The erroneous “missile threat” alert sent to thousands of Americans’ phones in Hawaii on Saturday probably would have been dismissed as an obvious mistake if received just months ago. In the current climate, however, with the president only recently comparing the size of his “nuclear button” with that of North Korea’s leader, the imminent danger of war feels terribly real. Across Hawaii, people sought shelter and searched the internet for tips on “how to survive nuclear” attacks as they waited 38 agonizing minutes for Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency to issue a correction. President Trump said nothing to assuage fears following the alert, and the tension caused by his bluster toward North Korea has now been felt viscerally by millions of Americans as experts warn of a “growing risk of unintended nuclear war with North Korea.”
These anxieties are reasonable, especially considering that Trump officials are still considering the use of limited military strikes against North Korean missile sites. Even as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urge caution and restraint toward North Korea, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has reportedly argued vocally that “military options need to be considered” to give North Korea a “bloody nose” and thereby prevent further belligerence. This argument was reinforced just last week by a provocative article in Foreign Policy, in which author Edward Luttwak claimed that the Air Force would be able to effectively eliminate North Korea’s nuclear facilities through a limited number of strikes. Even if such strikes were successful, however, a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula would likely spill over into a broader conflict—for which American society has not measured the costs.
In response to the escalating prospect of war, Pentagon leaders have begun to conduct necessary contingency planning for initial military action. A recent report by the New York Times outlined the extensive training already taking place, including mobilization and infiltration exercises by the 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. special operations forces, designed to simulate a foreign invasion. At the same time, reserve soldiers across the country will reportedly execute training to prepare for the potential of an emergency mobilization overseas.
As U.S. service members train for a potential ground war against North Korea, many policy analysts avoid vital questions about the repercussions of an expansive conflict. Experts and research institutions like the Congressional Research Service have been quick to point out the massive potential toll of North Korean retaliatory strikes, including for the many U.S. citizens immediately at risk—and the scale of a broader war would be devastating. And as Obama defense official Colin Kahl argues, “the notion that a war, once initiated, can be kept from spiraling out control is a dangerous fantasy.”
Even if a conflict with North Korea was limited to conventional warfare, war in Korea could have substantial effects for the average American—especially from the shock to the U.S. economy. The most severe consequences of war, however, would be felt by military and veteran communities across the United States. My time as an Army officer and as a researcher in the policy community has made me acutely aware of the unique struggles of these groups. In the Army, I served with soldiers and their families who persevered through five or six deployments over 16 years of war and often managed to reintegrate back home only to be ordered to prepare for their next mission overseas. Now as a policy researcher, I have explored in depth with my colleagues how isolated these communities have become from society, and how vulnerable to additional strain they would be in a major conflict.
By relying increasingly on this “warrior caste” to fill their ranks, the military is asking a smaller and less representative slice of Americans to bear the burden of war. When the military attempted to meet its targets at the height of the Iraq War without widely expanding its recruiting pool, it ran into some serious challenges. The need for people in the wake of a Korean war could likewise lead to a personnel crisis, requiring much more commitment from the American public. So far, Pentagon officials have shown no urgency to brace for large-scale mobilization beyond the service members already assigned to our reserve forces. War is undoubtedly the worst outcome for the standoff with North Korea, but initiating military action without effectively preparing the American people to share these costs would be even more disastrous.
Most immediately, even conventional combat in Korea would result in casualty levels not suffered since the Vietnam War and upend the U.S. military force structure abroad. A 2012 study by the Nautilus Institute estimated that North Korean artillery pieces on the demilitarized zone “could inflict some 64,000 fatalities in Seoul on the first day of war,” including “many of the roughly 154,000 American civilians and 28,000 U.S. service members living there.” Additionally, the need for troops and resources in Korea would radically reorient the American military presence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and could imperil the U.S. strategic position in the western Pacific. These shifts would also further exacerbate an emerging dilemma of military readiness: Training and maintenance are already suffering under Pentagon budget controls and the demanding pace of deployment cycles.
After fighting in Korea ends, the lasting toll of war would linger for decades in the veteran community. As evidenced by the enduring effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the long term medical costs of these conflicts often match or even exceed the initial military expenditures. The Costs of War study at Brown University noted that “future medical and disability costs” for the current wars “will total between $600 billion and $1 trillion.” The already burdened VA health system, now endeavoring to modernize and meet its existing challenges, would be completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of casualties from a Korean war.
North Korea’s November launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile opened a dangerous new chapter in relations with the rogue regime, by apparently putting most of the United States in range of a potential attack. By eschewing deterrence, with McMaster declaring last year that denuclearization was the “only acceptable objective” for the United States, the administration is reacting to this development by setting the country on a nearly inescapable path to war with North Korea.
Statements last year by defense leaders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary Mattis, indicate they recognize the enormous costs of such a war. Without presenting the long-term human and financial investments needed to take the country to war, however, they obscure the real dangers of a conflict from a society that is still disconnected from that reality. By edging closer to a military confrontation in North Korea without engaging with these realities, the administration is writing a check that the American people are not prepared to cash.