And so we return to the Korean War, when North Korea was carpet-bombed to the edge of existence. The American media doesn’t have a memory that stretches quite so far back, at least not under present circumstances. One commentator at MSNBC recently explained, for instance, that the tiny pariah nation “has been preparing for war for 63 years.”
That would be since, uh, 1954, the year after the war ended. But the war wasn’t mentioned. It never is. Doing so would disrupt the consensus attitude that Kim Jong-Un is a nuclear-armed crazy and that North Korea’s hatred of the United States is just… hatred, dark and bitter, the kind of rancor you’d expect from a communist dictatorship and certified member of the Axis of Evil.
And now Donald Trump is taunting the crazy guy, disrupting the U.S.-maintained normalcy of global relations and putting this country at risk. And that’s almost always the focus: not the use of nuclear weapons, per se, but the possibility that a North Korean nuke could reach the United States, as though American lives and “national security” mattered more than, or were separate from, the safety of the whole planet.
Indeed, the concept of national security justifies pretty much every action, however destructive and horrifically consequential in the long term. The concept justifies armed short-sightedness, which equals militarism. Apparently, protecting national security also means forgetting the Korean War, or never facing the reality of what we did to North Korea from 1950 to 1953.
But as Trump plays war in his own special way, the time to explore this media memory void is now.
Specifically, “the U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm, an incendiary liquid that can clear forested areas and cause devastating burns to human skin,” Tom O’Connor wrote recently in Newsweek. This is more bomb tonnage than the U.S. dropped in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He quoted historian Bruce Cumings: “Most Americans are completely unaware that we destroyed more cities in the North then we did in Japan or Germany during World War II.”
And so we start to open the wound of this war, in which possibly as many as 3 million North Koreans died, a number that would have been even higher had Gen. Douglas MacArthur gotten his way. He proposed nuclear holocaust in the name of national security, figuring he could win the war in 10 days.
“For the Americans, strategic bombing made perfect sense, giving advantage to American technological prowess against the enemy’s numerical superiority,” historian Charles K. Armstrong wrote for the Asia Pacific Journal.
“But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression. The (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) government never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American air attack, and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated.”
Why is this reality not part of the current news? In what way is American safety furthered by such willful ignorance?
And so we remain caged in military thinking and the need to win, rather than understand. But as long as we feel no need to understand North Korea, we don’t have to bother trying to understand ourselves. Or face what we have done