Nuclear War Anyone?
tags: North Korea; limited nuclear war; Bruce Cumings; John Dower
Murray Polner is an HNN book reviewer and blogger.
"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." – Attributed to Leon Trotsky
CQ Roll Call recently reported that the Defense Science Board (DSB), a Pentagon panel, had advised our new president to prepare the military to use a "tailored nuclear option for limited use."
Even though, as CQ Roll Call added (and the "realist" National Interest commented on extensively in "Could America Really Win a 'Limited' Nuclear War?"), this "recommendation is more evolutionary than revolutionary," it was Jim who once wisely explained to Huck Finn, that "time goes fast." Above all, the DSB's recommendation reminded me of the experts who once fantasized that limited or even top of the line nuke blasts would somehow allow post-attack millions to live on and thrive. T.K. Jones, a Pentagon official, famously advised his fellow Americans in 1982, "If there are enough shovels to go around everybody's going to make it." And so school kids were told to duck under their desks and apartment house owners set aside basements as shelters.
All the same, ordinary Americans have not always been so trusting, especially since Vietnam. Millions protested the draft and a war based on lies, marched for a nuclear freeze and before 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. And while the mass protests after Trump's election avoided foreign policy it shouldn't take long to arouse Americans if we find ourselves buried in permanent and unwinnable wars against, say, North Korea and Iran and the despised draft reinstituted to provide cannon fodder.
An anxious NY Times reader reflected that view when he wrote, "The times we live in are truly more dangerous than I thought." Another, a self-described 20 year Marine veteran, wrote "We are the provocateurs, not the North Koreans." He wondered why the constant threats to the cruel hermit nation, "an unstable regime with a delusional leader. Perhaps we are the crazy ones," adding that we should let countries solve their own problems. An anonymous reader, in the often insightful paleo-conservative American Conservative magazine, offered this gem: "The U.S. cannot defeat Iran or Russia [or for that matter, China, should it choose to intervene as it did in 1951 if it sees North Korea being destroyed] – or other targets – because to do so takes far more sacrifice than the American people are willing to make. Ordinary Americans are not convinced," he continued, that these wars pose enough of a threat to volunteer themselves, or send their own children, to be killed or maimed in a pointless exercise." And from England an interpretation rarely heard from our comfortable, far from the battlefield foreign policy elites: "The hubris of American officials is that somehow what they devise will alter the violent Middle East landscape."
Today, as Trump's neophyte agents Michael Pence and Rex Tillerson saber-rattle, the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, armed with tactical nukes, patrols nearby waters while U.S. bombers can easily make the trip from North American bases to North Korea, which also has nukes but chemical and biological weapons too, the same sort of weapons used so extensively by the U.S. in Vietnam.
Historian Bruce Cumings, who wrote The Korean War, is one of a relatively few scholars who questions the existing groupthink. "North Korea is the only country in the world to have been systematically blackmailed by U.S. nuclear weapons going back to the 1950s, when hundreds of nukes were installed in South Korea," he wrote. "Why on earth would Pyongyang not seek a nuclear deterrent? But this crucial background doesn't enter the mainstream American discourse. History doesn't matter, until it does – when it rears up and smacks you in the face."
Critics who might agree with him have been silent. Fewer even have spoken and written that the certain outcome of any U.S. nuke attack on North Korea, deliberately or by miscalculation, could lead to a calamitous war, leaving Pyongyang and Seoul in ashes and its millions vaporized, including tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.
John Dower, MIT professor emeritus of history and author of Embracing Defeat, which received the Pulitzer Prize, has written a new and thoughtful if depressing book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, in which he offers these words of warning about our addiction to war: "The mystique of exceptional [American] virtue does not accommodate serious consideration of irresponsibility, provocation, intoxication with brute force, paranoia, hubris, reckless and criminal actions, or even criminal negligence."
Now it is President Donald Trump's turn to decide who, if anyone, gets nuked.
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