The United States is preparing for a war with North Korea that it hopes never to have to fight, says Senator Tammy Duckworth.
Uri Friedman Jan 28, 2018
When Senator Tammy Duckworth returned from a recent trip to South Korea and Japan, she brought back a sobering message: “Americans simply are not in touch with just how close we are to war on the Korean peninsula.” In a speech at Georgetown University, she laid out the U.S. military maneuvers over the past several months—including a nuclear-powered submarine heading to South Korea, the movement of three aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific, and the Army testing out “mobilization centers” for deploying troops and training soldiers to fight in tunnels like those beneath North Korea—that inform this worry. In an interview with me, she said the U.S. military seems to be operating with the attitude that a conflict “‘will probably happen, and we better be ready to go.’”
Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel who lost her legs during the Iraq War when insurgents downed her helicopter, took the trip along with Ruben Gallego, a Democratic congressman from Arizona and a fellow Iraq War veteran, earlier this month. The two met with top South Korean and Japanese diplomats and defense officials as well as commanders of U.S. forces in South Korea. Duckworth said that she found “all three of the major military actors—American, Korean, and Japanese—…more ready [for war] than they’ve ever been.”
The drums of war are not booming; there have been no major U.S. military movements or public-messaging campaigns by the Trump administration or new advisories to American civilians or companies, for instance. And Duckworth thinks there are ways the country should be more prepared—in particular that Congress should create a dedicated stream of funding for U.S. forces to rehearse and carry out evacuations of non-combatants in the event of a conflict.
But, as Duckworth sees it, the drumbeats are growing louder—even as the administration has stayed comparatively silent about what war would look like and whether the benefits would warrant the costs.
“We have some great plans should, as we say, ‘the balloon go up’ in Korea,” Gallego, a former Marine, told me. “I know what happens with plans when the first bullet goes flying. … What I fear is that someone like Donald Trump
will look at these great plans, look at our great military, which it is, look at their great capability, which we have, and not understand that these are not superhumans—that if we do something wrong, we will potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people, including some of our own troops, and potentially disrupt a good portion of the world’s economy for years to come.” And that’s considering only the early stages of battle and assuming the conflict doesn’t go nuclear.
“You’re basing policy and military action on hopes instead of on reality and sound reasoning,” Gallego said. “Does this sound familiar? For me it does, as somebody who ended up serving on the front lines of the Iraq War, where I was supposed to be greeted as a liberator. Instead I basically got shot at every day.”
Robert Neller, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, acknowledged the limitations of military plans during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “If [a U.S. conflict with North Korea] were to go down, I’m not now so sure it’s going to go down the way we planned. It never does,” he said.
As the World War I historian Margaret MacMillan told me not long ago, “Once you get into a countdown situation, once people begin to think of war as likely, then it becomes that much more likely”—whether as a result of deliberate decisions, tragic miscalculation, or mere mistake.