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Guest Post: Computer Games, Siege Warfare and Iran

(Today's guest post is by frequent commenter, Asher Kohn. Asher is a law student studying the intersection of Islamic Law and Natural Resource Law, along with lots of other things. He tweets at @ajkhn and recently started The Tuqay, a blog on West/Central/South Asian topics.  If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Who wouldn’t want to conquer the world? Many people, including (but not limited to) Alexander the Great, James Cagney, and Kate Winslet have expressed their interest in becoming “King of the World.” The neat thing about video games is that you can fight and buy your way to domination in one (likely quite lonely) weekend, and do it without making enemies.

Total War lets me do just that. You take control of a historic great power and lead it to world domination. I got into it from Civilization, a game where you take a great power and…lead it to world domination.

There are differences between the two games. In Civilization the world map is randomized and you can win through science, culture, diplomacy, or war; Total War is more visceral. The map is historical and bloodshed is the whole point.  Although Civilization is by far the deeper game, I find myself preferring Total War sometimes precisely because it is limiting. If I have a constricted palette, I can get a bit more creative.

The problem is, I don’t like bloodshed. I rarely fight to the death in Civilization; it’s too expensive and too risky. The game does a good job demonstrating that warfare is fraught with the unexpected. Even though Total War has gorgeously-rendered battle scenes, I find myself working around them. My alternative? Siege warfare. It’s simple, I just build up an imposing army and then park it in front of an enemy city for a few turns. I lose nothing and they lose a city.

Total War does a terrible job demonstrating the terror of siege warfare.

I do not intend to use my time as a guest to talk about the digitization of war and our estrangement from it, as interesting as that is. Because I would rather talk about economic sanctions like the ones recently imposed on Iran. Yep, boring, boardroom-based, economic sanctions, like the ones enacted on Iraq in the past and on Iran in the present. Sanctions are the siege warfare of the 21st century and it simply doesn’t bother us because we can afford to park in front and wait for them to move inexorably forward.

The problem is, siege warfare is of a terror incomprehensible to those that have not experienced it. Siege warfare is a prime example of “War at its Worst.” Historical sources will tell you of claustrophobic tunnels under castle walls, chemical warfare, dagger fights as mines collapsed on each other, and the Sam Raimi doom of hearing a tunnel nearing your walls, about to turn your defensive redoubt into a chicken coop for the wolves outside.

And that’s just the warfare. Those same histories tell of starving children and skeletal women. They tell of blight and disease, of the very worst of human desperation. And when the walls finally do break, a flood of rapine and looting was near-guaranteed. We are fortunate that in our day and age, the mining and catapults are gone. The mental image of a CIA Predator Drone dropping a botulism-infested cow onto Tehran is humorous, not visionary. But even though the soldiers have been protected from this particular flavor of “War at its Worst,” non-combatants have not.

Many Americans around my age can vividly remember the opening scenes of Black Hawk Down that show the starving Somalis that Mohamed Farrah Aidid is holding hostage. It may be Ridley Scott less plucking heartstrings like a harp and more slapping at them like an electronic bass, but it is effective in stirring our sympathy for the Army Rangers to come in and save the day.

The situation in Iran, of course, is nowhere as terrible as Somalia in the 90’s. Iran is an enormous country and has plenty of agriculture, though starvation is not unheard of. But the siege mentality is there all the same. The film No One Knows About Persian Cats tells the story of young Iranian musicians trying to find their sound and escape the country. The scenes of youthful anger, mistrust, drug use and backstabbing are familiar to an American audience. The stakes, however, are incomprehensible: electricity cuts, smugglers, and secret conclaves make for tripwires in every scene. Persian Cats takes place in a country at war, there is no doubt about it.

Sanctions – that is, modern siege warfare – destroy lives. This is never argued, but the hope is that eventually, the lives that will be destroyed will be the ones in power, the ones making decisions that the sanctioner does not like. Starvation, impoverishment, martial law, and the wholesale destruction of public space are the tools. The questions asked by think-tank critics of economic sanctions is rarely phrased as “How many?” but “When?” The implication, not lost on the sanctionee, is that the economic sanctions are a form of asymmetric warfare perpetrated with the most plentiful implement available: money. This is perhaps not easily admitted by those demanding the starvation, impoverishment, martial law, and the wholesale destruction of public space. Sanctions are vicious, they are the slow strangulation of a country and a way of life, the better to make way for whatever’s next.

In Total War, the city under siege will always give a last-ditch attack in the turn before it is swallowed up. They usually won’t win, but they can usually put a dent in my better-trained and healthier force. Of course, in Total War I don’t have to deal with the media. I also don’t have to see what my simulated army did to that simulated city both during and after the siege. I can just point my horsemen towards the next task. I would say war is at its worst when it is purely mathematical and when it treats civilians the same way it treats the armed forces. I would have a tough time finding a worse method of war than siege warfare or its modern-day equivalents.

five comments

When AJK sent this to me, he said that he had written most of this as a comment, then said, “Man, I should just make this a guest post.” He was right, and I’m glad he did.

Asher rightly points out that sanctions aren’t pain free, which politicians often treat them like. As an article I linked to a few weeks back said, sanctions make war often more likely not less. They do this by isolating the country and making enemies with it. That is partly what my solution—with others—are trying to solve.

I never previously considered sanctions comparable to siege warfare; a form of asymmetric warfare. Well put. And you’re right, siege warfare is akin to strangling your enemy through starvation. Did I sense an implication that we’re are somewhat complicit because we fail to visualize the effects of sanction?

Thanks, Matty and Michael. As for Matty: who’s “we”? I don’t know nearly enough about the American political landscape/political science/whatever to suggest that the American people (I am one of such) are complicit. We’re arguing over war here, is stopping sanctions possible?

With aforementioned caveats aside, I was talking to a friend earlier, and we decided that it’ll be a race to the bottom between the American middle class and the Iranian middle class. I’m not sure what to think about that.

Michael C, I look forward to the day your solution will be made public, be implemented and alleviates any of the stresses of war.

Matty, judging from the response, I don’t think it was an intentional implication about our indirect compliance to siege warfare via sanction by way of ignorance regarding the correlation but the combination of your response and the article AJK wrote puts the ball in the readers’ court now. We can no longer claim ignorance to the connection between the two.

AJK, I appreciate your critical thinking and bold announcement of the gravity of siege warfare when sanctioning is so commonly dismissed as a form of attack. There is a dichotomy in your stance that I can’t ignore. Your seemingly pacifist stance is contradicted by your rooted opinion of and opening line of “Who wouldn’t want to conquer the world?” which manifested itself in safer outlets of imaginary worlds of video games. It seems like the tree trunk doesn’t match its branches in your mind. Do you entertain conflicting thoughts and impulses regarding the subject of warfare?