A Genuine Risk

The president won’t read it, but Vox has an important article called “Here’s What War with North Korea Would Look Like”:

For all the talk of nuclear exchanges and giant buttons, there has been little realistic discussion of what a war on the Korean Peninsula might mean, how it could escalate, what commitments would be required, and what sacrifices would be demanded.

So I’ve spent the past month posing those questions to more than a dozen former Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US military officers, and think tank experts, as well as to a retired South Korean general who spent his entire professional life preparing to fight the North. They’ve all said variants of the same thing: There is a genuine risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula that would involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions — plural — would die.

Even more frightening, most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting — not just as a desperate last resort….

War is inherently unpredictable: It’s possible Kim would use every type of weapon of mass destruction he possesses, and it’s possible he wouldn’t use any of them.

But many leading experts fear the worst. And if all of this sounds frightening, it should. A new war on the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t be as bad as you think. It would be much, much worse.

Since you’re not the president, you can read it here.


Isaac Asimov Meets the Terminator and Guess Who Wins

According to The Atlantic, the Pentagon is going to award $7.5 million for research on how to teach ethics to robots. The idea is that robots might (or will) one day be in situations that demand ethical decision-making. For example, if a robot is on a mission to deliver ammunition to troops on the battlefield but encounters a wounded soldier along the way, should the robot delay its mission in order to take the wounded soldier to safety? Or risk the deaths of the soldiers who need that ammunition?

Since philosophers are still arguing about what ethical rules we should follow, and ethical questions don’t always have correct answers anyway, futuristic battlefield robots may need a coin flipping module. That way they won’t come to a halt, emit clouds of smoke and announce “Does not compute!” over and over.

Of course, the talented software developers who program these robots with a sense of right and wrong will avoid really poor error processing like that (presumably, they’ll have seen Star Trek too, so they’ll know what situations to code for). The big question isn’t whether robots can eventually be programmed to make life-and-death decisions, but whether we should put robots in situations that require that kind of decision-making.


Fortunately, Pentagon policy currently prohibits letting robots decide who to kill. Human beings still have that responsibility. However, the Pentagon’s policy can be changed without the approval of the President, the Secretary of Defense or Congress. And although a U.N. official recently called for a moratorium on “lethal autonomous robotics”, it’s doubtful that even a temporary ban will be enacted. It’s even more doubtful that the world leader in military technology and the use thereof would honor such a ban if it were.

After all, most politicians will prefer putting robots at risk on the battlefield instead of men and women, even if that means the robots occasionally screw up and kill the wrong men, women and children. And, of course, once the politicians and generals think the robots are ready, they’ll find it much easier to unleash the (automated and autonomous) dogs of war.

(PS – The actual quote from Julius Caesar is “‘Cry Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”. Serves me right for trying to be a bit poetic.)

Sherman and Sheridan on War

General William Tecumseh Sherman is now famous for two things: “marching through Georgia” and his statement that “war is hell”. Sherman led 95,000 men into Georgia in the spring of 1864. A year later, having fought their way to the Atlantic Ocean and then north through South Carolina, Sherman and his troops were in North Carolina when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Later that month (after the assassination of President Lincoln), Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the Civil War was finally over.

From Wikipedia: “Sherman’s bold move of operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines is considered to be revolutionary in the annals of war….British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general'”.

Sherman’s goal was to end the war by destroying the South’s ability and desire to keep fighting, not by targeting the civilian population directly but by destroying as much crucial infrastructure as possible. From what I’ve read, he didn’t order the wholesale destruction of food supplies. Nevertheless, having his army “live off the land” had the same practical effect. Sherman understood the severity of his actions. This is from a letter he wrote to his wife In March 1864:

It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction…Daily for the last two months has the work progressed and I see no signs of a remission till one or both or all the armies are destroyed…I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash – and it may be well that we become so hardened [320].

In September, after ordering the evacuation of Atlanta, he responded to complaints:

My orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions, yea hundreds of millions, of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace not in in Atlanta but in all America. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride [339].

One of Sherman’s comrades, General Philip Sheridan, who led his own “scorched earth” campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, explained his actions this way:

The stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent action….I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavily with the most of mankind – heavier, often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life [327].

A century later, the Geneva Conventions were modified to include the following prohibition:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

For any other motive, including ending a war.

A brief note: Grant and Sherman thought highly of General Johnston, one of their Southern adversaries. After the war, the three were close friends, and Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. (The page references above are to The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.)

There is a great collection of quotes from Sherman here, including these extremely prescient remarks he is said to have made in Louisiana before the war:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. 

Ulysses S. Grant on Fear

Ulysses S. Grant, having been appointed to his first military command shortly after the Civil War began, was nervous. He was leading his troops toward what he believed to be the encampment of “Tom Harris and his 1200 secessionists”:

As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.

Then, at last being able to look into the valley, he saw signs that there had been a large camp below, but the secessionists had departed:

My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.

I really like this guy. I’m glad he was on our side.

A Different View of “Peace For Our Time”

The recent deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program evoked lots of references to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiating with Hitler in 1938. Chamberlain infamously came back from Munich, waved a “scrap of paper” and promised “peace for [not “in”] our time”. Germany immediately absorbed part of Czechoslovakia and eleven months later invaded Poland.

How could Chamberlain have been such a fool? If only he had stood up to Hitler! Was he a coward? What happened in Munich was appeasement at its worst.


As is often the case with famous or infamous historical events, the common view isn’t necessarily correct. Historians who suggest a new interpretation of the past are called “revisionists”. Sometimes they’re right, especially when their revisions are based on new evidence.

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the standard view of the Munich Agreement, but, according to this article at Salon:

… among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular,” explains David Dutton, a British historian who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “The evidence was so overwhelming,” he says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain “couldn’t do anything other than what he did” at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, “the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of Chamberlain.

The author suggests several reasons why, in his opinion, Chamberlain made the right decision: (1) most historians believe the British military wasn’t prepared for war with Germany in 1938; (2) Chamberlain’s military advisors told him that British forces couldn’t stop Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, but could eventually defeat Germany given time to prepare; (3) by 1938, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were no longer required to participate in a British war; (4) the Soviet Union was considered a potential enemy, not an ally; (5) America’s neutrality laws made it unlikely that America would join the fight; (6) although France was a likely major ally, British authorities had a very low opinion of France’s unstable government and the French military; (7) the British public, still traumatized by World War I, was strongly in favor of negotiation; (8) preserving the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia wasn’t seen as justification for war, partly because Czechoslovakia had only existed for 20 years and many ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia wanted to be part of a Germany; (9) the British generally believed that Hitler was similar to Mussolini, a fascist leader they knew, who was “more bravado than substance”.

The Munich agreement between the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy was greeted in Britain as a success: “cheering crowds filled the streets and the press rejoiced”. The French reaction was similar. When Germany took more of Czechoslovakia six months later, however, Chamberlain realized that war was inevitable, increased the pace of British rearmament and instituted Britain’s first peacetime draft.

Maybe Chamberlain and his supporters should have known better. After all, some of the British, as well as observers in other countries, correctly predicted that Hitler’s ultimate goal was the subjugation of Europe. We know the rest.

Still, it’s impossible to say whether Hitler would have been stopped sooner or more easily if Chamberlain (and the French president Daladier) had never made a deal in Munich. Nick Baumann, the author of the Salon article, concludes:

The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his people didn’t support?

At any rate, removing some economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the same as letting Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. 

By the way, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, the book I’ve been writing about recently, argues that we can learn nothing from history, since circumstances are always changing. In other words, history is bunk. But that’s consistent with his view that science is the only true path to knowledge. A more reasonable view is that there are recurring patterns in history, even if history doesn’t repeat itself. Looking back, it’s reasonable to conclude that negotiation is generally better than war.