Developing the negatives when photographing war.
Estimating the massive numbers of future deaths in a hypothetical war is a routine part of military planning. Thanks to recently declassified documents we now know, for example, that back in 1994, evaluating the possibility of a war with North Korea, “the Pentagon estimated that some 490,000 South Korean service members and 52,000 US personnel would be killed or wounded in the first three months of any conflict.”
The secretary of defense at the time, William Perry, was nevertheless confident that “with the combined forces of the ROK [Republic of Korea] and US, we can undoubtedly win the war.” With only 542,000 deaths and casualties in the first three month of the war for our side and no figure for the North Koreans, the fact that we would “undoubtedly” win the war could only be reassuring. And why for anyone who knows anything about modern overseas wars should any conflict last longer than three months, after all?
That’s why, in the same context four years later, in 1998, Perry, who had resigned after the 1996 election, explained to the North Koreans that “as a former defense secretary, I am well aware of the negative aspects of war, and will do my best to avoid war.”
This leads us to search for the definition of negative as it is used in the discourse of professional politicians and diplomats.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Defines things that are unthinkably immoral, inhumane, cruel and unjust, but worth taking into account when elaborating foreign policy
Nearly 20 years later, Perry has returned to his commitment to do his “best to avoid war.” He is now urging “a renewed effort at diplomacy … to lower the likelihood of war.” But if a war were to occur, it would, according to Perry, “entail casualties approximating those of World War I or even World War II.” This time around he apparently hasn’t had access to the Pentagon computers to estimate exactly how many hundreds or tens of thousands would be sacrificed on each side. But he does still seem to be “aware of the negative aspects of war.”
The precedent of the Korean War in the 1950s provided the best reason for Perry to be confident that the US would win the war after massive destruction. As one commentator on the history of the conflict put it: “The Korean War, a ‘limited war’ for the US and UN forces, was for Koreans a total war.” The level of destruction rivaled that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “When the fighting stopped in the summer of 1953, the entire Korean peninsula lay in utter ruin.” That’s what happens when you drop 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm on a small nation and kill an estimated 12 to 15% of the population.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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