What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war

Summary:  The frequency of 4GW in the post-WWII war — insurgent and highly armed criminal syndicates — can obscure the importance of traditional State-to-State conflict.  The conflict of US-Israel with Iran (see links to other chapters at the end) illustrates the dynamics we’ll probably see during the next few decades.  That’s the great theme of this series about the conflict with Iran — what it shows about our world, and especially about America.  Here we draw some conclusions.

Both the US-Israel and Iran seek to obtain the active support of other nations, boost the enthusiasm of their people, disrupt the opponent’s coalition, and weak the morale of their opponents.  It’s a pure demonstration of grand strategy.

A grand strategy focuses a nation’s actions (political, economic, and military) so as to:

  • Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
  • Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
  • Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
  • Attract uncommitted states to our cause.End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

— From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139 by the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF)


  1. US as global hegemon
  2. The US public remains gullible
  3. About the moral high ground, the key to victory in modern war
  4. For more information

(1)  US as global hegemon

“What good are maneuvers and shows of force, if you never use it?”
— Anonymous US government official talking about the invasion of Grenada, New York Times, 30 October 1983

The US has evolved from isolation after WWI, to leader of a global alliance during WWII, to the world’s dominant power (“the decider”, to use Bush’s expression) after the fall of the Soviet Union — now taking the final step.

We have hundreds of bases encircling the world, with soldiers fighting in a dozen nations (including special operations fighting low-intensity wars against insurgents in foreign lands).  We have score of expeditionary strike forces sailing the world’s oceans, able to project air or land power across much of the Earth’s surface.  Our dominant role in the world’s institutional infrastructure allows us to throttle opponents with economic sanctions.

Gradually we become a global hegemon, using armed force to crush our rivals.  Regional rivals, like Iran.  Or global rivals, like China (seen in our increasingly antagonistic and militaristic policy towards Asia).

(2)  The US public remains gullible

This conflict shows the foundation of US ruling elites’ power: the gullibility of the US people.  We believe what we’re told.  We don’t listen to contrary information from experts, neither foreign nor domestic.  This is the history of American foreign policy during the 21st century.  Afghanistan as the staging ground for 9-11 (refuted here).  Iraq’s WMDs.  Gaddafi as demonic madman, massacring his people (refuted here).

Most importantly, we don’t learn from these experiences.

So although foreign wars have little intrinsic appeal to a parochial and somewhat isolationist US public, we are easily manipulated into feverish hostility towards other nations — or towards their leaders, described as demons by a compliant news media.

(4)  About the moral high ground, the key to victory in modern war

(Excerpt from Using covert operations to discredit your enemies — About the Strauss-Kahn affair)

Ownership of the moral high ground has provided a crucial advantage in many wars. Gaining it weakened the UK’s willingness to fight during the American Revolution.  Gaining it was a key factor deciding the Civil War, limiting the UK’s aid to the Confederacy. Gaining the moral high ground led to America’s support for the Allies in WWI and the early days of WWI.  Loss of the moral high ground destroyed the American people’s support for the Vietnam War.

In our time 4GW has become the primary form of conflict.  In conventional wars firepower and attrition shared center stage with the moral high ground.  Now those play a smaller role, leaving ownership of the moral high ground as the decisive advantage.

Traditional tools to gain moral high ground were diplomacy and information operations (eg, propaganda, selective release of intel — such as the Zimmerman Telegram).  Now covert operations have become common – active methods to discredit your opponents.  The US, always on the cutting edge of modern warfare, has developed this into a fine art, one especially useful for manipulating the increasingly gullible American people.

  • the Julian Assange affair — accused of some vague form of sexual misconduct. The corrupt, incompetent (either or both?) US news media often refer to this incorrectly as “rape”.
  • the Iranian attack on the Saudi & Israeli embassies (for details see The Iranian Assassination caper was a complete success!)

It’s a game other groups can play, and not just nation-States.  The French are good at it, as seen in the Strauss-Kahn affair — a creative use of a Honey pot (a classic from fact and fiction).  One simple op discredited Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and leading candidate for the Presidency of France.

(4)  Other posts in this series

  1. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran, including aid to terrorists
  2. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  3. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010 — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984
  4. About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
  5. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012 — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition
  6. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012 — US intelligence officials are clear:  not as much as the news media implies
  7. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012 — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media
  8. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  9. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012
  10. Status report on the already-hot conflict with Iran – and the looming war, 12 January 2012
  11. Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012 — Insights about today from Cold War strategist Colin Grey
  12. What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war, 16 January 2012
  13. Has Iran won a round vs. the US-Israel?, 17 January 2012
  14. Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?, 19 January 2012

(3)  For more information

(a)  See these FM Reference Pages

(b)  A few posts about the strategic importance of keeping the moral high ground

  1. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  2. About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011

(c)  Some posts about strategy

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006
  4. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  5. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  6. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  7. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  8. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  9. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  10. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  11. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  12. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  13. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  14. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  15. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  16. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  17. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  18. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  19. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009

4 thoughts on “What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war”

  1. Re: “What good are maneuvers and shows of force, if you never use it?”

    In the words of Emmanuel Lasker, 2nd World Chess Champion, “The threat is more powerful than the execution.”

    E.g., Immediately prior to Gulf War II ( aka the Iraq fiasco ) Saddam Husein, in response to the military buildup, was making massive concessions. Had Bush simply accepted these concessions, he would have secured a solid victory. Instead, he invaded.

    Re: Moral high ground. The United States is held in no where near so high regard abroad as it regards itself. While Iran indeed has PR problems, it probably also has a more realistic grasp of where it actually stands.

    1. Russia has always forborne proliferation as a strategy, but China has not. They gave Pakistan a leg up on bomb-making to offset India’s growing power and in retaliation for 1962. It’s likely the Chinese see proliferating to Pakistan as having been a mistake (thanks to A.Q. Khan) but if Iran does get nukes I doubt China would be upset to see the US’ increasing presence in the middle east get frozen.

      Regarding US bluster toward Iran, Russia and China are avoiding gamesmanship and are acting quite responsible. It seems clear that the US will never get any mandate for action through the UN, with Chinese and Russian vetoes in the security council, so they will probably maintain a “wait and see” attitude unless the US starts getting really silly.

  2. Not directly related to the matter at hand, but food for though for any Iranians wondering what defeat looks like: “Corruption in Iraq: ‘Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don’t pay'”, The Guardian, 15 January 2012 — “Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from Baghdad where families of innocent detainees face extortion from corrupt officials”

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