The drumbeats of war with North Korea are sounding ever louder as heated rhetoric — and false missile attack warnings — continue to fly across the Pacific and through the Twitterverse. Despite some nascent signs of dialogue with the North, war with Pyongyang in 2018 seems more likely than at any time in decades. Last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) publicly estimated the odds of war with North Korea to be between 30 and 70 percent, and stressed that war would have to involve regime change. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that “storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean peninsula, and that while he hoped for a diplomatic solution, he felt “very little reason for optimism.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen warned that the United States is closer “to a nuclear war with North Korea and in that region than we have ever been.” And recent reports suggest that the United States is seriously considering a limited strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, gambling on shocking the regime without provoking a bloody — and perhaps nuclear — response.
The American public, however, is at best lukewarm to the idea of a war with North Korea. In September, two polls found that 58 percent of respondents supported military action against North Korea if peaceful means fail, but in a follow-up question, 63 percent said military action should only be taken with the support and participation of other countries. In October, polls showed that 62 percent opposed a preemptive strike on North Korea, and 64 percent believed the North Korean military program could be contained without military action. And a December poll showed that only 39 percent supported taking military action against North Korea to end its nuclear program, down from 49 percent three months earlier.
With such tepid support, there should be a robust and heated U.S. national debate about going to war with North Korea — involving not just policymakers, but the public writ large. Instead, it sounds an awful lot like crickets.
So what’s going on? Some of the reasons are undoubtedly political. With Republicans controlling both the executive and legislative branches, it’s hard to imagine that Congress would hold hearings, much less vote, in ways that could constrain the president on a major military action. But the reasons why there’s no vibrant public debate are far deeper than politics. No matter what people tell pollsters, there is no public uproar about going to war because most Americans harbor some dangerous misconceptions about the U.S. military and modern war. These misconceptions make the path to war with North Korea far more likely, because they mean the American people do not fully appreciate the costs, the difficulties, and the unpredictable nature of the war that would ensue.
Misconception #1: The U.S. military is the best in the world, so any war with North Korea will be short and decisive. While the first part of this statement is undoubtedly true, the second part leaps to the wrong conclusion. Many Americans believe the U.S. military is so overwhelmingly powerful that it can win any major war in short order, using its incomparable technological advantages to keep casualties down while quickly decimating our less capable enemies. Rosa Brooks describes this as the public’s enthusiasm but ignorance about the U.S. armed forces. One survey showed, for example, that Americans believe the U.S. military is three times larger than its actual size. Even senior policymakers, according to Brooks, often harbor an “exaggerated estimate of military capabilities” that can lead to the assumption that “the military can do anything.”
The truth is far more sobering. The U.S. military today is already stretched thin to meet all its global commitments and its readiness is fraying, as senior service leaders have repeatedly testified. The scale of a war with North Korea would dwarf any military operation in recent memory, even if no nuclear weapons were used. Defeating the North Korean military in a purely conventional conflict could involve more than 700,000 U.S. troops — which is more than four times the number of troops in Iraq and seven times the number in Afghanistan at their respective peaks. And those numbers don’t account for the massive demands of denuclearization, caring for casualties and refugees, and rebuilding after the war ends — not to mention the huge tasks of decontamination and mitigation if any weapons of mass destruction are used. While few doubt the war would end with a U.S. defeat of North Korea, the conflict would be far more protracted, costly, and complicated than most Americans imagine.
Misconception #2: Few Americans would die in a conventional war with North Korea. Most Americans feel little direct danger from a war, since no one believes North Korean troops will suddenly burst ashore onto U.S. territory. But somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 U.S. citizens live in South Korea, including thousands of military family members. Many of them live in or around Seoul, a sprawling metropolis of 24 million people, which lies within range of thousands of North Korean artillery tubes and rocket launchers. The Pentagon estimates that as many as 20,000 civilians would die on the first day of a conventional war, and hundreds of thousands of civilians would die in the first 90 days.
Furthermore, U.S. military casualties in such a war would be far greater higher than the relatively low numbers Americans have come to expect since Vietnam. In Iraq and Afghanistan, almost 7,000 service members have died and more than 52,000 have been wounded since 2001. Last year, Mattis stated that a new Korean war “would be like nothing we have seen since 1953,” when the last war on the peninsula left more than 36,000 service members dead and over 90,000 wounded. As we’ve written before, no one serving today in the U.S. military has experienced anything like the possible casualty rates of this upcoming war — something that could have devastating physical and psychological effects on the force, and which would make the war even longer and more deadly.
Misconception #3: War won’t impact Americans at home. The American public has not experienced widespread death and destruction, or even serious disruption to life at home, since the Civil War. Unlike the populations of Europe or Japan, where the sweeping death and destruction of World War II still remain in public awareness, or today’s unfortunate citizens of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Americans simply do not understand the potential earth-shattering impacts of war brought home. Some would argue that the United States must go to war against Pyongyang to prevent exactly that outcome by eliminating the threat that North Korean nuclear ballistic missiles pose to Los Angeles or Washington. But missiles are only one way to rain bedlam and destruction upon an adversary in the 21st century, and focusing solely on that threat ignores Pyongyang’s equally serious unconventional threats.
With his regime under attack, Kim Jong Un could retaliate directly against the United States (as well as South Korea and Japan) with the full range of his destructive capabilities. He could, for example, try to directly attack the United States through a covertly delivered nuclear device. He could also utilize clandestine agents to try to spread infectious biological toxins to create widespread public health emergencies in one or more major American cities. Such attacks would face some technical challenges, but if even one such attempt succeeds, the resulting death and destruction could be devastating.
Pyongyang also harbors substantial highly sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities that can cause chaos in countries like the United States, where daily life relies deeply on digital technology. North Korea has already demonstrated its advanced cyber capabilities through the recent WannaCry ransomware attack, its famous attack against Sony, and its extensive hacking of aerospace, telecoms, and financial networks. As we’ve written before, the United States cannot effectively defend and protect its vast national infrastructure and economy against sophisticated cyber attacks. The U.S. homeland could be attacked and disrupted in an almost infinite number of ways — from releasing hacked personal financial data and stealing system access credentials, to shutting down industrial control systems and power plants, to hijacking personal smartphones and home thermostats. America’s home front could quickly become a major unexpected battlefront in a new war with North Korea.
Misconception #4: War won’t personally touch me or my family. The great success of the All-Volunteer Force since 1973 has distanced the American people from any obligation to fight the nation’s wars. Today, after more than 16 years of war, most Americans expect wars to be fought entirely by the all-volunteer military, no matter how difficult or prolonged. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demanded no sacrifices in either blood or treasure — no draft and no new taxes — from the U.S. population as a whole.
The duty to personally take up arms to defend the nation when called is no longer seen as an obligation of citizenship. One percent of the population now fights the nation’s wars while the remaining 99 percent applaud their efforts. Very few people in the White House, Congress, the military, and the populace believe the United States will ever return to a draft. The American people strongly oppose reinstating the draft, and some members of Congress have called for abolishing the Selective Service altogether. This belief — which we have argued is profoundly wrong — means that few, if any, American households fear that their loved ones could be required to serve in any future war.
Yet a war with Korea could require exactly that. Wars have a logic and timeline of their own, and as we discuss below, a new war in Korea could last far longer and require far more military personnel than average Americans or even military planners currently expect. But under today’s all-volunteer military structure, war is seen as someone else’s job. As a result, few Americans feel compelled to invest much time or energy in the country’s decisions about the use of force — even for a potentially major war such as Korea.
Misconception #5: The war will end with the defeat of North Korea. Most, if not all, public discussions about a war with North Korea seem to assume that any such war will remain contained on the peninsula — and that its scope and duration will be limited by the narrow mission of removing Kim and his nuclear capabilities. Military planners are at risk of stumbling into this trap, too. The recent discussion of a “bloody nose” preventive strike against North Korea suggests policymakers believe that war, once launched, will be controllable and all the actors will respond in logical and predictable ways. History, of course, strongly suggests otherwise.
This view also fails to account for the reactions of other global powers. China will certainly be drawn into the conflict in some fashion, given its geographic proximity to and close relationship with North Korea. And, as we wrote last year, China might respond to a U.S. nuclear attack on its North Korean ally by striking U.S. regional bases — or even U.S. territory — since it would be directly affected by the ensuing radiation. Other U.S. adversaries may also seize the opportunity presented by a major new American wartime commitment to engage in aggression elsewhere, unchallenged by a preoccupied United States. Russia could move to seize more territory in eastern Europe; Iran could restart its nuclear weapons program and further threaten its neighbors; and absent U.S. pressure, the Islamic State could become re-energized and resume attacks against friends and allies across the Middle East and Europe. The United States could rapidly find itself in need of substantial military forces to deal with a growing global conflict involving disparate enemies in far-flung regions, thousands of miles from the Korean battlefront. Any such conflicts would directly threaten vital U.S. interests around the world, and could escalate into other regional wars or possibly even a global war.
All five of these popular beliefs are wrong. But they are nevertheless shaping public views about a possible war with North Korea — and contributing to the lack of serious national debate about whether going to war is necessary, right, and truly the last resort. These misconceptions reflect an unsettling truth: Americans have largely forgotten what it means to go to war, and what a “real” war can mean — both here at home and around the world. A widespread failure by the American people and their leaders to fully grasp the potentially devastating effects of this looming war makes the decision to undertake it far more likely. Tragically, 2018 may prove to be the year when the United States learns war’s bitter lessons once again.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.
Image: U.S. Army/John DePinto