Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Korean Apocalypse Slow and Fast

The moment that an atomic bomb last exploded over a city, in Nagasaki in 1945
It's already a famous phrase.  In their analysis of the current standoff concerning a nuclear weapon test between the maniac leadership of North Korea and the maniac regime in Washington, two New York Times reporters called it "A Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion."

It's duly noted in a Washington Post roundup of similar comments by experts and published in the Atlantic, Financial Times and other outlets.  It comports as well with Masha Gessen in the NY Review Daily who writes "Trump has become the real version of the man Putin plays on television—an unpredictable, temperamental, impetuous man who will push reality past the limits of the imagination."

But it isn't Homemade Hitler alone--his v.p., sec of state and other underlings are echoing his deadly bluster, apparently having learned--thanks in part to members of the media who themselves apparently learned nothing from 2016--that: "For an American president, bombing is easier than thinking. For an American lawmaker or opinion-maker, it costs nothing to celebrate the resolve of a president who bombs," in the words of analyst David Bromwich.

But let's return to that phrase in the NY Times headline, for implied at the end of it is the possibility of nuclear warfare, which was the all but certain end game of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had it led to military action.  Lots of people are making the calculations, some writing that actual nuclear war is unlikely, though North Korea could inflict huge damage with millions of deaths in South Korea with conventional weapons, in response to a non-nuclear attack by the US to stop their atomic bomb test.  But the risks of nuclear explosions, along with the apparent folly (i.e. no-win situations) of such an attack and such a response, are both assumed and spelled out.

Meanwhile, some in Hawaii are calling for preparations for possible attack, and we in far northern California are wondering about fallout and wind currents from Korea and Japan, and nuclear missiles that miss their big city targets to find their way to us.

But what of the implication that this crisis is a slow motion version?  It's true that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened over the short span of 13 days.  But in crucial ways, it was slow.

 Those of us who lived through the actual Cuban Missile Crisis may remember specific moments over those 13 days, from watching in the living room one evening President Kennedy's televised announcement of Russian offensive missile silos discovered in Cuba, to walking into a classroom where someone had drawn a huge mushroom cloud on the blackboard, to huddling around a radio as the key confrontation between US and Russian ships dissipated, thus failing to set off World War III before gym class.

We knew of but did not see the agonizing meetings in the White House, and few knew of back-channel diplomatic contacts that turned out to be crucial.  But the fact so much of the crisis was played out in public helped keep it somewhat slow, and kept panic from erupting.  This was part of the genius of the approach decided on by President Kennedy--so much was done in public, in full view of American media and the world, so that (for one thing) the chances of either side wildly miscalculating the actions or intentions of the other were minimized.

That's not the case now.  We have the blustery tweets and speeches, relentless in their aggression by both sides.  We see the parade of missiles in North Korea, and note the movement of US Navy ships towards its shores.  But typical of the apprentice dictator, much is hidden.

So if war comes, it will come blazingly fast.  In 1962, nuclear missiles could arrive all across the world in minutes, but in the Cuban Missile Crisis the moves towards that kind of confrontation were deliberate and public (although as we've since learned, it took some luck and some iron nerve by less than senior officers on both sides to prevent a nuclear moment.)

That does not seem to be the case now.  The US position is that it will prevent a North Korean nuclear test.  Such a test conceivably could begin almost without warning.  A response and then the counter-response could occur immediately. Out of the darkness, it could all happen very fast.

Though the "slow motion" phrase is in the Times story's headline, the story itself suggests that this crisis is getting faster. After describing the back-and-forth that has gone on for years (including implied cyber-warfare by the US to subvert missile tests), the authors write:

"What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals."

North Korea's nuclear program is reaching a truly dangerous stage, but as has been obvious all along, the US has no good military options short of war--regional or larger-- with the likelihood of nuclear bombs.  There is almost no scenario that doesn't involve millions of casualties in a very short time, with the acute danger of unforeseeable spirals of destructive consequences.

For the truth of the matter seems to be that short of obliterating North Korea with thermonuclear weapons, there seems no way for the US to militarily stop North Korea from building and testing nuclear bombs.  In the Cuban missile crisis there were military leaders who argued for an attack on Cuba, knowing that this would likely spiral quickly into the full thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, JFK had other options and made other choices.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had a temperate and ultimately wise President, controlling some military leaders who could have starred in Dr. Strangelove.  We were lucky then, as we were with our President in World War II.  This time, we'll have to look for luck elsewhere.   

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