As US President Donald Trump ponders his next moves in the high-stakes chess game on the Korean peninsula before meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next month (if the summit actually takes place given the ruckus with the joint US-South Korea war games), in the Middle East, and control of the sea lanes in the disputed South China Sea, he needs to be careful about fake news, faulty logic, and the dangers they can create. He can literally end up starting a war under false premises.
History is full of examples of wars erupting as a result of false information and faulty logic.
Take for example the Spanish-American War. To help ease tensions between Spain and the United States over a sugar revolt in Cuba (only a few miles from Florida), the US decided to send the USS Maine to Havana harbor. An explosion hit the Maine in the harbor, killing 254 people and seriously injuring many others.
Egged on by war-hungry newspapers run by men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, the US Congress and then President William McKinley authorized military action against Spain in Cuba. Then Assistant Navy Secretary Teddy Roosevelt even modified the order to include Spain’s forces in the Philippines.
But a 1976 study by US Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the real cause of the USS Maine explosion was coal dust that ignited spontaneously, and not sabotage. Hence, a major war was started by a false conclusion.
But having no bad news to report then was not an impediment, as war-hawk publishers of the day like Hearst could invent them. He once told one of his reporters: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”
Before the Vietnam War, the destroyer USS Maddox was conducting surveillance in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2, 1964, when it reported being attacked by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats.
War hawks seized upon this attack to pass a Gulf of Tonkin resolution in the US Congress. This paved the way for the more than three million Americans who served in Vietnam at a cost of around 58,000 dead.
But subsequent investigations did not conclusively determine if the North Vietnamese Navy actually fired on the Maddox. In 1965, President Johnson reportedly commented privately, “For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there.”
The second Gulf War under George W. Bush was, of course, triggered by the controversial but dubious claim of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that was argued before the UN Security Council. The US eventually got rid of Saddam Hussein, but that war also had the unfortunate effect of strengthening the terrorist group ISIS because of the rise of suddenly unemployed Iraqi military officers and men.
Flawed logic also loses wars. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur told President Harry Truman that he did not think the Chinese would cross the Yalu river if the UN forces went north past the 38th parallel. “If the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter” because of US air superiority, MacArthur said. That mistake cost a lot of American lives lost and almost wiped out the 1st Marine Division at the famous Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
It is easy to get caught up in the image of America as the world’s policeman and protector, with all its accompanying macho gun culture to fight wars as they come wherever these may be. But the role of a president is not to get caught up in this culture, but rather be circumspect in decision- making, knowing that he holds tremendous power to do much damage.
And being circumspect means checking all information and questioning all assumptions, especially since previous wars have been started with dubious or even fake information and analysis. Being a statesman is much different from being a politician who simply wants to please his voter base.
As Trump decides on what course to take in the world’s hotspots, he should be smart enough to know that fake news and faulty logic have caused unnecessary wars and lost some in the past – and will do so again if Trump falls for it.
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