Entry 84: In Medias Res

Editor’s Note: This is the 84th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

It was a productive writing weekend—1,440 words.  A lot of people ask me how I can finish a book about a crisis that’s ongoing, or at least whose ending has yet to occur.  There’s an inherent skepticism that it can, or perhaps should, be done.

I get that.  But it definitely can be done.  Arthur Schlesinger wrote a book about Kennedy vs. Nixon that took less than a year from conception to bookstore shelves.  More recently, both Edward Luce and Hal Brands have turned in good books on the Trump era that were published last year—which means they took well short of a year to write—and I’m told Luce did his in three months.  So can it be done?  Yes.  Am I that caliber of writer?  TBD.  I had a post about this when I first launched Nuke Your Darlings.  My assessment hasn’t changed.

I do see a challenge in writing about events that are still playing themselves out, but not how you might think.  As a case study of the worst nuclear crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the main story starts in 1943 and works its way all the way up to and through 2017.  That history—and the various “causes” of the 2017 crisis—are the same no matter what happens in 2018 and after.  And that’s 85 percent of the book.

Beyond that, two tasks remain that I’m finishing now.  First, to tell the story of how the crisis ended—which admittedly is still playing out and I am in a bit of a holding pattern until the North-South Korea summit.

Second, to explain the risks of inadvertent nuclear war, both retrospectively at the end of the book, and prospectively, in the form of identifying structural risks given the contours of the situation in Korea.  In such a task, theory bails out the historian.  The entire book is an intermingling of theory (maximally layman-ized, of course), policy dilemmas, and good ole’ narrative history.

The one issue I’m growing concerned about that could affect my diagnosis of the enduring risks of nuclear war moving forward is if Trump agrees to a peace treaty that Kim Jong Un could then use as a wedge between the United States and South Korea.  It seems increasingly plausible because it makes for good, albeit historically ignorant, headlines.

To put it simply, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Trump—simply by being naive—inadvertently eliminates the rationale for U.S. troops in South Korea, which has ripple effects for all of U.S. strategy, stability in the Asia-Pacific, and the durability of liberalism in the region (which is currently on its back foot).

So in writing these final pages about nuclear risks moving forward, there are a lot of outcomes over the next six months that don’t affect my assessment of the situation one iota.  But one outcome that would really jerk things up analytically is a scenario involving a peace treaty and a reduction of U.S. troop presence.  That would change everything, for good and ill.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.