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Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives

“What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other…”

The Free Press WV

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another?and the world?with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States.  In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology.  The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers. 

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States.  Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all.  Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion.  Responding on August 08 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles?a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s.  In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff.  Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward).  A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label.  According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version:  nuclear “Chicken.”  He wrote:  “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.”  But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.”  Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.”  When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war.  However, at the last minute, both men backed off?or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision?and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments.  The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders.  Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States.  The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north.  Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men?  Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature?much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.”  Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully.  That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them.  And so the fundamental problem continues:  As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September.  Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated.  Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

Trump’s Threats

“The problem with Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on North Korea isn’t merely that it intensifies an already tense situation…”

The Free Press WV

The problem with Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on North Korea isn’t merely that it intensifies an already tense situation. Nor is it just another example of Trump’s inappropriate, childish language when faced with a complex issue.

Most worrisome is that he seems to have no grasp of how his remarks might play out in real-world international politics. Trying to one-up the North Koreans with threats may give Trump the false sense that he is besting them, since he believes—as always, from his business experience—threats work. But he has no awareness of how threats are received in Pyongyang, not to mention in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and other capitals. Trump’s language does nothing to move the nuclear issue toward dialogue, but does much to further envenom relations with North Korea and to support the widespread view elsewhere that the president of the US is unstable and prone to violent actions.

In the past Trump has said of North Korea that attacking it sooner rather than later is the best way to resolve the nuclear issue. Bill Clinton disproved that in 1994 by rejecting an attack on North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon and instead entering into an Agreed Framework with Pyongyang that prevented war. Does Trump still hold to that view? Numerous specialists, and Trump’s own defense department leadership, have concluded that war would be catastrophic, with immediate one million deaths and economic costs of around $1 trillion. Needless to say, Koreans north and south, Japanese, and Chinese would pay the heaviest price for such madness.

But Trump, with his well-known ignorance about nuclear weapons, seems blissfully unaware of such matters. He would rather talk about “fake news,” attack critics, lie about his accomplishments, and keep pushing a domestic agenda that has gotten nowhere. Nuclear weapons, Korean history, North Korean motivations, and the art of diplomacy are outside his area of interest, and to say he is not a fast study is to be overly polite.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to questions about Trump’s latest threat by saying “Americans should sleep well at night,” dismissing the threat as “rhetoric.” Given the drumbeat of war that the media has engaged in over North Korea’s missiles, I doubt that many informed Americans are sleeping well. I doubt that US military leaders in particular are sleeping well; they have an inexperienced, unpredictable commander-in-chief who just might issue an order to attack North Korea. And most assuredly South Koreans and Japanese are not sleeping well. Warlike rhetoric from the US president can never be dismissed.

In a word, President Trump is a loose cannon, a serious threat to national and international security.

Mel Gurtov,  is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Terrorism for Profit

“Donald Trump stands cluelessly at the edge of history, exemplifying everything wrong with the past, oh, 10,000 years or so…”

The Free Press WV

Donald Trump stands cluelessly at the edge of history, exemplifying everything wrong with the past, oh, 10,000 years or so.

The necessity for fundamental change in humanity’s global organization is not only profound, but urgent.

Trump’s latest outburst about North Korea’s nukes — threatening that country “with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before” — creates a comic book Armageddon scenario in the media, except, of course, his power to launch a nuclear war on impulse is real.

What this makes clear to me is that no one should have the authority — the power — to declare any war whatsoever. The fact that this is still possible, so many decades into human awareness of war’s utter insanity, reveals the paradox that civilization remains economically tied to its own destruction.

Another icon of this paradox is Erik Prince, immensely wealthy mercenary, notorious founder of the terror organization Blackwater, who had cozy ties to the Bush administration back when the 21st century’s endless wars were just getting underway and now, with another unelected Republican in the White House, has recently made a grab at the business opportunity still represented by these wars:

Let’s privatize the quagmire!

Sixteen years on, the war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, and presently in a state of “stalemate,” according to the mainstream consensus that unquestioningly justifies this country’s ongoing militarism. For instance: “The U.S. can’t win but can’t afford to lose,” USA Today opined in a recent editorial about Afghanistan, inanely demanding that Trump “at least should decide what to do next” and setting the stage for Prince’s business plan, which is to restructure and privatize the war.

In an op-ed a few days ago in that same publication, Prince wrote: “The option to simply abandon Afghanistan is enticing but in the long run would be a foreign policy disaster. The Kabul government would collapse. Afghanistan would be a rallying cry for global jihadists.”

And suddenly there it was, the American paradox in full splendor: Oh yeah, we’re fighting terrorists. We have to keep killing people, keep pouring trillions of dollars into our wars, because bad people are out there threatening us because they hate our freedoms. And the guy reminding us of this is the founder of Blackwater, private contractor in Iraq, whose mercenaries were responsible for one of the most shocking acts of lethal aggression — a.k.a., terrorism — of the early years of that war.

Blackwater contractors were accused of “firing wildly into cars stalled in midafternoon traffic at Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007, pouring machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds, including women clutching only purses and children holding their hands in the air,” as the Washington Post reminded us recently.

This act of carnage, in which 17 Iraqis were killed and 20 more injured, typifies what you might call American terrorism. It may, at some quasi-conscious level be religiously motivated. Indeed, Jeremy Scahill, reporting in 2009 for The Nation on the lawsuit filed on behalf of Iraqis harmed in the Nisour Square massacre, wrote that, according to a former Blackwater employee who testified in U.S. federal court during the trial:

“Prince ‘views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,’ and . . . Prince’s companies ‘encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.’ . . .

Furthermore, Scahill wrote,
“Mr. Prince’s executives would openly speak about going over to Iraq to ‘lay hajiis out on cardboard.’ Going to Iraq to shoot and kill Iraqis was viewed as a sport or game. Mr. Prince’s employees openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as ‘ragheads’ or ‘hajiis.’”

This all fits quite horrifically into the definition of jihadism, or terrorism, but because it’s American, it brings something extra to the table as well. This is terrorism for profit. And it’s been going on for a long time, in a realm far bigger than that occupied by Erik Prince’s business interests. You could call it colonialism, or the domination complex. The world is ours. This is the “greatness” Trump sold to enough Americans to squeeze into the Oval Office.

Not only does he have no patience with a military stalemate in Afghanistan — “we aren’t winning, we’re losing” — but he can’t stand the fact that the shattered country’s mineral wealth isn’t in our hands.

At a recent, well-publicized meeting with his generals, Trump “lamented that China is making money off of Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in rare minerals while American troops are fighting the war,” according to NBC News. “Trump expressed frustration that his advisers tasked with figuring out how the U.S. can help American businesses get rights to those minerals were moving too slowly, one official said. . . .

“The focus on the minerals was reminiscent of Trump’s comments early into his presidency when he lamented that the U.S. didn’t take Iraq’s oil when the majority of forces departed the country in 2011.”

Trump leads a political system that’s still grounded in the colonial era. His reckless arrogance is its global face. He stares at the audacity of nuclear-armed North Korea and threatens to blow it to kingdom come, imagining that there will be profit to reap in the aftermath.

Robert Koehler, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Are we Egypt?

“When the world watched Egyptians bravely gather en masse in Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011 to Arab Spring Hosni Mubarak out of office…”

The Free Press WV

When the world watched Egyptians bravely gather en masse in Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011 to Arab Spring Hosni Mubarak out of office, we were mightily impressed and most of us cheered the nonviolent resistance.

The western press lionized the Egyptian military as it seemed to support the uprising and the generals kindly offered to run the country on an interim basis. Sure enough, there was an election eventually, Mohammed Morsi won, and the military handed over power.
For a minute.

Then we saw the military not-so-kindly grab power, ousting the elected Morsi and General Sisi ordered mass arrests and torture of dissident pro-democracy Egyptian activists.

Now, a few short years since the US calmly watched democracy betrayed badly by the Egyptian military, the US press is valorizing the military officers who are starting to snap some discipline into the most chaotic, dysfunctional, investigated White House this senior citizen has ever observed, at least since the months leading up to Richard ‘I am not a crook’ Nixon’s resignation.
Be careful.

Falling all over ourselves in gratitude because a Marine general imposes some order in the executive branch may benefit the racially biased, anti-immigrant, pro-military agenda of the range of rightwing members of Congress, but that new efficiency is not going to result in the policy changes most Americans want nor those which protect the healthy water and air we all need.

From H.R. McMaster (National Security Adviser), to John Kelly (Chief of Staff) to James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) to Joseph Dunford—all generals—Trump is ceding power to those who know how to seize it. Generals now head his staff in the White House.

In short, handing over the keys to the democratic system to the military might seem like a safe path toward stability, but it failed miserably for the Egyptians and even in our disrupted state we should not seek to hitch our lines to the ones who do not practice democracy, who have a mission to control by threat of destruction, and who practice a dominating form of rule, not a democratic form of governance.

None of these generals is a Dwight Eisenhower, all are dedicated to the Trump agenda—ramping up global climate chaos, sowing race hate and violence, targeting refugees and immigrants fleeing from wars we supply arms to wage, rolling back civil rights, being cozy with the likes of autocrats Putin, Duterte, and yes, General al-Sisi, while scorning democratic humane clean energy leaders like Merkel. Be ye advised.

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