The Trump Administration Wants a War America Cannot Win
An attack on North Korea would be catastrophic ... for Americans
Who knew that U.S. vice president Mike Pence would take a page out of activist athlete Colin Kaepernick’s playbook and refuse to stand for the host team’s entry at the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony on Feb. 8, 2018?
The games were being held in PyeongChang, Korea — and the team was composed of athletes representing what most people on the peninsula imagine to be their country, if only in their hopes and dreams — one nation, united North and South.
The games also were the occasion for an historic visit between Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Pres. Moon Jae In of the Republic of Korea. Both the visit and the Olympic cooperation underscore the growing distance between Koreans’ aspirations and U.S. policy.
This might be because this policy is now impossibly disconnected from reality. Since 1953 the United States has assumed that sooner or later the division between the two Korean republics would end with the collapse, conquest, or capitulation of the DPRK at which point the United States will have a client state that much larger and fully on the border of the People’s Republic of China.
Now that the DPRK has entered the nine nation nuclear weapons club and mastered the missile technology necessary to deliver those weapons to the United States, what chance is there of such a final victory for the United States on the peninsula? Increasingly the most aggressive voices in the U.S. military policy establishment are pushing for a shift to offense against the DPRK, and since the election of Donald Trump, these voices are ascendant.
These voices are dangerous and wrong, and conscientious Americans should be doing everything they can to push back against them. The United States — despite its massive economic and apparent military advantage — would be foolish to resume an all-out shooting war with the DPRK for the simple reason that we are unlikely to win such a war.
Basic, timeless principles of military strategy make this clear, and to avoid the disaster of such a defeat the United States should instead focus on undoing the failed policy of aggression that has put Korea in such terrible danger for nearly 70 years.
At top — an F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing, taxis into an inspection area on June 21, 2016, at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Victor J. Caputo. Above — USS Carl Vinson pulls into Republic of Korea Fleet headquarters. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jermaine M. Ralliford
Objectives and strategies
How could the United States possibly lose a war to the DPRK? The United States has an economy 700 times larger than the DPRK. The DPRK spends an enormous amount of this GDP on its military — more than 20 percent — but the United States still spends more than 18 times what it does. And as for nuclear weapons the United States estimates that the DPRK has 60, while the United States maintains more than 7,500.
But as we know by now, these advantages can be deceptive. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years against a foe without even a state of its own, and the results are still inconclusive. These same fighters brought the Soviet Union to its knees — with substantial U.S. and Saudi support — when that country was the world’s second-most-powerful.
Vietnam, Algeria and even Korea when they expelled Japanese occupiers in the 1940s all prove that size isn’t everything when it comes to winning wars.
Critical observers of U.S. military policy have noticed serious faults with our ways of making war since the middle of the 20th century — since the very Korean war that produced the unsustainable status quo there. Journalist and historian Thomas Ricks writes in his 2012 book The Generals that for all the talk of “warfighters” the U.S. military has “produced a generation of tacticians who knew how to fight battles but now apparently lacked the strategic ability to fight and conclude wars.”
Retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich has reinforced this insight with regard to U.S. wars in the Middle East in particular, saying “there is no strategy. None. Zilch. We’re on a multi-trillion-dollar bridge to nowhere.”
Eschewing strategy doesn’t make it merely difficult to win a war, it makes it impossible to determine if you have won or not, and therefore becomes a recipe for the sort of endless conflict the United States has become famous for. No such conflict has gone on longer than our struggle against the DPRK, so what exactly is the US objective and strategy there?
Technically the United States’ objective in Korea is that it “supports the peaceful reunification of Korea on terms acceptable to the Korean people and recognizes that the future of the Korean Peninsula is primarily a matter for them to decide. The United States believes that a constructive and serious dialogue between North and South Korea is necessary to improve inter-Korean relations and to resolve outstanding problems, including the North’s attempts to develop a nuclear program and its human rights abuses.”
Pence’s petulant display in PyeongChang, on the other hand, suggests that the United States’ definition of “constructive” dialogue and self-determination is very different from what the Korean people might hold. And aside from this especially bellicose administration, deploying tens of thousands of troops to maintain the division of the two countries seems like a profoundly stupid way to foster their reunification.
We already know America’s actual objective. The “reunification” of Korea by eliminating the DPRK altogether.
This is not a reasonable objective, and the strategies we’ve already been pursuing to try and reach it are doomed — this is why the United States cannot win against the DPRK. No less of an authority on strategy than Sun Tzu can show us why.
Staff Sgt. John Gavin, 51st Security Forces Squadron fire team leader, and a special operations forces member from the Republic of Korea army work together during a training scenario for Beverly Herd on May 10, 2016, at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dillian Bamman
Sun Tzu and U.S. futility in Korea
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is studied worldwide to this day because for the occasional outdated reference to pieces of silver and the best way to set the enemy’s camp on fire it condenses most of the most important ideas about military strategy — and therefore strategy for all sorts of conflict — in a text short enough to read in a single sitting.
Among Sun Tzu’s earliest principles is the flat statement that “there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” He also counsels that “the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities,” which seems analogous to the United States’ naval patrols, enforcement of the so-called De-Militarized Zone, and sustained economic embargo of the DPRK.
And if there is any thesis statement to The Art of War it may be the aphorism “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
On these terms the United States has pursued a disastrous strategy in Korea. The conflict has lasted for seven decades and there are probably few nations in the world with a more unbreakable resistance than the DPRK — whatever we have done thus far has fallen quite short of “supreme excellence.”
Sun Tzu’s reasoning about why sieges and prolonged warfare are such bad ideas is ominous in our present context. “The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.”
Trump is no general — he is in fact an unprincipled draft-dodger and known coward — but he is certainly a figure prone to irritation, as his threatening tweets about the DPRK demonstrate. The latest publicly-floated proposal for shifting terms in Korea, a so-called “bloody nose” strategy where the United States launches a “limited” military strike, seems prone to the basic problems Sun Tzu recognizes here: meaningless loss of life with nothing to show for it.
We know it would produce essentially nothing because while the DPRK may spend much less than the United States does on its military, its force is almost as large as America’s is — more than a million fighters and 600,000 reservists, in total. The assumption behind the “bloody nose” gambit is that this force will abandon their posts or otherwise be shaken by an attack, but the DPRK didn’t surrender when the United States leveled every city in the country and killed upward of 20 percent of the population during the Korean War.
A knife to the throat didn’t kill them. Why would a bloody nose?
The mistake at hand there is a common one, that DPRK citizens all actually hate their government and would flock to U.S. occupiers if only they could. The failure of this very concept in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have taught the press and politicians nothing, but even aside from that we know for a fact that the average Korean in the North is not looking for a way out.
B. R. Myers, a mainstream U.S-born academic based in the ROK, reports that more than half of all DPRK citizens that leave the country ultimately return of their own volition. Combine this fact with the figure of nearly six million trained paramilitaries in the country and the likely costs of a U.S. war in that country are unfathomable.
Sun Tzu said also that “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” The United States misunderstands the people living in the DPRK, missing that they are like people everywhere–there are very few dissidents, most people may mistrust or resent the government but will rush to defend it from outside forces that want to invade and occupy their country.
The fact that our leaders would even contemplate a scheme so contrary to the lessons of relatively recent history suggests we don’t know ourselves that well either. Sun Tzu isn’t wrong — this is a recipe for certain defeat, regardless of how much money or how many bombs we may have.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor is launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska, during Flight Experiment THAAD-01 on July 30, 2017. U.S. Defense Department photo by Leah Garton
They don’t care if we win or lose
Of course, there are aspects of the United States military empire that even Sun Tzu didn’t anticipate. Prolonged war may not benefit any nation, but it certainly benefits the military contractors that profit from endless war and the financial interests making money off of incomprehensible levels of government debt. We don’t need a military strategy to keep up with those objectives, just a political and ideological establishment good at mocking up enemies regardless how small and remote they may be.
Of course, it would be even better if they could spend all that money and take over the whole of Korea too, giving us a new leg up in the big money-maker to come. War with China. That tension, that opportunity is what keeps the risk of war close at hand.
Pence perfectly highlighted the reality of this threat at the opening ceremonies, demonstrating leadership that is shamelessly hypocritical and unabashedly childish. Where the world saw a step towards peace in a part of the world where millions could die in minutes if war were to break out, he and his even less disciplined superior saw a threat to the aims of the warmonger class.
Appealing to their humanity or sense of fairness is pointless — they are inhumane and unfair — but maybe if we make it clear how unlikely victory really is they’ll find a different path. Who knows, It might even be the one the Korean people so clearly desire.