I can still recall the different kind of fire drills we would occasionally have when I was a second- or third-grade student. Our principal would announce that we were to practice what we were supposed to do if a nuclear bomb was exploded in our neighborhood. Actually, the “in our neighborhood” part wasn’t part of the script. The principal never expressly stated where the bomb blast would have been. At the time, I assumed she meant New York City. (I lived in a suburb, just outside the city limits.)
Anyway, we would then all be instructed to crawl under our little desks and to put our hands over our ears and to close our eyes. We were told that there would be a sudden very bright light in the sky, and that we must not look at that light, but must, instead, stay curled up under our desks until we were told we could return to our seats. I assume these drills were mandated by either a state law or by the local school board (probably the latter) in an abundance of caution and ignorance. Did they really think these drills would have any practical utility in the event of a real nuclear attack? I suppose they did, much as the strong suggestion to build bomb shelters (my dad briefly considered having one constructed in our back yard) was viewed as a rational way to deal with the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Somewhat comparable to those silly precautions are the instructions all airlines provide for emergency water landings in the event of mid-flight disasters. With apologies to Sully (US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger), if you’re on a flight that is going down in an unplanned landing in the middle of an ocean, the appropriate preparation should be to meet your maker (whomever you happen to believe that entity to be). But even a crash landing at sea doesn’t come close to the chance of survival that exists in a nuclear bomb blast. The chances in the former are infinitesimal; those in the latter are non-existent.
All of which is prelude to the current fear that has been generated by the potential threat (if not the current real capability) of North Korea to hit the west coast of the United States with a nuclear bomb. Reports are unclear (U.S. intelligence is uncertain) as to whether North Korea already has an ICBM missile that could reach the U.S. mainland and whether the North Koreans have the technological ability to arm such a missile with a nuclear warhead. As recently as a year ago, that capability was felt to be at least five years away. But now, with both missile and bomb tests occurring almost on a monthly schedule, the alarms have been sounding.
In the face of this threat, some Americans are getting scared; others are paying closer attention; and then, of course, there are those who are clamoring for a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang, thereby, presumably, decapitating the current regime before its crazed leader, Kim Jong-un, has a chance to flatten San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle or maybe even Sacramento). President Trump last month indicated a willingness to adopt that approach with his “fire and fury” bombast, but whether it has become a formal U.S. strategy is far from clear. Mr. Kim has certainly tested it, with further missile and bomb tests in the weeks since Trump’s ad lib.
Meanwhile, the president is reported to be closing in on a decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, thereby putting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran back in play. Presumably, another “fire and fury” warning might be levied at that theocratic regime as well. Admittedly, the real threat from Iran would be less immediate than the one from North Korea, but both would be destabilizing at the least, even if the kind of bomb drills I experienced in my elementary school years would not be resurrected.
We have learned a lot since those early years of the Cold War, when Mutually Assured Destruction became the safeguard against, um, mutually assured destruction. And one of the main things we have presumably learned is that nuclear war is not a viable military strategy for any country. We have long since passed the time when thoughts of containing such a war are realistic. Once the bombs start detonating, human civilization is lost. Too many countries (at least nine currently) have nuclear arsenals and those harbored by the U.S. and Russia are still sizeable enough to destroy human existence many times over.
And for North Korea and Iran, an attack on the U.S. (or on a U.S. ally) would certainly be a suicidal act, as it would be met with a literal “fire and fury” of a response that would end the lives of the leaders of those states and millions of their citizens as well.
So, what are those countries after if not to wage aggressive wars against the United States and its interests? Simply stated, the answer is probably nothing more than security and leverage. Both want to feel secure against aggression from their perceived enemies (the U.S. and South Korea for North Korea; Israel and the U.S. for Iran), and both want to be able to foment unrest by sponsoring terrorist actors against their enemies (as they are wont to do, and are doing, currently). Both also might want leverage to demand relief from sanctions that are hurting their economies, and both might want leverage to gain economic assistance as well (North Korea more definitely on that last point).
And, looking at it from the perspective of those regimes, the logic is pretty solid. Iran and North Korea are not about to be the recipients of U.S. largesse so long as their leaders maintain the ideological identities and military postures they currently have. Iran is a fundamentalist Muslim nation that hates the West generally and Israel in particular. North Korea is a socialist state that still clings to its Marxist ideology, and it views the West with disdain (a holdover from the Korean War, which has never really ended – the decades long “truce,” epitomized by the DMZ at the 38th parallel, is all that stands between renewed fighting).
But, if both countries are hell-bent on developing nuclear arsenals, and if North Korea is on the verge of having a missile that can carry and deliver a hydrogen bomb (with Iran, presumably, not far behind if Trump does terminate the nuclear deal), then what are the world’s civilized societies, which are at risk of annihilation if the exchange of bombs takes place, to do?
Fire and fury is clearly not the answer, unless the potential loss of millions of innocent lives and the risk of our very civilization is an acceptable ransom.