2020年1月10日 星期五

The Interpreter: What is the point of war?

The calculus of conflict with Iran

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: The deaths of 176 innocent people in Iran. (Close readers will note that this is the second Interpreter newsletter of the day, which we felt the news merited. The first of those, “On Mustard and Megxit,” can be read here.)


The Calculus of Conflict With Iran

The bodies of the victims in the crash of a Ukraine International Airlines jet after takeoff from Tehran.Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

What is the point of waging war?

That has never been an easy question to answer.

Some theorists have argued that it is a way for one group to force another to do its bidding. Or that it is “merely the continuation of politics by other means” — a negotiation over political aims, conducted through violence rather than words.


The latter formulation was coined by Carl von Clausewitz, a 19th-century Prussian general who ultimately rejected it, calling war a fusion of rational political pursuits with animalistic instinct.

Or maybe war is the failure of policy, an indication of where leaders have miscalculated or misread an adversary’s intentions, a view that became more popular after the world wars. Or, as some contemporary theorists argue, it is an expression of the aggressor’s internal politics or social mores.

But while the point of war may be disputed, a difficult question subject to centuries of investigation and debate, its costs are not. And they never really have been.

From the earliest city-states to the feudal era to the rise of modern nation-states, through sweeping technological and geopolitical change, the costs of war have consistently and reliably fallen primarily on civilians.


In the conflict between the United States and Iran, those costs now include the lives of Sahar Haghjoo and her 8-year-old daughter, Elsa Jadidi.

Their story is recounted by Caryn Lieberman, a reporter for Global News Toronto.

She had met Ms. Haghjoo while reporting a story on anti-Muslim graffiti on her daughter’s school in Toronto.

“She was warm, kind and spoke eloquently. I remember her well,” Ms. Lieberman wrote on Twitter.

“We live in Canada so we appreciate the diversity and it’s just horrifying,” Ms. Haghjoo had told Ms. Lieberman at the time.

Ms. Haghjoo had immigrated from Iran, along with her family, a few years earlier. She worked at a local community center helping to settle migrant and refugee families.

Her daughter, Elsa, was a third grader at Al Haadi School, which predominantly serves Muslim children. The school posted a statement on its Facebook page on Wednesday calling her “a kind, compassionate soul who lit up our classrooms.”

On Friday, the school posted photos of letters that Elsa’s classmates had written to her. One reads, “Dear Elsa, I’m really glad you wanted to be my bestest friend in the whole wide world. We also shared memories together. Love, Fizza.”

Late last year, according to Ms. Lieberman’s report, Ms. Haghjoo traveled to Iran with her husband and daughter to visit family. Her husband returned to Canada last week.

On Wednesday, before dawn, Iran launched a series of missiles at American military targets in Iraq. It was retaliation for President Trump having ordered a drone strike on Iran’s top military leader, a sudden American escalation that had followed months of lower-level conflict between the countries.

Later that morning, Ms. Haghjoo and Elsa boarded a flight bound for Kyiv, Ukraine, where they would change planes before continuing home to Toronto.

What happened after that is still a matter of international investigation. But findings released by the American and Canadian governments suggest it would have begun, for the passengers on board, with a sudden explosion.

Shortly after the flight took off, ground-to-air missiles, apparently fired by Iranian air defense operators, would have detonated alongside the plane, ejecting a barrage of shrapnel into the engines, as well as the fuselage that held 176 people.

The pilots appear to have turned, most likely in a desperate attempt to return to Tehran’s airport, before losing control of the plane and crashing.

The incident was almost certainly a mistake, American and Canadian officials said, and it is difficult to think of another plausible explanation. Most of the passengers were Iranian.

Such mistakes are, in one form or another, common in war, making them foreseeable, even predictable, even if they are not intentional.

In September, a drone strike in Afghanistan — believed to be an American strike intended to target members of the Islamic State — instead killed 30 villagers, many as they harvested pine nuts.

Such incidents are frequent enough that this week’s airliner apparently shot down over Iran amid hostilities with the United States would not even be the first.

In 1988, during a devastating war between Iran and Iraq, an American Navy ship shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board. American ships were patrolling the Persian Gulf, which borders Iran and Iraq, to prevent the countries from targeting oil tankers as part of their conflict. The United States said its forces had fired on the airliner after mistaking it for an Iranian air force jet on attack.

“Once you start shooting, events often quickly run out of control, and innocents pay,” our colleague C.J. Chivers wrote on Twitter in response to Ms. Lieberman’s reporting on the deaths of Ms. Haghjoo and Elsa, calling it “the real-world perils and costs of escalation.”

What is the point of war? A more specific formulation might be: What is the point of the conflict between the United States and Iran?

This is not an easy question to answer, either.

Most analysts consider the immediate conflict’s start to have come in May 2018, when President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord, imposed crushing sanctions on Iran and issued a series of maximalist demands.

Mr. Trump said this was necessary because Iran was seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon — something that international inspectors and his own military and intelligence officials contradicted.

Confusion over Mr. Trump’s aims has not dissipated since. Analysts and former officials still say they do not know what President Trump’s strategy or overarching goal is in the conflict, a concern that American allies seem to share.

Nearly 20 months later, both the United States and Iran have suffered more setbacks than gains on every major issue at contention between them.

But the costs of the conflict, as always, are clear, even if its benefits or even its purpose may not be.

“We will miss them so very dearly,” Elsa’s school wrote in its statement announcing her and her mother’s death. “Our school will be much dimmer without Elsa to warm the hallways with her smile and laughter.”

How are we doing?

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