Don’t worry, folks: Donald Trump won’t be able to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea on a whim. Despite the irresponsible clickbait journalism that you might see saying “nothing can stop him,” there’s a whole lot that can and will stop him. When you take all the following facts into account, you’ll see that it’s irrational to believe Trump will lose his shit and actually nuke North Korea simply because he wants to. You’d be believing something because you want to believe it.
And why would you choose to believe that our very top military brass, who are steeped not only in the theories and legalities of war but also years of philosophical study, would actually carry out the order to start a nuclear war at the unjustified whim of a 71-year-old lunatic who demands all his security briefings in pictures and won’t even take the time to spellcheck his tweets?
First off, a quick thought experiment to test how robotic and rigid you believe the military chain of command to be: The President orders a nuclear strike on London. The United Kingdom hasn’t attacked anyone. The President won’t say why he wants to do it. Do we nuke London?
If you said, “yes,” you’re either insane, violent, or clinging to something you know isn’t true simply because you want to win an argument against the author of this article. The author of this article has no interest in winning that argument. There’s no argument: In that scenario we wouldn’t nuke London.
If we can acknowledge this is obviously true, then we can see the President’s ability to launch a nuclear strike isn’t as absolute as we believe. The next step is to decide whether these checks would apply to carrying out a knee-jerk order Trump cannot or will not strategically or legally justify to pre-emptively strike North Korea. Such a strike would in the end lead to the deaths of untold millions of people, ultimately cause global ruin as well as end decades of American hegemony.
What do you think of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany? That would be Trump and us. For decades.
The answer is no, our military won’t do this just because Trump says to. Here is why, in three parts:
1. The Circumstances
2. The Chain of Command
3. The Consequences
There are two circumstances under which an order to strike would be given, commonly phrased as “the military wakes up Trump, or Trump wakes up the military.”
We’re concerned with the second here (Trump’s being mentally unstable and lashing out in fear or rage) but let’s look at both.
First: The military wakes up Trump.
If North Korea launched a nuclear strike, or if one were imminent, or even if war were imminent, then yes, it’s more likely Trump’s order to strike first would make it through the chain of command and be carried out. But in that case it wouldn’t be because of Trump (though yes, it would have originated from him), it’d really be because the order at some point got the stamp of the top military officers in the country. This of course wouldn’t be official, but, as you’ll see, it is how it will play out behind the scenes.
If you’re worried about Trump’s instability because orders for a nuclear strike are designed to be carried out within minutes, that applies to this scenario, not the second one. The chain of command is streamlined because we need to be able to immediately respond to a strike or imminent war or mass-casualty event. The second scenario, an unprompted strike, doesn’t require immediate execution, so that infamous split-second fast-track doesn’t apply.
Second circumstance: Trump wakes up the military.
The order is all Trump’s idea. This is the fear that Trump will have a breakdown, fly into a rage or manic episode, or, for the most extreme left-wing nuts out there, try to stop the Mueller investigation by ordering a nuclear strike.
In this scenario, he’d pull aside the aide-de-camp who carries the nuclear “football” and order him to hand over the codes, unprompted. “Why?” asks the aide.
“You don’t need to know,” Trump replies.
“No,” says the aide. “Why ask me to give you the codes? They’re on that card we gave you this and every other morning.”
(This is true and with Trump, comforting: The President gets a card with a bunch of codes on it — the “Gold Codes” — every morning. Some of the codes are nonsense, so every day the president has to memorize which are real. Good luck, sir.)
“Oh. Right. But open the football, because I’m calling the Pentagon and fixing North Korea today.”
“You don’t need to know,” Trump replies.
In no possible world does anyone involved, let alone Mattis or the head of the National Military Command Center, respond, “Well, you’re the boss!” then order millions of people killed for no reason at all, which would be, and I mean this literally, the worst thing anyone has done. At this point, remember that our military has an obligation to keep the country safe. They fight for our freedom and democracy and the rule of law. An unjustified pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea is the opposite of everything they believe in, the opposite of everything their friends and colleagues and Americans for generations have fought and died to protect. It would destroy the entire concept of America. So if you don’t trust these career officers not to carry out single largest act of evil in human history, you don’t understand anything about the military (This coming from a guy who puts Dr. Strangelove in his top five).
In any case, the point here is that neither scenario—but especially the second—is anything like Trump tapping “post” with his teeny-tiny wittow fumb. The nuclear football isn’t a “start” button, and for good reason. Trump needs a lot of help to launch a nuke, and if he orders one out of the blue it will draw even more people into the discussion. This isn’t like calling in Scavino to proofread the occasional tweet. And since we’re heading this direction anyway, let’s look at the chain of command for a nuclear launch.
It’s a common misconception that no one in the chain of command can stop an order to launch a nuclear strike once it’s given. This is absurd, because of course they can refuse an order. There are two ways to do this: Refusing to carry out an illegal order; or refusing to carry out a legal order, which is insubordination.
Let’s look at both.
First, these commanders have an obligation to the law: They can refuse any order from anyone if it’s illegal. This means that if Trump cannot explain the necessity to launch nukes, the legality of the order will be challenged. Members of the military, especially members of the military in such critical seats of power, are trained to reject illegal orders. An unprompted order from Trump to launch a nuclear strike and start a war, given without consulting advisers and without justification, would be challenged on legal grounds and halted. According to military law, “if an order is unlawful, the service member who receives the order has a duty first to seek clarification of the order and, if still unlawful, to disobey it.”
What are those grounds? International law, for one. The Geneva Convention. War crimes. Laws governing pre-emptive strikes, and other laws such as proportional response, necessity, and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Section 499 of the U.S. Army Field Manual says, “Every violation of the law of war is a war crime.” Even one of the aide-de-camps, who hold the football and are highly decorated and trusted officers, would likely challenge the order on legal grounds. They’ve all been trained in this, and if you think the U.S. military hasn’t prepared a dozen different ways to stop this scenario, you don’t know the military.
What about insubordination?
One general has already said publicly he’d resist an illegal nuclear strike order from Trump. This summer Defense Secretary Mattis bucked the chain of command at the first possible opportunity: Trump’s attempted trans ban. Mattis circulated a department-wide memo after Trump announced the decision that implored armed service members to “do the right thing.” In September he told transgender Americans they’re free to enlist in the armed services.
If that’s not a hint of where Mattis’s morals are, with chain of command or basic human decency, I don’t know what is.
So let’s say Mattis refuses the order and Trump fires him. Senior leadership would be alarmed. But maybe Trump just keeps firing people until he gets his way. There’d be a crisis in the defense department, and senior leadership—knowing the order wasn’t an emergency response—would pause it if for no other reason than doing it in the interest of national security. The media and Congress would find out within minutes, and Trump would more than likely be relieved of his powers immediately through the 25th amendment.
No matter what happens, though, understand that at this point Trump is toast. Minimum, he’ll be removed from office immediately. If the missiles launch, he’ll be impeached, arrested, tried and convicted for war crimes, and will justly die in jail.
These are people. Not robots. Not buttons. How could anyone be so naively cynical to believe these highly intelligent and experienced human beings, steeped not only in the theories and legalities of war but also years of philosophical and moral study, would actually cooperate with an order to kill millions of people at the unjustified whim of a 71-year-old lunatic having a mental breakdown or fit of rage? Are our commanders really that stupid and weak?
What would you do in their place, having all the responsibilities of their office and lives of the U.S. armed forces on their shoulders? Right. That’s what anyone would do. And why? Because of the consequences.
What would an unprompted, unjustified nuclear first strike look like?
Well, millions would die. Unless Trump launched a tactical strike, of course. But according to a Rand analysis, such a strike isn’t really an option. We don’t know for sure how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, and we aren’t certain where all of them are. They’re spread around the country, many deep underground, and a military campaign to destroy all of them might well take months. Reliable intelligence in North Korea is notoriously hard, even impossible, to get. We got caught off guard this year by their unexpectedly advanced nuclear program.
Even if we somehow knocked out all their nukes, we wouldn’t be able to get all their conventional weapons, and Seoul—35 miles from North Korean artillery on the border—would go up in flames. If we don’t take out that artillery, North Korea could kill hundreds of thousands and even up to a million people in Seoul (pop. 50 million) in the first four hours. If Trump’s strike takes out that artillery, he’d either have to nuke the South Korea border or do it conventionally in a follow-up attack, and endure the exact same losses from a conventional war. Tens of thousands of American citizens in and around Seoul, including military and diplomatic personnel, would also die. And if North Korea gets some of those nukes off, the total number of people killed will reach well into the millions.
Could we hit North Korea hard enough to eliminate their ability to retaliate? One answer: Wipe it off the map entirely. For about six million reasons too obvious to waste time on, this isn’t an option.
So now millions of people are dying and burning everywhere on the Korean peninsula. At this point Kim Jong-un (or if he’s killed, whoever’s in charge of anything there) has nothing left to lose, and he’ll go apocalyptic and throw whatever is left of his arsenal and one of the largest standing armies in the world into full-on slaughter mode.
South Korea is the eleventh-largest economy on Earth. Japan and China, just next door, are much larger. They’d endure the fallout, by the way.
Now we’re facing an incomprehensible humanitarian crisis. How do you get aid to all of these people, both to the fallout zones and to the starving and likely now lawless regions around the country? The North Korean people are already starving and poor. They don’t know about anything outside their country, and unimaginable hysteria will set in within hours. Millions of innocent people will die there independent of military action: They’ll die over weeks and months, even years, meeting some of the worst ends imaginable: starvation, disease, murder, and nuclear fallout poisoning.
Hey, perhaps North Korea even nukes Japan. Oh, that’s right: Japan, China, and South Korea also live in the region and have massive defense capabilities. They would not like to see a bomb, and we have no idea how China would react to a unilateral attack. They’re North Korea’s ally, and it would not support a unilateral nuclear attack from the U.S.
Now, though, let’s pull back: We’ve forced the international community to manage a failed state, a regionally destabilizing war, and a sickening humanitarian crisis. All in one of the most critical economic zones in the world. Global markets tank on news of the bomb. The subsequent devastation and uncertainty, especially in the powerhouse economies of East Asia, will shred the global economy. Donald Trump, as mentioned above, will probably be arrested for war crimes. America will fall in the eyes of the world. We’ll lose all authority. We’ll be ostracized and hit with sanctions. China will replace us as the global hegemon.
In short, Donald Trump, if he launched a nuclear strike just because he got angry, will have managed to be more evil than Hitler, and an unjustified unilateral nuclear strike would set an intolerable precedent for the world order.
Earlier this year, Senator Ted Lieu requested an analysis from the Joint Chiefs of Staff about how to disarm North Korea. They responded per BBC:
“The only way to ‘locate and destroy – with complete certainty – all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs’ is through a ground invasion,” [the letter read]. The risks involved included a potential nuclear counter-attack by North Korea while US forces attempted to disable its “deeply buried, underground facilities.”
In other words, a nuclear strike won’t prevent a nuclear response. It’s absolutely insane to believe that anyone at the Pentagon would find this worth the cost of preserving the chain of command.
But what if Trump trolls Kim Jong-un into launching first?
Don’t worry about Kim Jong-un. He’s a far more predictable leader than Donald Trump. Take heart that Kim won’t commit regime and personal suicide, and flush his family’s and nation’s decades-long sacrifices and sufferings down the toilet to fight for their dynasty’s existence because Donald Trump called him names.
Of the regime’s nuclear ambitions, “They have used nukes for 20 years to extract all kinds of things,” said Daniel Sneider, an East Asian studies expert at Stanford University. “The regime should have collapsed in the ’90s, when it spun into systemic failure and suffered a famine.”
In other words, North Korea, and Kim Jong-un, only want to guarantee their existence. North Korea doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons, because that’s suicide. It wants the nukes for the same reason that every country wants them: They offer the most assured form of military deterrence. They’re leverage. North Korea knows that if it launches any sort of attack, let alone a nuclear attack, it’s suicide.
Literally no one wants this war.
Trump talks about nuclear war like an insane person precisely because it’s the only powerful-seeming thing that he can get away with. Otherwise, we would see his North Korea policy for what it is: The exact same one as Obama’s. All Trump did was change the name from “strategic patience” so he could get his nimrod minions to laugh at Obama’s fatuous and wussy approach to a nuclear power. Then Trump followed that same approach. Trump’s words, then, mean absolutely nothing, and everyone knows it. Think about the ridiculous language North Korea uses to threaten us. We don’t believe it for a second. That’s exactly what Trump sounds like. Kim Jong-un won’t commit regime and personal suicide because he got called a name.
Trump isn’t trying to frighten Kim Jong-un. He’s trying to frighten his own people.
Why? Not because he’s trying to create some machiavellian distraction that in some fantasy world will somehow stop the Mueller investigation or keep him from getting impeached. If he can scare the American people, it reaffirms what he believes is his ultimate power and importance. In his mind, your fear reaffirms his self-deluded omnipotence. But he’s a eunuch.
Of course, counting on ineptitude to keep lives from being lost isn’t exactly reassuring, but it’s not Trump’s ineptitude that we’re counting on—it’s the proven fortitude of our institutions. We can’t lose faith in those institutions the way the Trump movement has. Our democracy depends on that faith. Don’t let Donald Trump of all people shape your worldview.
Which brings me to probably the most controversial part of this whole article: It’s ridiculous to believe that Trump would start a nuclear war because he decides he wants to. He might want to, but he’d never do it. And if he started losing his mind and rambling to aides in private about using nukes, he wouldn’t be in office long. Even if he did try, of course, it wouldn’t work.
Be wary, of course, but don’t be afraid. At least not until we order U.S. citizens to leave Seoul.