Mark Helprin is a gifted writer. A former officer in the Israeli air force and army, he knows and understands a bit about warfare and the defense of civilizations. His book, A Soldier of the Great War is an epic masterpiece, exploring the human heart and how the vicissitudes of war and its latent irrationalities wreak havoc upon it. It is one of the ten best books I have ever read.
He occasionally employs his literary talents to pen essays for the Wall Street Journal, usually concerning some aspect of international conflict, always a hawk propounding the virtues of strong defense, which for him, like the Israelis with whom he served, means a proactive, preemptive defense, keeping a watchful eye over potential threats, and eliminating them before they’ve had to opportunity to fully coagulate.
So it is no surprise that he believes the Iranian nuclear threat must be eliminated before it reaches fruition. He begins his argument by laying out the reasons why an Iranian nuclear threat would be different from all the rest, resorting to the ages-old tactic of demonization, a necessary predicate for instilling the blood-lust required of killing other humans:
To assume that Iran will not close the Strait of Hormuz is to assume that primitive religious fanatics will perform cost-benefit analyses the way they are done at Wharton.
Thus, Helprin claims the Iranians disregard the self-preservation calculus that animates the behavior of all living creatures. As such, Helprin not only de-humanizes them, he de-animates them, making them something other than ordinary living creatures. In effect, he claims Iranians are aliens.
The argument then turns to magnifying the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of these irrational, other-worldly beings:
Inexpert experts will state that Iran cannot strike with nuclear weapons. But let us count the ways. It has the aerial tankerage to sustain one or two planes that might slip past air defenses between it and Israel, Europe, or the U.S., combining radar signatures with those of cleared commercial flights. As Iran increases its ballistic missile ranges and we strangle our missile defenses, America will face a potential launch from Iranian territory.
Iran can sea-launch from off our coasts. Germany planned this in World War II. Subsequently, the U.S. completed 67 water-supported launches, ending as recently as 1980; the U.S.S.R. had two similar programs; and Iran itself has sea-launched from a barge in the Caspian. And if in 2007, for example, 1,100 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled from South America without interdiction, we cannot dismiss the possibility of Iranian nuclear charges of 500 pounds or less ending up in Manhattan or on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The idea that Iran would attempt any of the described dangers depends on the veracity of Helprin’s claim that Iranians don’t care in any ordinary way about the cost-benefit calculus such actions would entail. Any Iranian nuclear attack on US soil would result in the complete and utter destruction of the Iranian state. Persia would become a smoking heap of nuclear ash. To believe that Iranians are not well aware of this, or to believe that they are aware of this, yet would instigate such an attack anyway, grounds Helprin’s argument in mysticism. It is not the Iranians that are primitive religious fanatics that don’t do cost-benefit analyses, it is Helprin.
Helprin ends with a call to action implying that destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons would be relatively easy:
[the President] should order the armed forces of the United States to attack and destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons complex. When they have complied, and our pilots are in the air on their way home, they will have protected our children in their beds—and our children’s children, many years from now, in theirs. May this country always have clear enough sight and strong enough will to stand for itself in the face of mortal threat, and in time.
Conclusively destroying a nation’s ability to create nuclear bombs is not necessarily such an easy task as the visual image of dropping a few bombs and flying home that Helprin creates.
Neither is there any way to do anything today that will guarantee our children’s children safety. That a government is capable of such a thing is the sort of lie promulgated by governments the world over to, among other things, allow vast expansions in their power and control over their own populations. It is certainly the same lie used by the US government to rape its own constitution over the past decade.
Destroying Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon may, for a time, protect the world (and particularly, Israel, which seems more to the point) from the danger of an Iranian nuke. But it will do nothing to protect the world from the danger of another rogue state acquiring nuclear capabilities, and it would create in the Iranians the impetus for revenge, which could be accomplished using plain old TNT based bombs. It doesn’t matter how one dies, whether by nuclear or conventional bomb blasts. Dead is still dead.
Sometimes the best defense is not a good offense. Sometimes the best defense is protecting the borders while concentrating on strengthening the foundations of one’s own society. The US has nothing to fear from Iran, nuclear or otherwise, and never had. Israel perhaps does, but Israel should not be dictating American foreign policy. Israel was important when the US faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union and its sphere of hegemony, which included much of Arabia. In the post-Cold War world, Iran could make good on its threat to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, and the US would be hardly affected at all. This is the dispassionate, non-ideological reality. So far as Israel is concerned, Helprin and a great many others beating the drums for Iranian war seem to be simply creating intricate rationalizations for doing what their comity and charity for Israel compels them to seek. America owes it to itself, and particularly its service members, to think not with its heart, but with its head, when deciding whether to commit blood and treasure to conflict.
The only existential threat the US now faces is itself. The US must find the courage to face its external fears without destroying itself internally. Its people must realize that no government has ever been able to protect its population from the threat of threat, and to reject its self-aggrandizing claims to the contrary. This is the clear sight and strong will upon which the survival of the American republic depends.
Helprin’s prose is as compelling as ever. But in this instance, his argument is wrong.