Martin Schram: Covering the fog of peace |
Ever since America’s mushroom-shaped clouds rose above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, generals whose fingers are always on the buttons have slept with their private nightmare and lived through every hour of it. awakening determined to never let their bad dreams come true.
In clashes, especially clashes between nuclear nations, miscalculations can – and will happen -. It’s not something the generals talk about. But he’s still there. And he has been known to bind opposing generals.
Today we’ll reflect on how seemingly unlikely friendships sometimes bind generals who, in the history books, will appear as adversaries of steel. And how these general friendships sometimes pull superpowers away from war and toward a coexistence that is very much like peace.
But first, we have to get rid of a little old business that pops up, from time to time, here at the intersection of news media, politics and politics.
Namely: There are secrets and then there are secrets. In today’s journalism, just because something was flagged as “secret” doesn’t mean it wasn’t widely known. Today when something is labeled “secret” in a news leak, it mainly means that it will get mega-more hits online than if the little scoop is just shoveled out there by its lonely self and full of facts.
So that was the other day, when we all saw the scoop that blew every news screen away with the revelation that the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the United States Army General Mark Milley, had made two “secret” phone calls, in October and January, to his Chinese counterpart, People’s Liberation Army General Li Zuocheng. Both times, America’s top general assured China’s top general that President Donald Trump was not going to militarily attack China. Milley’s words appeared in direct quotes, gleaned from transcripts, in a new book, “Peril,” by Robert Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post.
But just to put all the nuances into context, this was not a case of a rogue general contacting his opponent and keeping it a secret from his colleagues. Milley’s appeals were part of a multi-level Pentagon effort, initiated by the office of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The appeals were reportedly drafted, noted and shared within national security channels. Both civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon had learned from U.S. intelligence that the Chinese leadership was convinced by their misinformation that President Donald Trump was about to militarily attack China. Worse yet, Pentagon leaders believed President Xi Jinping could launch a preemptive strike against America – sparking a war based on miscalculation.
Following Trump’s defeat in re-election, China’s fears intensified as Trump’s instability and desperation deepened. Then, after the Jan.6 Capitol uprising, Pentagon officials feared Trump would launch a ruthless military strike, hoping to postpone or cancel Joe Biden’s inauguration day.
In an act of patriotism and courage, Milley summoned the joint leaders and all of them signed a document calling the “violent riot” a “direct assault” on the government and the Constitution of the United States. “To our deployed men and women and to the country protecting our country – stand ready, keep your eyes on the horizon and stay focused on the mission.”
And on January 8, Milley, desperate to save his country and avoid a war of miscalculations, called Li and said something to him that we have never heard an American general say to an adversary: ”General Li, you and I have known each other for five years now. . If we’re going to attack, I’ll call you ahead. It won’t be a surprise.
Peace, or at least an absence of war, has occurred.
Sometimes even generals who are nuclear adversaries slip into a friendship that surprises them both. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, while working for a book and documentary on PBS titled “Avoiding Armageddon”, I spoke with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, former commander of the Russian nuclear forces, about day he and US General Eugene Habiger, former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command, became, well, good friends.
Habiger invited Sergeyev to Central America, escorted his Russian guest to the top of the top-secret US platform Minuteman III, and showed him precisely how the warheads were deployed on the missile. It was the first time that a Russian general had seen an operational American missile. “I saw a lot of things in common between us,” Sergeyev said.
Generals know all too well the nightmare of miscalculation – especially nuclear miscalculation. But they rarely talk about it. Once the Pakistani brigadier retired. General Feroz Khan, a former battlefield commander, spoke candidly with me about how “the danger of oversight” can lead a general to mistakenly order a first use of a nuclear weapon.
“Once conventional war breaks out, the fog of war sets in,” the general said. “… You have disappointments. You have wrong perceptions. You have communication failures. … I can assure you that every general officer… anywhere in the world would truly understand what I’m talking about.
(Martin Schram, opinion columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington reporter, writer, and television documentary director. Readers can email him at [email protected])
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