According to a 9 October Essential Poll, 55 percent of Australians think it is likely or very likely that tensions between the US and North Korea will lead to war.
That’s an extraordinary figure. There is only one rational reason to be in a state of anything other than total despair about the prospect of a US-North Korea confrontation, and that’s if you think that the catastrophic consequences of such a war are so obvious that hostilities will never get beyond sabre rattling.
That’s not what most Australians think, if this poll is to be believed. They think war is likely. So why isn’t the country gripped by mass panic? Why aren’t there hundreds of thousands in the streets protesting for de-escalation and peace, demanding an end to a nuclear brinkmanship that could leave millions dead? Why aren’t Australians cancelling trips to Hawaii, Japan and other places that could be obliterated by a North Korean nuclear strike?
The most obvious explanation is that most people have no conception of what a war between North Korea and its US-led opponents would be like.
Rob Givens, a retired Air Force brigadier general, recently told the Los Angeles Times: “Too many Americans have the view that it would be like the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, or like combat operations in Libya or Syria, but it wouldn’t remotely resemble that”.
It is a depressing fact that Western publics will tolerate slaughters abroad if the victims are overwhelmingly on the other side. And North Korea would almost certainly suffer vastly more civilian and military casualties in a full-blown war. But unlike recent US wars in the Middle East, it wouldn’t be a one-sided slaughter.
When Bill Clinton was contemplating an attack on North Korea in the early 1990s, he was told by his military advisers that the estimated death toll from a war would be 1 million people, including hundreds of thousands in South Korea. The White House, despite a recent request from several members of the US Congress, has given no estimate for the casualties of a conventional war with North Korea today, but, given the weaponry now in the hands of both sides, the figure would likely be considerably higher.
According to Bill Powell, writing in Newsweek, the “thinking in the Pentagon is that it would be a four- to six-month conflict with high-intensity combat and many dead”.
And that is leaving aside the possibility of nuclear weapons being used. But the possibility that a serious military confrontation would go nuclear is very high.
James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told the Los Angeles Times: “We are closer to a nuclear exchange than we have been at any time in the world’s history with the single exception of the Cuban missile crisis”.
The US would probably win a conventional war – eventually. But it could not quickly eliminate North Korea’s conventional, chemical or nuclear weapons. Some estimates suggest that casualties from conventional artillery attacks on Seoul could be in the order of 20,000 per day. If the US could not quickly stem that, who would bet that president Trump would refrain from using the nuclear option?
The more likely that prospect seemed, or the more that even a conventional US war appeared to be attempting to overthrow Kim Jong-un’s regime, the more likely North Korea would be to use its nuclear weapons. This in turn would makes it more likely the US would strike first with its own nukes to take out North Korea’s capacity to destroy Tokyo, Guam, Honolulu or Seoul.
Such a nuclear conflict might not only kill millions of people, but would also be a transformative moment in world politics. Even if a war did not immediately escalate to involve a clash between the big imperial powers, the use of nuclear weapons would rip up decades of assumptions about military conflict and make living in almost every part of the world, including here, many times more dangerous.
The strange, surreal sense of security created by the fact the US and the USSR got through four decades of the cold war without wiping human life off the planet would be gone in an instant.
The Korean crisis has the potential to spiral into a regional and global catastrophe the like of which has not been seen since the Second World War. That is on the cards if a war that most Australians think is “likely” actually happens.
But the passive public response to this threat isn’t just a result of most people having little conception of the consequences of such a war.
It is also connected to a fatalism born of the complete lack of power most people have, and feel they have, over the direction of society. Catastrophic wars happen because of decisions people make, but the prospect of war can appear to most people little different than that of an asteroid hitting the earth – something in the hands of the gods.
Of course, that is true of many things aside from nuclear war. Last week, a report came out indicating that, in the last 27 years, the world’s insect population has collapsed by an astonishing 75 percent. George Monbiot argues that this (the result of capitalist farming methods) and the industrial scale destruction of the world’s oceans by commercial fishing are bigger threats than climate change to humanity making it through the 21st century.
As with the threat of nuclear war, there are people responsible. They have names and addresses. But challenging them can seem no different to challenging the gods who determine the trajectory of asteroids – although at least with the gods there is some hope they have a better nature, which a sacrifice or a prayer might awaken.
And challenging not just the individuals who make the decisions that determine the future of humanity, but the system that puts them in the position to make those decisions can seem like an impossible task.
But it’s not impossible. If it were, they wouldn’t bother with the vast propaganda apparatus that is the mainstream press. They wouldn’t pass endless legislation turning supposed democracies into police states in the name of counter-terrorism. They wouldn’t spend so much time turning people against each other to divert attention from the fact that the main enemy is those at the top, not poor refugees who board boats hoping to find freedom.
If it were impossible to challenge this system of war, death and destruction, they wouldn’t tell us so often and so insistently that there is nothing we can do.