The War Nerd: North Korea, Wish Mao Were Here
“Even if…atom bombs were so powerful that…they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.” -
Thanks to the Kim family, the Cold War came back this week like an old colonial’s malaria. North Korea started the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and every “pundit” in DC joined the chorus--an old and tired lingo full of conditionals, what “might” or “could” happen. Even the words these people use for themselves stink like mouldy mid-20th century newspapers, like “pundit”—a British colonial term from the Raj for Hindu priests, extended in that lazy retired-colonel way to anybody who claims to know something you don’t know.
The pundits fifty years ago blithered about nukes, and they’re blithering again on the same topic. There’s a religious tone to their chatter, because nukes are like the unbeliever’s version of sin and Hell rolled into one, the place we’ll go if we’re very, very bad.
It makes me tired. I had to live through decades of this, and it was like so many “almost” fights I saw in P.E. in high school, two guys who didn’t want to fight and weren’t gonna fight, telling each other how bad they were gonna fuck each other up. The only cure for all this noise is Mao.
Good ol’ Mao, we never appreciated him like he deserved. He cut right through all that noise. Mao diagnosed our current problem fifty years ago: “We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well.” Even the people we call extreme think small. The Iraq invasion was a classic example of extreme tactics stuffed into a tiny, tinker-toy strategy, with no goals bigger than shuffling the local oligarchy.
Mao thought big. Compare Bush’s “bring it on” with Mao’s cheerful quote about the destruction of the earth. Bush was issuing a very small-time challenge to local insurgents armed with nothing but AKs, RPGs and old artillery shells—and even that turned out to be more than he could handle. He ended up in home-care in Dallas, painting little pictures of puppies and kittens with a full-time aide to wipe the corners of his mouth.
Mao said “bring it on” to 1950s USA, back when we were truly powerful, with a full complement of city-killer H-bombs. In November 1952, almost a year before the Korean Armistice, the US tested a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb in the Pacific.
To see what a bomb like that could have done to China’s cities, just install Alex Wellerstein’s very cool Nukemap app and set it for “Beijing.” Then find the setting for “Ivy Mike,” the bomb tested by the US in 1952, and you’ll see the city neatly inside the key blue circle, like The Reaper himself took a compass and jabbed the point into Mao’s house. If you really want to see what Mao was calling a “paper tiger,” change the setting to “Castle Bravo,” the much bigger hydrogen bomb the US tested on Bikini Atoll in 1954. And remember, after Stalin’s death Mao wasn’t just facing down the US but also the USSR, so you might also want to check the effects of the Soviets’ biggest hydrogen bomb, the 50-megaton Tsar-Bomba, which puts all of Beijing and its suburbs inside the red circle.
So when Mao said that even the end of the world would be a small thing from the perspective of the universe, he wasn’t exaggerating as much as you might think. He was talking to his people about a very real possibility, making them ready to receive the B-52s or Tu-95s. It would certainly have been the end of China, and it might have been the end of the planet, or at least the biosphere.
He meant it. Mao never bluffed. When MacArthur was rolling toward the Yalu, making sure the cameras got his good side, with corncob pipe flying proudly, Mao was telling every go-between available that the U.S. forces needed to stop short of the border. MacArthur was accustomed to bluff and read Mao wrong, giving the USMC plenty of opportunity to en-glory itself in the retreat from Chosin.
Mao lost a son somewhere on the Korean peninsula. He wasn’t fazed. If we’d sent the bombers with our biggest city killers, he wouldn’t have been fazed. Mao preached the same sermon over and over, and it’s really the same sermon preached by guerrillas everywhere: “Victory will go, not to those who can inflict the most, but to those who can endure the most.” Those particular words were spoken by a much earlier guerrilla from a different part of the world, but Mao said the same thing in that way-cool, half-joking metaphorical way that goes over with Chinese audiences, telling them there would be pain and death before victory:
“A revolution is not a dinner party...it is an act of violence.”
“First, don’t fear suffering; second, don’t fear death.”
“Everything under heaven is chaos; the situation is excellent.”
It’s hard now even to appreciate how droll, how Musketeer-like, these sermons really were. We live in a world that’s had nukes without using them for 68 years; Mao was preaching to people who knew that the U.S. had used nukes not that long ago, on cities not that far away. And it seemed very likely, in the early 1950s, that the US would use them again, to annihilate China.
That’s where the part of Mao that’s alien to us, to General Patton’s rule that you win a war by “making some other son-of-a-bitch die for his country,” comes into play. Any American understands the first part of Mao’s two-part rule: “Don’t fear suffering.” The second part, “Don’t fear death,” not so much. And his most extreme version, “Don’t even fear the obliteration of the frickin’ planet,” is, I can safely say, a little too extreme for most of us. The closest we ever got to that is Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” but I’m not sure that carries quite the same intellectual weight.
But let’s bring it back to the key, fundamental American proverb: “You can’t argue with success.” We could’ve nuked China; Mao should’ve been scared; he should’ve backed off. He didn’t. We didn’t nuke China. Mao was right. We turned out to be exactly what he called us: “a paper tiger.” We were so afraid of our own nuclear weapons that instead of nuking China, or Cuba, the two places that really scared the mid-20th century USA, we staged a weird, pointless scrimmage in Vietnam, a place nobody has cared about before or since.
We’re terrified of our own nukes. Mao knew that we were more frightened of those Hell weapons than China was. He said so at the time, not taunting, just explaining:
"Very many members of our family have given their lives, killed by the Kuomintang and the American imperialists. You [Americans] grew up eating honey, and thus far you have never known suffering. In the future, if you do not become a rightist, but rather a centrist, I shall be satisfied. You have never suffered -- how can you be a leftist?"
In Mao’s terms, suffering clears your head — even death clears your head, using “your” in the plural. China had suffered for hundreds of years, becoming enslaved by people they considered barbarians. When Mao says “chaos” he’s not talking like that trust-fund asshole in your dorm who used to spray-paint circles with an ‘A’ in the middle when he was sure nobody was looking. He’s talking about mass death for generation after generation. That’s how you get a clear head: you sweep all the “human, all too human” baggage out of it. Once you have that “mind of winter,” you can face down the nukes easily. Which he did.
When you look back coldly, clearly, at the long nuclear standoff, it’s actually easy to appreciate Mao’s perspective. What’s much harder to explain is what the USA and USSR, the powers he called out as “paper tigers,” were thinking. These two flinched again and again and went generations without using their most effective weapons. Christ, the USSR actually let itself go out of existence without using its most effective weapons, a situation with no parallel I know of in human history.
That’s the weird part: us, not Mao. We are the anomaly. There has never been anything like this in the history of the world: the major military powers of an era refusing to use their most powerful weapons.
The conventional (har har) explanation for the nuclear flinch is some sort of humanitarianism. That’s a fucking joke. We’re talking about the big three here: Stalin, FDR/Truman, and Churchill. Not a whiff of squeamishness among them. Do I need to go through the whole list? Dresden, Ukraine, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kolyma, Kenya, Korea, Kurdistan…I could make a whole atrocity list and not leave the “k”s.
We’re not afraid of killing people in large numbers and horrible ways. That’s pretty obvious. Something else is driving our nuke phobia — and it is a phobia. It’s grotesque that the US is afraid of North Korea’s handful of tiny nuclear weapons. To see how weird that is, go back to the Nukemap site and see the effect of North Korea’s tested nuclear weapons on Beijing (so you can compare this radius with the huge American and Soviet weapons). Set the app for North Korea’s 10kt nuke, tested this year. You’ll see that the kill radius is limited to the core of downtown Beijing. Then, when you have some sense of how small the death-circle for the NK bombs really is, try them on an American city.
I used L.A., because it’s the nearest big city, and was amazed what a tiny hole the North Korean bomb would make in the giant ant’s nest of greater Los Angeles. It basically carves out a rough square where I-5, 10, 1o1, and 110 slice through downtown.
Of course this is where all the humanitarians, the all-too-humanitarians, remind me that there are thousands of human lives in that square. Well, duh. “And let us remember that even in downtown L.A., there are lives that might possibly matter…”—which I’m willing to stipulate, for the sake of argument.
But that’s the point. A few thousand lives are too much for us, so we flinch from confrontation with a ridiculously weak country like North Korea. We have nothing to gain. Mao aimed to bring China back from a nightmare low that we couldn’t even imagine. Quick example:The Taiping Rebellion, a 19th century religious/communisticrebellion by southern Han Chinese against the foreign Manchu.
This rebellion, which has a lot in common with 20th c. Chinese communism, eventually failed, mostly thanks to British military aid spearheaded by Gordon, the Khartoum Gordon—but it taught the Chinese everything anyone could ever want to know about suffering and death. It was a classic total war, with no mercy for anyone. The death count is uncertain, but 20 million is a low estimate. The high estimates hover around 100 million. Nothing in our history, not even the worst days of the Civil War, even come close to it.
Even when pre-Mao China wasn’t going through huge rebellions, the level of what you could call “ambient violence” in the form of famine, infanticide, and local warfare was higher than anything experienced by any English-speaking American since we started this franchise. So when he talks about suffering, he doesn’t mean running extra laps or doing pushups after school. He means half your family dying early, generation after generation, while your country is humiliated over and over.
Mao’s war comes out of that nightmare. His project, even if it was phrased in Marxist terms, was to bring China back to greatness and push away the foreign colonizers. To accomplish that, he and his cadre really felt that a few hundred million casualties were not too much.
And they managed to do what they intended: unify China and set the foundation for a world-leading China. And they faced down the West, accomplishing all they intended without having to endure a ful-scale (nuclear) attack.
Mao, as far as I can see, was right: we, and the Soviets, were and still are paper tigers, afraid to take on any country that would have even the slightest chance of hitting our homeland. What’s our project? To keep going; to stay rich. In kinder terms, you could say that we have something to lose. And Mao said as much: “You grew up eating honey.” I’d hate to have to tell him it was worse than that: “Truth is, Chairman Mao, sir, we grew up eating Nutrasweet because we kinda gained weight in high school.” No, I don’t think that’d change his mind.
He was right. He won. “The armies of this age are weak,” and the only exception to that rule seems to be the NKPA. They’re not a very good army, far weaker than China in every way, more brittle, more bizarre, more topheavy; but they did learn one lesson from Mao: that the rich countries are paper tigers. That’s why they’ve been able to make a living by shaking the scared rich folk down for “humanitarian contributions.” It’s worked for them for decades now, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t keep working, without any need to detonate those crummy little nukes of theirs. All they need is to be a little braver and crazier than the rest of us, and as Mao kept trying to tell us, that’s not setting the bar very high.