Rule of Thumb: Don’t Start a War If You Don’t Know Where to Bury the Dead

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Quote of the week:

“We can contribute much to the peace of the world by stating… in a declaration, either by Congress or by the President that the U.S. will never be the first to use the hydrogen bomb, that we would employ the weapon only if it were used against us or one of or allies.”
—Hans Bethe, 1950

At 11 am on 11/11 – Armistice Day – the United Kingdom is very still. We stand in silence for the fallen. Many wear red paper poppies that somehow grew amidst the slaughter at Flanders fields. The earth’s healing powers are strong enough even to reclaim the killing fields of horrific twentieth-century wars. Military cemeteries – dozens in number – silently commemorate the fallen, those who gave their lives in too great a number amidst too much chaos to be sent home in coffins for grieving loved ones.

Pope Francis recently visited the military cemetery at Nettuno to lend his commanding voice calling for the end to future slaughters. That’s where my Uncle Mickey is buried, a rare Star of David amongst the sea of crosses. There is no more powerful place on earth than a military cemetery to focus the mind on gallantry, honor and the pain of promising lives cut short.

Visiting military cemeteries does not end wars. The United States has been engaged in ceaseless war since 9/11. Casualty counts to U.S. troops are gratefully lower, while others have reaped the whirlwind. New moonscapes have been created by block-by-block combat rather than by strategic bombing. Perhaps they will be entombed by shifting sands.

The Trump Administration is now contemplating a third major U.S. war in the past sixteen years. This war would be predicated on the assumption that Kim Jong Un in possession of nuclear weapons and missiles cannot be deterred and is therefore unacceptable. In this view, the methods that succeeded against Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong – men whose ruthlessness and paranoia were measured in the deaths of millions – are not quite up to the task of preventing a skittish and untried Kim Jong Un from pressing the red button. And thereby losing that which he holds most dear – his life.

It takes another skittish and untried leader to assume that deterrence, conventional firepower, alliances and patience will fail this time around, and he, too, has his finger on the button. Donald Trump is a terrible match for Kim Jong Un, as each feeds intravenously into the other’s worst nightmares. One need of the hour is to prevent the skittish Kim Jong Un from being sufficiently spooked to show indications of preparations to launch a first strike. The second need of the hour is for the Pentagon to stop spooking young Mr. Kim. It can take more wisdom to know when to let up than when to keep up the pressure. Perhaps more wisdom than Donald Trump possesses.

There remains a slim possibility that casualties from a preemptive U.S. war on the Korean Peninsula would be miraculously limited – that Kim’s regime would crack like an eggshell and his troops’ would crater to the shock and awe of massive conventional firepower and mop-up actions. But would Donald Trump authorize a war or prompt one by pushing Kim’s buttons on the basis of this extraordinarily hopeful scenario?

All other scenarios are grim – scenarios that would make it hard to figure out how to bury the dead. There would not be enough room to replicate the neat rows and manicured lawns of the World War I and II military cemeteries. Besides, if a second war on the Korean Peninsula results in the detonation of one mushroom cloud – and then another, and another – how would we be able to identify the dead? Would we resort to mass graves, mournful tombs to the unnamed and the unknown? Would we visit such places or be shamed by our responsibility for them?

San Francisco has no excess land. And no room for massive numbers of dead. Where would they be buried? What about Seoul and Tokyo? If we do not know where to bury the dead, how can we seriously contemplate another war?

There is yet another need of the hour, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the Chairman Bob Corker has started to attend to it. We have ample reason to be concerned that Donald Trump is temperamentally unsuited to have the completely unfettered right to authorize the first use of a nuclear weapon or, more likely, prompt Kim Jong Un to cross this threshold first. And what then? Would we stand mute, like those on British street corners at 11 am on Armistice Day, watching a mushroom cloud and the breaking of a taboo that every President since Truman has resolved to protect.

The first round of witnesses did not show an excess of candor. Senator Corker and his colleagues can’t stop here; they have a profound obligation to the Constitution, the Congress, and American citizens to explore in depth how this unfettered presidential right can be subject to necessary protections. It’s a subject without easy answers, as experts in Constitutional Law would no doubt say. But better to tackle this thorny subject now rather than after a mushroom cloud.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on November 14, 2017.

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