The cardinal mistake in military history has always been mirror-imaging: the assumption, often colored by wishful thinking, that your enemy will conveniently devise the same goals, strategy and tactics as you do. But this doesn’t just apply to enemies. Even allies frequently misperceive each other.
This came to mind last month, when I read an article in Foreign Policy Magazine that described how Pentagon planners predict three possible Israeli options for destroying Iran’s nuclear program: air strikes, a commando raid, or wiping out Iran’s senior leadership. The article troubled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why – until I realized that the Pentagon expects the Israelis to fight in the same way that the Pentagon itself might fight if it targets Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
It’s not totally illogical; the Israelis fight American-style (or Americans fight Israeli-style), so perhaps there’s a commonality of approach that enables accurate forecasting. But an Israel-Iran war would be a conflict between two foreign nations, with their own domestic agendas, cultural traditions and military methods. If Israel attacks Iran, it may employ technologies and tactics that the U.S. hasn’t thought of. Armies aren’t cloned like Dolly the Sheep.
The Iran nuclear crisis has sparked an interest in strategic wargaming by everyone from the Pentagon to think tanks such as the Brookings Institution to Newsweek magazine. But in a 2009 Brookings simulation, for example, the Israeli and Iranian teams were played by American experts on those nations, some of whom had worked in the U.S. government. One has to wonder if these simulations implicitly reflect American views and practices of how to resolve the conflict.
In some wargames, participants also use asymmetric methods, such as cyberwarfare, to offset U.S. numerical and technological superiority. But are these really the way America’s enemies will fight, or are these the ways that Americans would fight if they were in, say, Iran’s shoes? It’s like a James Bond movie, where the scriptwriters give Bond and the villains an arsenal that real spies could only envy.
Western militaries have tackled this issue somewhat, through a plethora of live roleplayers and computer games. But these focus on tactical cultural awareness; knowing which hand to use when eating without offending your host is not the same as accurately simulating the agendas and pressures within Iran’s leadership.
This is a difficult problem to solve. It’s not as if the U.S. can invite Iran’s political and military leaders to participate in a tabletop exercise. In fact, this is an inherent problem in roleplaying simulations. Just because you play Dungeons and Dragons for years, or dress up in medieval garb in a Society for Creative Anachronism campout, doesn’t mean you understand the mindset of an illiterate 12th-century peasant. Nonetheless, we don’t make national policy based on whether someone rose to a 57th-level wizard in D&D.
It’s easy to forget that there are wars and impending wars that aren’t American-centric.
Iran-Israel, China-Japan, or Turkey-Syria are local conflicts, but can easily trigger U.S. involvement. The ability to accurately simulate the political and military actions of the protagonists is vital, both to understand potential outcomes and to assess various U.S. responses. But we’ll never understand our enemies or friends by looking in the mirror.