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Does World War III hang on a Tweet?

“To reflect upon war is to reflect upon the human condition, for that condition is now most clearly revealed by the way in which World War III is coming about.” — C. Wright Mills, “The Causes of World War III, 1958”

Except for reports from places like Afghanistan or Iraq, Americans have been spared the agonies and even the fear of war for several decades. Only our extremely aged population has memories of the terror of a world at war. But, members of this “Greatest Generation” seldom speak about the horrors that they experienced.

Other elders who are my age — those born during or shortly after World War II — have only vague notions about the war based on stories that we have heard. Many older retirees may have vivid memories of the Korean War, in which about 35,000 Americans died and more than 100,000 were injured. Others who are recent retirees may have experienced the mindless slaughter that was the Vietnam War, where 55,000 Americans died and more than 150,000 returned home wounded. But, in none of these confrontations was the American homeland ever threatened.

PREPARATION FOR WAR — Since the end of World War II (1945), major powers around the globe have been preparing for World War III. Naturally, we deny this because nobody wants such a devastating event to occur. But, consider the fact that the two bombs that were dropped on Japan to hasten the end of WW II immediately killed more than twice as many people as America lost in both Korea and Vietnam.

In those wars, only “conventional” weapons were used because nuclear weapons were continually being made more powerful, and international treaties were contrived so that these weapons of unimaginable destruction would never be unleashed.

Despite universal agreement on this point, atomic weapons were developed by the former U.S.S.R. (now the Russian Federation), United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. It is probable that Israel also acquired nuclear capability sometime between 1960 and 1979. Our leaders assured us that the purpose of making our weapons more and more frightening was “mutual deterrence,” a theory that the threat of retaliation would prevent any country from using its nukes.

Underlying this theory was the assumption that people act in rational ways. In “The Causes of World War III,” the late C. Wright Mills challenged this assumption. He wrote that World War III would not be started by the malevolent actions of any person or group of people. He maintained that the major cause of the “final” war would be the preparation for it. To him, the “drift and thrust toward World War III is now part of the contemporary sensibility — and the defining characteristic of our time.” World War III, he thought, could start simply because of an accident.

LIMITED WAR — To avoid a global holocaust, the past 70 years have been marked by “limited wars,” battles taking place within defined boundaries and being fought with non-nuclear weapons. However, now the president of the United States and Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, seem to be locked into a deadly game of “Who Blinks First.” But, the real fear is “Who Acts First.” The word from the Trump administration is that military leaders are working on or have prepared several possible options that would not involve the total destruction of the Korean peninsula. It seems that the best plan (at least according to the current strategists) is the extermination of Kim. Of course, we don’t know who his successor might be because he’s killed anyone who might take his place.

Then, there is the problem of locating Kim, and finding him in a susceptible condition. The paranoid dictator is always accompanied by a well-trained coterie of ninja-like warriors; he supposedly has at least 30 residences; and he’s taken elaborate precautions to conceal their whereabouts. Also, each house has its own underground bunker, probably accompanied by a maze of escape tunnels. It’s also known that he moves only at night in order to further obfuscate any attempt to keep track of him.

Failing the decapitation of the head of the country, all other options would lead to catastrophe. Kim has a standing army of at least one million soldiers and one of the world’s largest artillery arsenals. U.S. military strategists believe that, were Kim to unleash his battery of conventional weapons on Seoul’s population of 10 million, he could easily kill 100,000 people per day. Before the action could be stopped, more than a million deaths would occur and there would be a trillion dollars in damages. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis claims that it “would probably be the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” Kim has about 8,000 conventional rocket launchers and artillery cannons, including 240-mm and 300-mm rocket launchers that can reach the South Korean capital. It is believed that some of the shells are loaded with chemical and biological weapons that would create a deadly panic and have both short-term and long-term effects.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would mobilize 120,000 troops to supplement the 28,500 already in South Korea. But, even when coupled with South Korea’s 650,000-troop standing army, they would still be outnumbered. The ensuing battle would involve nearly two million trained fighters converging on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land about the length of the railroad tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield.

WHAT IF WE WIN? — If nothing else has been learned from the exchange between Kim and Trump, it is this: To Kim, the regime is everything. We know, and I think Kim also realizes, that Pyongyang will ultimately lose an all-out war. As that fact becomes apparent, it is likely that Kim would go nuclear. His launch of nuclear-tipped missiles would force us (and perhaps other countries) to activate our own atomic arsenals. After all, China and Russia would both understand the threat to their populations. NATO would, by treaty agreement, have to come to our aid.

The world would once again be at war. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., alone, possessed the power to annihilate the whole world. Both have supposedly reduced their arsenal of nuclear weapons, but now more countries have these devices.

So, who wins?

Even if we turn out to be the winner, what will we have won? And, at what cost? Somebody needs to ask these questions to the tweeter in the White House.

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