Summary: Martin van Creveld explains our dance with North Korea, fierce talk but little action, seeing what our journalists and geopolitical experts don’t.
“The atomic bomb is the Second Coming in Wrath.”
— Winston Churchill, on hearing about the Trinity test. From Harvey H. Bundy’s “Remembered Words” in The Atlantic, March 1957.
By Martin van Creveld.
From his website, 17 August 2017.
Re-posted with his generous permission.
What has not been said about President Obama’s failure to deal with Pyonjang and its ballistic missiles? That he did not have what it takes. That he was hesitant. That he was unsure of himself. That he was weak, weak, weak. Too weak for this particular job, too weak for holding the presidency in general.
After January 20th 2017, we were told, all that would change. A new and decisive, albeit mentally somewhat disturbed, president would take over in the oval office. He would not allow his hands to be tied by political correctness. To provide advice, he would surround himself not by nancy-pancy Department of State types but by tough, no-nonsense, former generals (including one who had been nicknamed “Mad Dog” by his fellows). He would disregard diplomatic niceties. He would call a spade a spade, and a punk a punk. And he would take action, decisive action. Including, if nothing else worked, military action.
Two thirds of a year have passed. Kim-Jong un has continued to “provoke the world” by testing his ballistic missiles. Here it may be worth mentioning, in parenthesis, that there is really no reason why North Korea, a sovereign state that has long been under siege, should not own and do what other states, the U.S included, have owned and done for several decades. Also that, for a small state like North Korea, virtually the only way to defend itself against the great bully, the U.S, is to acquire nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.
After each test headlines were broadcast or printed, screaming that “a crisis” was at hand. Each time “top level” conferences were hurriedly organized and held. The armed forces of several countries were put on alert, and militarily units made to maneuver as close to the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas as safety would allow. And then, nothing except, earlier this month, yet another round of sanctions that everyone knows will achieve nothing.
The immediate reason why so little has happened, of course, is North Korea’s armed forces. By using his conventional artillery Kim-Jong il could inflict enormous damage on Seoul. By using his ballistic missiles, assuming they carry nuclear warheads, he could inflict much greater damage still on South Korea as well as Japan, a key U.S ally, and perhaps at least parts of the U.S as well.
Faced with nuclear weapons in particular, no wonder President Trump, for all his professed love for grabbing women by the genitals, has found himself castrated. A fate that often overcome many other rulers, both American and foreign, over the last seventy-two years. And one which, almost regardless of any developments that may still take place in the field of anti-ballistic missile defense, is likely to be shared by many future ones as well.
In- and out of the administration, quite some people put their hope in China. Beijing, they say, has what it takes to bring its troublesome client to heel. By applying serious economic sanctions such as North Korea, which has few other major trading partners, could hardly survive. Or massing troops on the border and make them engage in maneuvers. Or even launching a limited strike (limited it would have to be, or else it might lead to a nuclear exchange). Briefly, anything that might pull Washington D.C’s chestnuts out of the fire for it.
Sounds nice. But what could the U.S offer China in return? Several options exist. Perhaps a withdrawal, partial or complete, of its troops from South Korea. Or perhaps a loosening of ties with Taiwan (instead of selling it weapons, as Trump has recently announced he would do). Or making concessions in the South China Sea, an area which China, not without some reason, sees as historically its own and strategically vital to its future development.
So why doesn’t the U.S, with Trump at is head, pursue this option? Presumably there are many reasons; presumably one of them is that Trump, as a self-declared He-man, cannot afford the damage to the image of himself he has tried so hard to cultivate.
All this reminds me of an old story told about another self-declared he-man, Benito Mussolini. In November 1922 the newly appointed, young — he was just 39 years old — Italian prime minister went to Territet, near Montreux in Switzerland. There he, the son of a small-town blacksmith, one time day laborer, agitator, and recent goon-in-chief met with British foreign secretary Lord Curzon, 24 years his senior. As ancient, as well-heeled, as courteous, and as flinty a representative of Britain’s ruling aristocracy as there used to be.
Mussolini opened by discussion by announcing that he had come up with “a new principle in diplomacy: nothing for nothing.” “Very interesting, very interesting,” Curzon is supposed to have answered. “And pray, Sir, what does Italy have to offer?”
“Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.”
— SecDef Robert McNamara in the film “The Fog of War” (2003).
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.
The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW — preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.
Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).
Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.
He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.
Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.
He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!). Even more so are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.
And perhaps most important for us, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes. Also see this remarkable book: More on War (2016).
His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir by one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.
For More Information
Articles about North Korea.
- William Lind recommends a powerful insightful solution to our conflict with North Korea: “Misdefining the North Korea Problem.”
- “The Next Korean War: Conflict With North Korea Could Go Nuclear — But Washington Can Reduce the Risk“, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, Foreign Affairs, 1 April 2013.
- See articles about North Korea by various experts at the website of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
- Important: Looking ahead to the final chapter of the North Korea story.
- Should we expect another war in Korea?
- The real reason for America’s hostility to China.
- Stratfor: China builds a new Silk Road for the 21st century.
- Is North Korea or China the bigger threat to America?