Michael KreponPyrrhic Victories and Draws

Quote of the week:

“What history will remember is not the ideals we were fighting for, but the methods we used to accomplish them.”
— Hans Bethe

In “Lonesome Day,” Bruce Springsteen offered this hopeful lyric:

Hell’s brewing, dark sun’s on the rise
This storm will blow through by and by
House is on fire, viper’s in the grass
A little revenge and this too shall pass

Alas, the Bard from the Jersey shore underestimated the impulse after 9/11 to seek safety through punishment. A little revenge in Afghanistan wasn’t satisfying or meaningful enough. Then there was the viper in Iraq to dispense with. A collision course with Iran was narrowly averted, but stay tuned. And now a third war in sixteen years might be in the offing to separate Kim Jong Un from his nuclear weapons and missiles. A nod to historical consciousness won’t win arguments over waging another war of choice to make America safer, but I’m still going to drag Pyrrhus of Epirus into this conversation.

Pyrrhus became an everlasting historical reference because of exceptionally poor judgment. He crossed the Ionian Sea from ancient Greece to take on Rome, an undertaking as ill conceived as Bonaparte and Hitler invading Mother Russia. Pyrrhus won battles and lost his army. Henceforth, no national leader has wished to be associated with the concept of a Pyrrhic victory, but that hasn’t stopped them from squandering national power on battlefields.

On this score, the United States has lapped the field since 9/11. The trillion-plus dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t even Pyrrhic victories; the best that seems on offer in both cases is Pyrrhic draws.

Another war on the Korean peninsula would be far more consequential than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time around, war could result in mushroom clouds, the break-up of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the demise of nuclear treaties, and handing China the keys to Asia. Yes, the United States would win another war on the Korean peninsula, and win decisively, but the result could be a Pyrrhic victory of world historic proportions.

Let’s acknowledge at the outset that the Pentagon is obliged to plan for a preventive war and pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s military capabilities. But the Pentagon can’t confidently war game the personality of Kim Jong Un, who exudes creepiness in a profoundly dangerous way. He seems to view nuclear-capable missile launches with the same wonder and enthusiasm as a kid watching fireworks. Say what you will (and I often do) about Donald Trump’s creepiness, at least the man doesn’t get his kicks from watching launches at Vandenberg. At least not yet.

A preventive war and pre-emptive strikes against North Korean conventional and nuclear capabilities would have to be damn near perfect in execution in order to reinforce the global norm of nonproliferation and bring stability to northeast Asia. Fatalities would have to be very limited. Not a single mushroom cloud would be permissible on U.S. and allied soil.

I’m not foreclosing the Pentagon’s ability to achieve this outcome, with help from South Korea. However, the odds against near-perfect success are high. And absent exceptional damage limitation, another U.S. war of choice over the deep reluctance of the South Korean leadership would, in all probability, effectively kill this alliance. The end of this alliance would, in turn, likely mean Seoul’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, with perhaps others to follow.

There’s far more. The appearance of one or more mushroom clouds during a war – breaking a “taboo” seven decades long – would do irreparable harm to what’s left of the nuclear safety net woven by previous generations. It would be very hard to maintain moratoria on nuclear testing after the appearance of one or more mushroom clouds. The resumption of nuclear testing by the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan could result.

What would the world be like without the norms of not testing or using nuclear weapons on battlefields? You don’t want to know. It would be like starting from scratch after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are the potential consequences of failing to be near perfect in the execution of another war of choice — this time to stop Kim Jong Un from continuing to test nuclear devices and brandishing his fireworks. As definitions of Pyrrhic victories go, this could be a showstopper.


  1. b. (History)

    It is quite a bit creepy to read a pronouncement on illegal, aggressive, preventive war to “reinforce the global norm of nonproliferation” which would at the same time drastically further the on-going global erosion of the much more relevant norm prohibiting illegal, aggressive war for any reason between sovereign nation states – an erosion that has been pioneered, and since sustained, by the USA, and remains at the core of the manifold objections to US conduct expressed by China and Russia, all the way back to the interventions in the Balkan civil war for the express purpose of ending a nation state by sanctioning and abetting its fragmentation.

    It appears to me equally creepy to postulate “help from South Korea” which would require agreement beyond acquiescence from SK leadership to such an illegal, aggressive act of “prevention” of an emerging situation in which NK could threaten not only SK, but conceivably also the US, and to proceed to observe that “another U.S. war of choice over the deep reluctance of the South Korean leadership” would likely end an “alliance”. By necessity, any such “ally” has to be diposable if the Bush Doctrine is to hold.

    It would indeed be very hard to “reinforce the global norm of proliferation” after an illegal, aggressive, preventive war of unilateral choice following nuclear testing by a sovereign nation state, whatever the particulars. The resumption of nuclear testing by Pakistan, Russia or China in response to a “Great War On Testing” could indeed result, and make proliferation indeed the “norm”, and North Korea the exception.

    The resumption of nuclear use by the United States, should it come to that, whether “preventive”, actually pre-emptive, or in retaliation to conventional or nuclear response by NK to a US concentional first strike, could be followed by use of nuclear weapons by Israel, India, Pakistan, or indeed Russia or China. As important as the end of a “global norm” regarding first use and/ur use of nuclear weapons might be, given that “it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”, the accelerated erosion of the supreme global norm rejecting “prevention” in all its disguises is more relevant by far.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    If Trump would start a “war of choice” he must first seek an authorizing resolution from Congress, allowing the American people to have some say in the matter. If not, he could be impeached and perhaps would be, if his “presidential decision” caved in on everyone.
    Having said this, if the President (with or without Congress) started a war in Korea, Kim Jong-Un would be ill-advised to respond with nuclear weapons, because if he did so his regime would be ended. If Kim is both rational and non-suicidal, he will realize that nuclear weapons are just for show, not actual use, even if DPRK propaganda suggests otherwise.
    Supposing now that Trump and Kim are headed for a nuclear collision, resulting in the destruction of Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo, and Guam, what would the future hold then? Perhaps people would come to see nuclear weapons as foolish and dangerous, and ultimately incapable of deterring war. Rather than a resumption of nuclear testing, there might instead be a sudden interest in far-reaching proposals for arms control.

  3. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Trading threats on an equal level with the propaganda machinery of a country with one-four-hundredth our GDP. What are we, the world’s biggest schoolyard bully?