The big story today is Trump’s threat to North Korea about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any aggression against the U.S. and its allies. The world witnessed American “fire and fury” in August of 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs (indeed, today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing). Roughly 250,000 people were killed in those two bombings, and Trump is apparently promising a worst form of fury against North Korea (“like the world has never seen”).
Back in October 2016, I wrote a piece at this site with the title: “On nuclear weapons, Trump is nightmarishly scary,” and that nightmare is beginning to take shape. As I wrote back then, Trump’s worst attribute is his “sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.” I further wrote that:
Back in March … Trump boasted at a debate that the US military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality. In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.
Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it. Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.
A man of Trump’s vanity and impetuosity — a man of raging grievances who lives in his own reality of alternative facts — is hardly a reassuring figure to have at the top of America’s “fire and fury” nuclear arsenal. Is it all just bluster? It’s impossible to know, and that’s truly the scary part.
All this fire and fury, even if it remains only bluster, should teach the world a critical lesson: the necessity of nuclear disarmament. Holding millions of people hostage to nuclear terror (as we’ve been doing since the Cold War) has long been immoral, inhumane, and unconscionable.
Instead of making nightmarish threats, a sober and mature US president might actually lead the world in serious efforts to reduce and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons. That would be real moral leadership, That would be real guts.
Trump’s easy boasts of “fire and fury” do signify something vital — the need for global nuclear disarmament, no matter how long it takes.
Update (8/10/17): There’s been a lot of talk, more or less sensible, that Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. That it will not become reality because North Korean leaders are sensible and rational actors, and that US leaders like Tillerson and Mattis provide a counterbalance to Trump. Well, maybe. But escalatory rhetoric can become reality, i.e. it serves to exacerbate tensions that can lead to miscalculation and war.
Think of North Korea’s latest threat to shoot missiles in the direction of Guam. If that threat is carried out, a US attack on North Korean missile sites is quite likely, and where that would lead is impossible to say.
Reckless rhetoric is not harmless; words can and do box nations as well as people in, often leading to unexpected actions. Just think of hateful words flung by people in domestic disputes that escalate into something far worse. Rationality does not always win out.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.