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Source: The Intercept

Apr 20, 2024

Israel Attack on Iran Is What World War III Looks Like

Like countless other hostilities, the stealthy Israeli missile and drone strike on Iran doesn’t risk war. It is war.

ISRAEL’S ATTACK ON Iran late Thursday night was met with a dangerously premature sigh of relief from both the news media and U.S. government, that somehow full-scale “war” was avoided.

Outlets like the New York Times were quick to characterize the attack as “subdued” and “limited” in scope, pointing to Iranian statements that the attack was launched from within Iranian borders and used small drones rather than fighter jets. Then it was further revealed that the Israeli attack included a stealth cruise missile launched from long range so as to not upset Israel’s new Arab partners.

But this, in fact, is what actual war looks like these days: Sometimes it’s a volley of 300 missiles and drones, and sometimes it is lean, targeted, and carried out covertly. Gone are the days of vast conquering armies and conventional military confrontations between two parties. So long as experts, the government, and the media worry only about a kind of war that is obsolete, it cannot see the war right in front of our faces.

The misconception has even infected the U.S. government.

“The downplaying of direct attacks on its soil may indicate the Islamic Republic lacks the desire, or capability, to match its bluster with professed military might,” a State Department communiqué produced after the attack and obtained by The Intercept says. “Over weeks of unprecedented military exchanges between Iran and Israel … Iranian officials appear keen to avoid further escalation.”

On Thursday, prior to the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian vowed that if Israel strikes back, “the next response from us will be immediate and at a maximum level.” Now, Tehran has to adjust to the reality that a massive Israeli counterattack didn’t come and might never.

As the media and the world awaits full-scale war between Iran and Israel and even frets about nuclear escalation, a huge reality of modern warfare is being overlooked: We are already fighting World War III. No, it is not empires marching armies through countries, conquering continents.

And no, it isn’t millions of young men (and now women) pressed in uniform on scales of nearly 100 years ago. And no, in most societies where war is a constant, the public doesn’t even have to feel the pain of war, except in that the military dominates everything and robs everything else of resources: programs to fight poverty, food, housing, health care, transportation, climate change.

World War III instead is all around, a planet that is aflame with armed conflict and awash in arms sales, an overlapping Venn diagram of killing that engulfs the globe, and a constant bonanza for national security “experts” and the military–industrial complex.

Let’s take a tour of the battlefield.

In the Middle East, the U.S., Turkey, Iraq, and even Iran all have footholds in Syria as their internal civil war continues unabated. And all of it goes unremarked most of the time as people look elsewhere for World War II-like battles.

Iranian; Iranian-funded or backed or inspired; or independent militias in Syria and Iraq target U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq, and now Jordan. The United States bombs, but so does Israel, and Turkey, and other silent partners of Washington in the war against Iran, and Syria, and ISIS, and Hezbollah.

The fight against ISIS, Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. says, involves 80-plus “partners” fighting not just in Syria and Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and Libya. A coalition of 80-plus countries — but the U.S. is loath to name them all, especially the allied “special” operators who are clandestinely working on the ground.

What we do know is that 10 countries have been involved in airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, including the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Korea. Like so many other conflicts, it’s not altogether clear who bombed who or from where, nor other members of the supporting cast. The U.S. bombs from aircraft carriers and from the Gulf states, and from Kuwait and Jordan, and possibly even from Saudi Arabia and Oman. But World War III is about keeping things secret, so who knows.

In the Red Sea, these same countries — plus France, Italy, Norway, Seychelles, Spain, Greece, Finland, Australia, and Sri Lanka — have joined to fend off Houthi attacks at sea. Even more countries are allegedly participating in the coalition in secret, given the sensitivities surrounding support for Israel during its war with Hamas. But then there’s also the war against pirates, and the war against nuclear proliferation, and the war against arms smuggling, and the Middle East war even against drugs, all carried out by a vast international maritime fleet involving dozens of countries.

While Israel’s war in Gaza, and its back and forth with Iran, is atop the Billboard charts for now, in Ukraine, a trench war and a standoff has now dragged on for more than two years. Here as well, all eyes have been on some kind of decisive victory or defeat, but World War III is more characterized by Ukraine or its proxies regularly attacking targets inside Mother Russia, attacks that Moscow downplays. Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side are now making regular incursions into Russia’s Belgorod and Kursk regions.

Meanwhile, the real World War III is NATO already at war with Russia, increasing its activities adjacent to the enemy, expanding its ranks, building up its military, and supplying arms to Ukraine. The United States, meanwhile, is deployed from Norway to Bulgaria, and has in the past two years built up a major new base in Poland. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea have played their part in shuttling drones, missiles, and artillery shells into the Russian war effort.

Though the blatant Russian invasion seems to embody the old-fashioned concept of occupying armies and World War II, the reality is that Ukraine never turned into “the largest tank battle” ever, as some predicted, nor did it “escalate” to nuclear war, nor has it even been decisive. 

The war in Ukraine is certainly the world-altering event of the past five years, but even here, without more borders crossed, without escalation, and without Russia and NATO shooting at each other directly, some mighty lessons can be learned. Armies clashing is an illusion. World War III is thus not some conquering army sweeping its way across the continent. At no time have more than 300,000 soldiers been on the battlefield in Ukraine at any one time; in World War II, it was nearly 10 million facing each other on a daily basis (and some 125 million mobilized overall).

Because of the greater lethality of weapons, military casualties in Ukraine have been enormous. But most of the ground engagements have taken place at the company or even platoon level; massing too many troops in one place is just too dangerous in today’s world. And this has all unfolded while neither Russia nor Ukraine have been able to harness airpower in the same way the United States has.

Other than Vladimir Putin’s heartless offensive that used young Russian men as cannon fodder, few nations want to fight this way, preferring long-range air and missile (and now drone) attacks.

South of Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to simmer. Last year, Azerbaijan attacked the breakaway republic of Artsakh. With the backing of Turkey and Israeli weapons, Azerbaijan attempted to permanently squash the ethnic Armenian enclave, successfully driving tens of thousands of civilians into neighboring countries. 

Past the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea is also brimming with maritime conflict. Constant Chinese naval passes around the borders of Taiwan are supplemented with close calls with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines (and the United States). Meanwhile, Myanmar’s civil war continues unabated.

On the Korean Peninsula, North Korea continues nuclear testing and the unannounced firing of ballistic missiles into the ocean, and tensions are a constant background noise of war games, military incursions, and cross-border incidents. Thousands of artillery batteries stare each other down across the Demilitarized Zone, as South Korea points the finger at North Korean technology used in Iranian missiles launched toward Israel. And, of course, the United States and other “partners” are active on the ground.

In a world of supposed “international order,” India and Pakistan continue to fight over their common border, as they have been doing for decades. And India and China face off, another flashpoint that could spell World War III to some but one that is already here in reality.

In Africa, military forces, terrorists, militants, mercenaries, militias, bandits, pirates, and separatists are active, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Sudan. China and Russia scramble for bases and influence (China already has a base in Djibouti). Russia’s Wagner Group is active in Africa and involved in combat, and in the past two months, Rwandan military forces have attacked targets in the DRC, and Morocco has conducted drone strikes on Polisario fighters near the Western Sahara border.

On the African continent, the U.S., France, and the U.K. have been engaged in expansive yet clandestine fighting, supposedly against Islamic terrorists, while all around the continent smolders and neither can claim any long-term wins on the dual fronts of counterterrorism and peacekeeping. American troops operating in Niger are stuck as the country’s U.S. government-trained junta claims America’s footprint is illegal. The United States has also been bombing targets in Somalia for years now, and the African Union mission in Somalia has been actively involved in combating al-Shabab.

U.S. forces continue to fan out across Latin America and the Caribbean, using missile cruisers to intercept drug smuggling submarines, sending marine anti-terrorism teams into a fully destabilized Haiti, and fast-tracking exports of helicopters, aircraft, and naval drones to Guyana as its neighbor Venezuela hungrily eyes its oil reserves. Senior Biden administration officials have floated sending U.S. troops into the treacherous swatch of jungle connecting South and Central America known as the Darién Gap to stem the flow of migrants and drugs across the U.S. southern border. 

And what even happened to neutrality in the past few years? Switzerland and Austria have provided arms to Ukraine. Sweden and Finland have joined NATO. Only little Costa Rica, Iceland, Mauritius, Panama, and Vanuatu have no formal armed forces, but even there, Iceland is a very active member of NATO and Panama is a close military ally of the U.S. Speaking of small countries taking on big fights, Fiji and Luxembourg both count themselves as members of the global coalition to defeat ISIS

Ubiquitous warfare, our World War III, paints a worldwide picture that is overwhelming, leaving little room to imagine that something can be done about it. And it’s hard not to conclude that the superpowers and the national security “community” aren’t somehow satisfied with the status quo. But as with addiction, the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem — or in this case, a global war.

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