On October 19 the Truman National Security Project released “Tell Me How This Ends,” an online wargame of US military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. In it, the player assumes the role of President of the United States:
During the campaign, you promised to establish a red line: If Iran accumulated enough medium-enriched uranium—that’s 20% enrichment—for a single nuclear bomb, the United States would retaliate militarily.
Intelligence now indicates that your red line has been crossed.
Consequently, you’ve decided to attack. But how, with whom, and against what? The game gives you several choices at each step, and provides text and video briefings of the outcomes.
SPOILER ALERT: All of the outcomes are bad, resulting in escalating conflict, high oil prices, and mounting casualties, and no easy end in sight. This was very much the point of the game in the first place, which forms part of an advertising campaign by the Truman National Security Project intended to highlight the costs of a war with Iran, and to emphasize the use of other (predominately diplomatic and economic) tools to limit Iranian nuclear capabilities and ambitions. According to their press release:
Tell Me How This Ends challenges players to deal with the aftermath of a decision to attack Iran, engaging the American people in an honest discussion of the likely costs and consequences of a war with Iran. The simulation was developed in close consultation with former senior Department of Defense officials and national security experts. It represents a realistic, if simplified, scenario for military engagement with Iran. The game is largely based upon the Iran Project Report which details the costs and benefits of military conflict with Iran.
The game is named after General David Petraeus’ famous quote expressing the reality that wars are easy to start, but the end game is often far from clear.
The accompanying television ad, which features US Army veteran Justin Ford, will run in various markets during the national security presidential debate on Monday, October 22. Ford emphasizes the risk of going into war without a plan to get out.
“Truman Project has produced a valuable tool for honestly assessing the costs of war with Iran and communicating it to the American people. It’s a public debate we need to have if we’re going to avoid the mistakes of the past,” said Janine Davidson, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans and current Professor of national security at George Mason University.
“At the start of the Iraq war in 2003, when General David Petraeus said, ‘Tell me how this ends,’ he was expressing the reality that wars are easy to start, but the end game is often far from clear. Iraq turned out to be the second longest war in America’s history; Afghanistan has been the longest. General Petraeus’ simple question is one that every leader should ask before committing U.S. troops to battle,” said Truman Project Executive Director Michael Breen, a former US Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Inside the beltway, a strong community of simulators has been educating policy makers and opinion leaders about Iran for years. This is an opportunity to take that approach to the American people so that our nation can make an informed decision about military action against Iran,” said Leigh O’Neill, Policy Director of the Truman Project.
The result is, as Mark Jacobson suggests at Foreign Policy, something which is a “wargame” or simulation in much the same way one of those children’s choose-your-own-adventure books is, except that it is much shorter, the genie is a nuclear one, and you are fighting Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats instead of the usual brigands.
How useful is it? Jacobson is very positive in his appraisal—but, then again, he is also “a senior advisor to the Truman National Security Project” so that may not be so surprising. Overall, it certainly falls into the category of what I would term simuvocacy—that is, using a simulation format to make an advocacy point. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Many think-tanks, corporations, NGOs, and even branches of the military do the same. It is certainly more interesting than many other ways of conveying a message. Moreover, just because it is advocacy doesn’t mean the advocates are wrong. In this case, the game narrows your initial options considerably (you are forced to undertake a military strike), and there appear to be only three possible final outcomes: the US escalates to a full-scale boots-on-the-ground invasion of Iran in an effort to overthrow the regime (resulting in an occupation even messier than those in Iraq or Afghanistan); the US withdraws (and a fearful Iran builds a bomb); or the US maintains a heightened (and expensive) presence, bombing Iraq periodically to prevent it from rebuilding its nuclear facilities. One could certainly nitpick many of the Iranian responses the game presumes, for example, whether Iran would commit economic suicide by blocking the Straits of Hormuz, or whether Hizbullah would retaliate knowing that it would thereby provide grounds for a major Israeli ground operation in Lebanon.
However, the central point—that one just doesn’t know, and that it is difficult to control escalation once the bombs start dropping—is certainly an important one, as the recent Newsweek crisis simulation also highlighted.
You’ll find further discussion of “Tell me How it Ends” by Michael Peck at Forbes (in two parts). There has also been some commentary on a few defence and game websites, but so far most of this has simply repeated the information in the initial PR release. I will also be adding this to the list of Iran-related wargames at Wargaming Connection.