In May 2019, it was a striking co-incidence to see several American states adopt strict anti-abortion laws during the same weeks when the Trump administration was talking up threats of war with Iran. The two occurrences may seem unrelated, but there is a connection. Thus it’s a good time to review the American public’s attitude toward war, war crimes, deterrence and punishment. It reflects a dualistic worldview based on the idea “I am good. The other is evil. And I need to control the other through fear and punishment.”
This attitude was evident in a study published in 2016. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial by its authors, Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino. Their academic article was entitled “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants.” The WSJ article is now hidden behind a paywall, but the full academic paper can be downloaded elsewhere at no cost.
In the editorial, the authors summarized and discussed the results of their survey. It revealed a profound level of public ignorance about the consequences of nuclear war, one which makes Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) and John Bolton (National Security Adviser) look relatively knowledgeable and restrained because we know at least that they know that other nations have nuclear weapons and that a nuclear attack on Iran would risk causing a multilateral nuclear exchange.
In contrast, a large number of the respondents to the survey showed a willingness to hit Teheran with a nuclear weapon in response to a “Pearl Harbor-like event” in order to “save American lives” that would be lost in a conventional war. They seemed to be unaware of the danger of other nuclear-armed nations entering the conflict. In 1945, only the United States possessed only a few nuclear weapons, and they weren’t hydrogen bombs, but in 2016 nine countries had them, and there are 15,000 of them ready to deploy. Perhaps the design of the survey led respondents down this path, as the questions could have easily been prefaced with a reminder that a nuclear attack on Iran might lead to a wider exchange of nuclear weapons in which some of the bombs might fall on US cities or US troops. Sagan and Valentino didn’t mention this consideration in the WSJ article, and it seems like a curious omission. Nonetheless, the survey revealed a surprising willingness to cause massive numbers of civilian casualties in response to the loss of a few thousand American lives, with little regard for the morality and legality of such actions or—if one is not concerned with morality and legality—the devastating consequences on Americans themselves.
The authors set up their survey to replicate the conditions that existed in 1945 when President Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They asked respondents to imagine an attack like Pearl Harbor launched by Iran, with the same number of American deaths (2,403). Then they asked whether a nuclear attack on Teheran, resulting in the same number of deaths as Hiroshima (about 100,000) would be justified in order to save American lives from being lost in the otherwise “necessary” ground invasion of Iran. The results were alarmingly similar to what American attitudes were in 1945-46. Excerpts from the WSJ editorial:
The results were startling: Under our scenario, 59% of respondents backed using a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city… Even when we increased the number of expected Iranian civilian fatalities 20 fold to two million, 59% of respondents—the same percentage supporting the nuclear attack with the lower death toll—still approved of dropping the bomb.
To further echo Truman’s choice, we ran a second version of the survey that offered respondents the option of ending the war by allowing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stay on as a spiritual figurehead with no political authority [similar to an option of conditional surrender not offered by Truman]… Some 41% of our respondents preferred this diplomatic option to either dropping the bomb or marching on Tehran. But virtually the same number (40%) still preferred dropping the bomb and killing 100,000 Iranian civilians to accepting this sort of negotiated peace… Would we drop the bomb again? Our surveys can’t say how future presidents and their top advisers would weigh their options. But they do reveal something unsettling about the instincts of the U.S. public: When provoked, we don’t seem to consider the use of nuclear weapons a taboo, and our commitment to the immunity of civilians from deliberate attack in wartime, even with vast casualties, is shallow. Today, as in 1945, the U.S. public is unlikely to hold back a president who might consider using nuclear weapons in the crucible of war.
There is nothing reassuring about these results as we watch American naval forces moving into position in the Persian Gulf and we hear American officials stating what would happen to Iran if they dared attack US assets or other “American interests,” however these might be defined. Everyone knows that the United States can obliterate instantly any country it wants to, so there is a disturbing motivation obvious in the present repetition of the obvious point about what would happen to Iran if it attacked any US military assets. The US government seems to be hoping to bait Iran into an accidental attack, perhaps on a civilian aircraft, or it may be trying to replicate a “remember The Maine” moment or a Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to sacrifice American soldiers’ lives, or other lives, for the creation of a pretext for war. Or it may be just a performance for the world audience, an act of communication carried out by a desperate empire that has no coherent plan and can no longer do what it used to do in places like Indonesia (1965), Chile (1973) or Iraq (1991, 2003), to mention just a few examples. As Professor Luciana Bohne state recently on her social media feed, the empire is failing and flailing:
So, you think US will wage war on Iran? The country that cannot depend on its own foot soldiers? The country that depends on special forces, a rabble of mercenaries, outsourcing to private contractors for soldiers of fortune? Really? You think Iran can be secured with a coalition of riff-raff and volunteer jobbers? Or perhaps you think it will be an air war? For how long? And then what? Breathe in the smell of napalm in the morning in Teheran? Here’s the theater of war that would be: Iranian territory, yes, but it will extend over a vast territory orchestrated by Iran and its allies and will expand to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. While Russia and China sit it out and twiddle their thumbs? Sure.
US Naval forces are equipped with systems to shoot down incoming missiles, but Iran is confident that it could overwhelm such defenses and inflict severe damage with its missiles on American ships in the Persian Gulf. About the recent buildup of American presence in the Gulf, one could conclude that it really is all for show—done only so that Trump can say he deterred something. If the US really were planning to start a war, they would be pulling all their ships back to a safe distance and getting ready to attack from afar.
The good news, apparently, is that another survey said that two-thirds of Americans don’t want a pre-emptive war with Iran. Isn’t that nice of them to forego the right to pre-emptive war? Such restraint.
Though Trump declared that he wasn’t seeking war but had “deterred” Iran from doing something, it is interesting to reflect on exactly what it means to “deter.” A state of being deterred exists in the mind of people who are not doing something. It is interesting to speculate about what has motivated their inaction, but it is impossible to know the minds of others. Who knows why people choose to act or not act? Sometimes one can observe a change in behavior that strongly suggests a person was deterred, but more often solid evidence is lacking.
What is interesting about the obsession with deterrence is that it permeates much more than just “geopolitics.” It is the general approach of those who think that a belief in the tortures of hell is necessary to deter people from evil in this world. It is a symptom of the crackpot realism that pervades American life. During the same week that the US boasted on the world stage that it had deterred Iranian aggression, in domestic politics, retrograde political forces boasted about legislative victories in deterring unwanted pregnancies through the penalization of abortion. They think access to information about human sexuality, and access to contraception and abortion, have to be made illegal in order to deter unwanted pregnancies. This mentality also goes with the belief that drug users need to be punished in order to deter use by others, or that access to the necessities of life has to be denied in order to deter laziness. Migrants need to face risk of death in order to be deterred from crossing borders. Covering everything from nuclear deterrence to poverty deterrence, this is a broad worldview that is pessimistic and anti-life in the extreme. We could never completely eliminate enmity or the use of fear and punishment as ways to influence behavior, but in the absence of constructive policies, policies of deterrence are deadly.
The construction of nuclear deterrence has created a legacy of nuclear waste, poisoned the environment, and destroyed the health of millions of people—a high price to pay just to deter nuclear holocaust. Likewise, social programs founded on concepts of deterrence are equally destructive and counter-productive. There is nothing pro-life about them. It would be much more effective to reject them and move toward the construction of peace and the provision of the necessities of life that almost every nation has agreed to uphold as signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As this covenant includes the right to right to food, clothing and shelter, as well as many other social needs, the inescapable conclusion is that national governments must turn to socialism in order to give citizens what the covenant promises. There is simply no way these problems will be solved with market solutions and their attendant charity drives. We have run that experiment for the last forty years, and the results are in. Look around and ask yourself if things are getting better.
. Scott D. Sagan & Benjamin Valentino, “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants.” International Security, vol. 42 no. 1, 2017, pp. 41-79.
. “Pentagon Announced Victory Over the ‘Iranian Threat of Attacks Against Americans,’” Southfront, May 22, 2019.
. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, http://indicators.ohchr.org/. Updated May 13, 2019.
. Graham Riches and Kell Gerlings, “Is ‘Left Over’ Food for ‘Left Behind’ People the Best We Can Do?“ The Tyee, May 16, 2019. I must credit these authors for pointing out the long neglect of these treaty obligations by developed nations. (I’ve never met Graham Riches, but I feel he must be a distant cousin of mine.) The authors conclude their article: “If the NDP [the governing party in British Columbia, Canada] wishes to stand with the poor, as Tommy Douglas would surely have it do, what is to be done? It first must recognize food as a basic human need and fundamental right. It must understand food insecurity as a problem of income poverty cutting across associated risks including Indigenous status, race, gender, disabilities, single parenthood, homelessness, mental health, unemployment, precarious living and material deprivation. It must revisit Canada’s 1976 ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the right to food, clothing and shelter as critical components of the right to an adequate standard of living. As the ‘primary duty bearer’ the B.C. government must ensure domestic compliance under international law with its obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ these rights ensuring food security for all. That means understanding food insecurity as a problem of income poverty. It must change the public conversation and political discourse from charity to human rights and social justice.”