How do you solve a problem like North Korea? This is the song that Pentagon planners have been singing for decades now.
We’re told that there are plans to use a limited strike on a North Korean target that would send a message to the dictator that the U.S. isn’t playing around. A strike that would hopefully not develop into a full blown conflict. Hopefully. But last I checked, hope wasn’t a course of action.
Thankfully, from recent news reports, the Pentagon is not fond of what is being called the “bloody nose” option, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as limited conflicts between nation states.
Now, don’t get me wrong; have limited conflicts occurred before? Yes, of course. Actions in Afghanistan and Iraq could properly be considered as “limited,” albeit somewhat open-ended. Operations in Panama and Grenada would also fall into that category, since those countries could not mount a military threat that the U.S could not conceivably control.
Now, some might point to Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield as successful examples of military intervention in what could be considered a conventional war. But there’s a big difference between 1991 Iraq – which had been decimated by a ten year war with Iran and had terrain that was admirably suited for maneuver warfare – and North Korea, which is mountainous and has been preparing for war with South Korea and the U.S. since the end of the Korean War.
The myth of limited conflict is not new; it is tantalizing enough that nations have fallen for it over and over again throughout history. The most famous, of course, is the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to end the problem of a troublesome Serbia in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by declaring war on Serbia. The Balkans had long been a troubled hotspot of conflict, but these flare-ups were managed by the Great Powers and remained regional. Based on the failed belief that they could again limit the conflict, Austro-Hungary issued an ultimatum in July of 1914 that they knew would provoke Serbia to war. While they expected that small Serbia would mobilize, they didn’t expect that Serbia would then call on its much larger friend Russia for help. Which it did.
Russia then began mobilizing, so Austro-Hungary nervously asked Germany for help. Germany demanded that Russia cease and desist, Russia replied with a big ol’ middle finger, and suddenly this conflict wasn’t quite so regional. To make matters worse, when Germany asked France to remain neutral and France responded with a firm Gallic “non,” Germany decided to knock France out of the war quickly by going through neutral Belgium. Aaaaand that brought Great Britain rushing into the fight with all the rapidity of a sergeant major who spots troops walking across their grass. Hey presto, the “limited conflict” in the Balkans put all of Europe into war. And we know how great that turned out.
This idea of a limited conflict is predicated on the notion that the enemy doesn’t get to have a say and that we can predict the reactions of all actors in the region. Both of these assumptions are patently and dangerously false. And while conflagrations on the Korean peninsula between the North and South since the Korean War have historically been well-contained by both parties, nothing is to say that a strike by the U.S. would follow the same path. In all likelihood, in fact, it would be substantially different.
Thinking of conflicts in merely regional terms is to ignore how globalization and shifting trends of political and military power influence our actions and our opponent’s counteractions. Merely calling a crisis “regional” is farcical when most nation states can project power at a global level. We ignore the lessons of history at our own peril. And to do so during the centennial of World War I is particularly egregious.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover image: Italian casualties from a chemical attack in World War I.