CNN: A war with North Korea would be hell: Millions could die

December 1, 2017
Opinion: Op-Eds

(CNN)"War is hell."

That's what Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the wake of the Civil War and it's as true today as it was then. Unfortunately, as veterans, we have little confidence that President Trump has taken Sherman's admonition to heart and this lack of understanding about the true nature of combat is alarming, especially in light of North Korea's latest ballistic missile test.

Trump's fiery words and ham-handed attempts at diplomacy have significantly increased the probability of a bloody war on the Korean Peninsula while doing little to slow the progress of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's nuclear program. Simply put, the President owes it to our allies in the region and our troops on the ground to adopt a smarter approach.  

In recent months, President Trump has responded to North Korean missile tests with a barrage of increasingly reckless and incendiary statements, claiming that the regime's leaders "only understand one thing!" and threatening that, "They won't be around much longer!" Moreover, his hardline speech in Seoul last month and the childish insults he aimed at Kim Jong-un on Twitter in recent weeks have only served to raise tensions.

Alarmed by the President's comments and the prospect of imminent war with North Korea, we asked the Department of Defense in October for an estimate of the human and military costs of such a conflict. The response was chilling.

In a letter sent last month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed us that, should hostilities erupt on the Korea peninsula, a ground invasion of North Korea would be necessary in order to locate and destroy its nuclear sites. They also noted that Seoul and its 25 million residents are only 35 miles from the border and well within range of North Korean artillery, rockets, and ballistic missiles.

The former deputy commander of US Forces Korea, Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, also wrote to us to convey his concerns and cautioned that these weapons would take days to eliminate, during which time "an enormous casualty and refugee crisis will develop and include over a hundred thousand non-combatant Americans."

In short, a Korean War II would be bloody. According to a Congressional Research Service report, in just the first few days of fighting, as many as 300,000 people could perish. Indeed, even if North Korea elected only to use conventional weapons, American troops would die in large numbers alongside South Korean forces and masses of innocent civilians.

North Korea could also opt to employ its unconventional arsenal to devastating effect. The Joint Chiefs warn that there is strong reason to suspect that North Korea would choose to make use of its stocks of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in a conflict. And though neither China nor Russia wants war in Korea, any fight there has the potential to spin dangerously out of control into a global disaster. The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins has estimated dire consequences: "if the 'unthinkable' happened, nuclear detonations over Seoul and Tokyo with North Korea's current estimated weapon yields could result in as many as 2.1 million fatalities and 7.7 million injuries."

As veterans, we understand that it is sometimes necessary for our country to go to war to defend our friends and our freedom. But as Americans, we must always go to war reluctantly, and only as a last resort. Simply put, when we send our young men and women in uniform into combat and possibly to their deaths, it must be because there are no better options. And in North Korea, better options exist.

Congress has already sanctioned North Korea and measures associated with its new status as a state sponsor of terrorism will also begin to take hold over time. In addition, the Trump administration should identify and clearly communicate a set of escalating, non-military consequences, including renewed propaganda efforts aimed at the beleaguered North Korean people, that Kim Jong Un's regime will face unless it returns to the negotiating table.

We also need to invest more in missile defense. Significant advances in directed energy technology hold promise for systems that can better shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. Finally, Congress must thwart any march to war by demanding that the administration pursue every possible diplomatic avenue to mitigate this crisis.

One of the main reasons we ran for Congress as proud veterans was to prevent more young Americans from dying on foreign battlefields because of the mistakes of our nation's political leaders. In confronting the growing threat posed by North Korea, the American people and our military deserve an administration committed to exhausting all options before resorting to military force.