While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”
Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…”
Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles.
The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.”
Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.”
Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party.
Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said: “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”
In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:
“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”
Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury.
By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted.
Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other.
The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:
“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”
Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.”
Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.”
I only wonder what miscalculation will be next.