The Inevitability of Military Conflict

Most of the time I believe the “human condition is improving” side of the ledger trumps the “life is worsening” side.

Right now at least, after watching an excellent documentary about Egypt’s civil war, reading about Syria’s three-pronged civil war, and following the BBC’s up close coverage of the terror attack in Kenya, plus the one in Pakistan, I’m less certain of that.

The lesson of those conflicts and most others from the last 50 years is this: the victor’s brutality—whether in civil wars or international ones—sows the seeds of future conflicts. Devastated and humiliated, losers vow revenge; as a result, violence continues unabated.

“An eye for an eye,” Ghandi said, “makes the whole world blind.” No side ever truly wins a war because the underlying causes of the conflict—poverty, greed, ethnic hatred, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, desperation—are exacerbated by the military excesses of the seeming victors. Diplomacy loses, moderates are radicalized, children resolve to avenge their dead parents’ lives. What appears to be an absence of war is just an interlude in the back-and-forth between suicide bombers, anonymous drone missile strikes, and ground combat.

My government doesn’t appear to be learning the lessons of war. Our diplomatic efforts are not increasingly wise or effective. As evidence of that, despite representing 4% of the world’s population, we continue to account for 50% of the world’s military spending.

Our only hope may be running out of money. Someday maybe, we’ll realize we can’t rebuild our infrastructure, pay teachers adequately, provide affordable medical care, compete in the global economy, and invest more in our military while providing security for other governments (see Japan among others).

Like Conservative Republican Southern governors who are backtracking on mandatory prison sentence laws because they can’t afford their incarcerated populations, maybe the day is coming when the State Department will have to step up its game to compensate for a leaner military.

In the meantime, I don’t expect to see meaningful peace in Syria in my lifetime or democracy in Egypt. I hope I’m wrong and Isaiah is right. Chapter two, verse four:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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