covers more than that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Although the United States’ Armed Forces mad quick work of the standing militaries and governments in those countries, they became bogged down in extended quagmires due to their inability to root out resistance in rural areas with ample hiding spaces. Any military action in Iran promises exponentially greater challenges than either of these previous experimentations both in terms of conventional fighting as well as in terms of shoring up the aftermath.
Americans, however, are ill-prepared to face these consequences. The United States has experienced approximately 7,150 military deaths in the past 40 years. By comparison, the Vietnam War alone saw nearly 60,000 military deaths. The Korean War, 36,000. The American public does not appreciate the gravity of warfare because it sees so few of the consequences. A war with a decently-sized standing army would provide a harsh wake-up call that the American public does not want. Soldiers are mostly poor, college-age youths, and the helicopter parents that make up most of the current adult population would clutch their pearls in horror to see their beloved children dragged off to potential death in the prime of their lives. Yet the public acts gung-ho on the prospect of action because this reality typically eludes us. Instead, the burden of war tends to fall on the civilian populations living in our opponent states. The War in Afghanistan cost nearly 40,000 civilian lives; the Iraq war, over 200,000.
The truth is that for some time the cost of war has become a private affair in the United States, relegated to a handful of military families. The vast majority of Americans don’t feel it, and the relative size and scarcity of the military class makes it even less apparent. Much of this revolves around Americans’ status as a global hegemon, which has afforded privilege in terms of security, material well-being and, most critically, cultural influence. It affords the average American with the privilege of being history illiterate.
In dealing with the prospect of confrontation with Iran, the American public has imagined a paper-thin version of Iran that does not exist; one that will fold easily under pressure, without far-reaching consequences. Not only do most Americans not appreciate the cultural difference between Iran’s Persian population and the myriad ethnic groups in the surrounding area (preferring to lump them all in as Arabs), the American public fails to understand the level of development in Iran. Tehran is perceived as an ancient, crumbling city of low technological development and infrastructure, rather than a densely populated metropolis. In reality, Tehran is the size of New York, full of modern architecture and living conditions, and the logistics of dealing with it will be far more than our capacity.
Perhaps the most obvious issue at the heart of the matter is that much of the American public writes checks it cannot cash.