As the world sighs with relief that Iran’s counterstrike against Iraq’s Ain Al-Asad air force base appears to have ended the most recent cycle of US-Iran escalation, many are now confident that there will be no war between the two countries — because neither seems to want it. But the question arises — can a war start by accident?
Accidental events can certainly drive us to the brink of war — or away from it. Nobody intended Iran’s shootdown last week of the Ukrainian jetliner that claimed 176 innocent lives — and yet this accident was the direct result of the escalated tensions between our two countries. Iran’s retaliation for the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani appears to have been accidentally bloodless — the post-strike analysis shows that it was only through happenstance and evasive action by the Americans that deaths were avoided.
So we were good — and also lucky — enough to avoid going over the edge this time. Other episodes haven’t gone so well. A recent New York Times article mentions the 2016 debacle when 2 American gunboats accidentally strayed into Iranian waters and were captured by Soleimani’s Revolutionary Guards. The article also recounts the sorry state of US Naval readiness, leading up to two 2017 peacetime collisions that killed 17 sailors, and a 2018 Marine midair crash that killed another 6. Such accidents are bad enough. But under conditions of military escalation with casualties involving a hostile power, their consequences can be another thing altogether. In 1988, US warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian jetliner, killing all passengers, over Iranian airspace during a period of international tension related to the Iran-Iraq war. In order to repair the damage from that episode, President Reagan, not commonly thought of as a weakling, was obliged to express “deep regret” and ultimately pay Iran $68 million in compensation. It is difficult to imagine our current president exerting the self-control necessary to pull that one off. After all, in his world, being American means never having to say you’re sorry.
It is much easier to imagine a scenario like that of February 15, 1898, when the USS Maine, docked in Havana harbor, struck a mine, exploded, and sank, killing all 260 officers and men. The ensuing public furor, abetted by the bellicose “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst, resulted in the Spanish-American War. Given how our current president reacts to the power of suggestion from the more extreme strands of conservative media today, the parallels are interesting indeed.
The contrary view to all this is that wars may result from miscalculation, but never from true accident. The Spanish-American War, on this view, was a happy little “blunder” that nicely satisfied American strategic goals. World War I may have been a mistake in its dimensions and consequences, but its fateful initial steps were all taken on purpose. As this thinking goes, nobody truly trips and falls into a war.
I wish it were so. Today, our weapons systems are so complex, and the windows of time within which decisions must be made are so infinitesimally short, that the possibilities of error are far greater than they were in the past. Cold War leaders understood and sought to control this risk with the advent of nuclear weapons. They developed elaborate, ceremonious protocols to protect against accidental launches, as well as layers of tactical bureaucracy to assess and evaluate threats, consider options, calibrate responses, and avoid false moves. It’s one of the business ends of the “deep state.” Unfortunately, we know how our current leader feels about all that. As a result, we are just a banana peel away from war.