The US is pursuing two contradictory strategies with North Korea and it could lead to nuclear war
This is often how armies function, as I remember from my own military service
by Slavoj Zizek
( January 3, 2018, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Since it opened in Berlin in 2015, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terror became a global hit, with hundreds of stagings all around the world, as well as an unending flow of ethical debates in mass media.
It is a court drama, the report of the trial against Lars Koch, a German fighter pilot who has shot down a Lufthansa plane that has been hijacked by a terrorist; the plane was heading for a stadium of 70,000 people (watching a Germany-England game), and Koch’s pragmatic decision – one in which he broke the constitutional law – was to end the lives of 164 people on the plane rather than allow the terrorist to slaughter a far greater number at the stadium.
At the end, the audience must vote: guilty or not guilty. Each spectator is provided with a small gadget with two buttons, 1 (guilty) or 2 (not guilty), and the audience learns its verdict. Predictably, the majority (at least in the Western theatres) proclaims Koch not guilty.
We are undoubtedly dealing with a genuine antinomy of moral reason (to use a Kantian turn) here: if we formulate the dilemma in this clear way, there simply is not an unambiguous solution. Any play with certainty and percentages – in the style of “If I am absolutely sure that by killing one man I will save at least 50, then…” – amounts to an obscenity.
However, our gut feeling that there is something deeply wrong and false with the choice staged by the play is fully justified: the choice is ideology at its purest, mainly because of what it leaves out in order to present a clear and simple picture.
Basically, we are addressed as individuals, confronted with a tough choice whose very clarity (shoot down the plane or not?) obfuscates all other relevant features. What about emptying the stadium (there was enough time); what about the geopolitical causes of such terrorist acts; what about our military interventions into Arab countries; what about our alliance with Saudi Arabia? Did we choose any of that, were we asked to choose any of that? Why do we feel all the pressure of the choice only when we confront a consequence of all these previous choices?
But there is another, more basic, feature of the play that we should address. Upon a closer look, it becomes clear that, when Koch chooses to shoot the plan down, he does not really make a unique existential decision but just follows the implicit social injunction.
His conversations with military superiors made it clear that they suppose he will shoot down the plane. They even implicitly put pressure on him to do it; they just don’t want to tell him to directly do it.
The situation reminds me of my recent stay in a hotel in Skopje, Macedonia: my companion inquired if smoking is permitted in our room, and the answer she got from the receptionist was unique: “Of course not, it is prohibited by the law. But you have ashtrays in the room, so this is not a problem.”
This was not the end of our surprises: when we entered the room, there was effectively a glass ashtray on the table, and on its bottom there was an image painted, a cigarette over which there was a large circle with a diagonal line across it designating prohibition. “No smoking”, written on an ashtray.
So this was not the usual game one encounters in tolerant hotels where they whisper to you discreetly that, although it is officially prohibited, you can do it carefully, standing by an open window or something like that. The contradiction (between prohibition and permission) was openly assumed and thereby cancelled, treated as inexistent – in other words, the message was: “It’s prohibited, and here is how you do it.”
Was Koch’s situation not exactly the same? The repeated message from his superiors was: “It’s prohibited by the law – and do it!”
This is how armies function. I remember a similar incident from my military service. One morning, in our first class of the day, the officer running the session mentioned that it is prohibited to shoot at parachuters while they are still in the air, i.e. before they touch ground. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachuter in the air (how, while aiming at it, one should take into account the velocity of his descent and the direction and strength of the wind, and so on).
When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we learned just an hour before (the prohibition to shoot at parachuters), the officer just snapped back with cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?”
Recall also the debates on torture – was the stance of the US authorities not something like: “Torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a water-boarding”?
One should note here that, in the case of the nuclear war, the popular imagination is haunted by the opposite constellation: that of a single officer who resists the command to press the button and thus saves the world.
Recall a frightening detail from the Cuban missile crisis: only later did we learn how close to nuclear war we were during a naval skirmish between an American destroyer and a Soviet B-59 submarine off Cuba on 27 October 1962. The destroyer dropped depth charges near the submarine to try to force it to surface, not knowing it had a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Vadim Orlov, a member of the submarine crew, told the conference in Havana that the submarine was authorised to fire it if three officers agreed. The officers began a fierce shouting debate over whether to sink the ship. Two of them said yes and the other said no.
“A guy named Arkhipov saved the world,” was the bitter comment of a historian on this accident. Do we not all silently count on something similar in the heated exchange between the US, North Korea and others – that, at a decisive moment, a single individual will find strength to cut short the mad circle of nuclear threats and counter-threats?
The fact that we tend again to put our hopes on a single individual demonstrates the madness of the entire situation. We can imagine a series of choices along the lines of von Schirach’s play: if a North Korean missile on its way to Guam falls apart, should the US respond, and how?
But what we should always bear in mind is the madness of the entire situation: while we are all threatened by ecological catastrophes, we continue to play the games of self-destruction. The decisions our leaders consider are not on the scale of “How many innocent people am I allowed to kill to save many more?” but: “How many millions of innocent bystanders am I ready to kill, directly and indirectly, in order to strike back at the enemy?” This is what they are really talking about when they evoke the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear conflict: millions and millions will die, but, somehow, we will have to do it and strike back.
What further complicates the image is that, if one listens to Kim Jong-un when he talks about dealing a devastating blow to the US, one cannot but wonder where he sees his own position. He talks as if he not aware that his country, himself included, will be destroyed; he talks as if he is playing a fantasy game.
So is he bluffing? If the basic underlying axiom of the Cold War was the axiom of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the axiom of today’s nuclear games seems to be the opposite one, that of NUTS (Nuclear Utilisation Target Selection): the idea that, by means of a surgical strike, one can destroy the enemy’s nuclear capacities while the anti-missile shield is protecting us from a counter-strike.
More precisely, the US adopts a differential strategy: it acts as if it continues to trust the MAD logic in its relations with Russia and China, while it is tempted to practice NUTS with Iran and North Korea.
The paradoxical mechanism of MAD inverts the logic of the “self-realising prophecy” into a “self-stultifying intention”: the very fact that each side can be sure that, in the case it decides to launch a nuclear attack on the other side, the other side will respond with full destructive force, guarantees that no side will start a war.
The logic of NUTS is, on the contrary, that the enemy can be forced to disarm if it is assured that we can strike at him without risking a counter-attack. The very fact that two directly contradictory strategies are mobilised simultaneously by the same superpower bears witness to the deluded character of this entire reasoning.
The only thing we can do in such a situation is to directly criminalise any talk about the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Leaders and states who even consider it should be treated as pariahs, as obscene subhuman monsters. Anything should be permitted against them, from mass boycott to personal humiliation.