1. It’s Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
It’s still January. Mercifully, in 24 hours, I won’t be able to write that.
2. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Tet offensive, when Viet Cong forces attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The same embassy that had been spewing statements that the war in Vietnam was going our way.
Vietnam afflicted our national psyche. The problem is that some people got a different lesson from it than others.
There are those of us who believe that the recognition that American military might can’t solve all problems has helped increase this country’s influence around the world.
That influence might have reached its peak during the Obama years, with the United States gaining respect from its allies in western Europe, Asia and the Americas, and increasing its influence in developing nations.
3. But there was another takeaway from Vietnam.
We held back. We failed to inflict the full military might of this nation on this swatch of jungle in Southeast Asia.
In one of the Rambo movies, Sylvester Stallone’s neo-Neanderthal character – scarred by his Vietnam experiences – asks a former officer “Do we get to win this time?” As if that wasn’t the intent when the war was actually fought.
Trump loves to listen to people who share that view. They seem to make up a good-sized chunk of the MAGAts at his unending series of rallies. He responds to their idea that you use as much force as possible to show who’s boss, and that’s how you get his tone toward North Korea.
He didn’t quite take that tone at last night’s State of the Union, where he was like the eight-year-old punk forced to behave himself at a formal family gathering. He couldn’t use terms like “Rocket Man” or “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
But his relatively restrained language on North Korea actually worries some folks a lot.
Writing for Vox last night, Zack Beauchamp said Trump’s tone toward Pyongyang was comparable to George W. Bush’s tone toward Saddam Hussein and Iraq a year before the war there.
With perhaps a lot of the same people advising him – why do I see the perpetually red face of John Bolton in my mimd’s eye? – Trump is trying to seem reasonable in pondering the unreasonable.
And then there’s the word that Trump’s choice to be ambassador to South Korea took himself out of the running by saying a quick strike against North Korea – what’s quaintly referred to by the Trumpistas as giving Kim Jong Un’s regime a “bloody nose” – is a danger to Americans.
The candidate was Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and adviser to a generally bipartisan D.C. think tank who has made a career about being hawkish on North Korea.
But in a Washington Post op-ed piece, Cha – while expressing no doubts that something must be done to stop Kim – says a pre-emptive strike against North Korea poses an escalation risk that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. And it wouldn’t solve the problem, since North Korea’s potential nuclear arsenal is so well hidden that there’s little chance all the weapons could be destroyed.
This is where I come in.
In 12 days, my 23-year-old son boards a plane for Seoul. He’ll be spending his second year teaching English to elementary school students – that’s right, elementary school students. He’ll be one of what Cha estimates is 230,000 Americans in South Korea.
4. And this line is what will keep me awake at night pretty much the rest of 2018:
“To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”
Cha is no dove. He wants to ratchet the pressure on Kim with other forms of military might. While I haven’t made a career of studying Korea the way Cha has, I just have to think there are better ways of dealing with this.
All that said, no sane person wants nuclear war. Especially those of us with children on the Korean peninsula.
Unfortunately, that eliminates Trump and his sycophants. They’re Rambo looking for a war to win and using all the force they have to do it.
But force alone doesn’t win wars. Even if Trump accomplished his goal, the casualty count would be devastating. Millions of people.
And America’s moral force in the world, its power to influence other countries, would be eliminated for generations. We would be viewed as pariahs who used power without considering the consequences.
We would forever be tainted by bloody nose disease.