This morning, Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois, wrote Donald Trump to demand an accounting of what the president and his advisers mean when they talk, with growing urgency these days, of “military options” against North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program. “We must never allow the consequences of war to be hidden from Americans,” she asserts in a letter obtained exclusively by The Atlantic.
Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel, lost her legs in 2004 when Iraqi insurgents shot down her Blackhawk helicopter. “When my colleagues start beating the drums of war, I want to be there, standing on my artificial legs under the great Capitol dome, to remind them what the true costs of war are,” Duckworth pledged a couple years ago.
Now the war drums are sounding, however faintly: Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, while administration officials have suggested that initiating a potentially catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula might be preferable to allowing Kim Jong Un to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States.
And Duckworth is standing up. On Tuesday, she announced her support for legislation that would restrict the president’s powers to take military action against North Korea without congressional authorization. On Wednesday, in her letter to the president, she argued that the U.S. government must avoid the wishful thinking and willful blindness that characterized the run-up to the Iraq War—and instead reckon honestly and openly with the possible economic and human toll of using military force.
“I fear the country is being deprived of an accurate assessment of what war against [North Korea] would entail,” Duckworth writes. “I am requesting you act swiftly to provide the public with declassified estimates of potential casualties, costs and a range of end states that could result from a limited or full-scale war against” North Korea. (A recent report by the Congressional Research Service noted that tens or hundreds of thousands of people could die in the first days of fighting on the Korean peninsula, even if no nuclear weapons are used. When I put this question to experts last spring, the casualty estimates ranged wildly from the thousands to the millions, highlighting just how unknowably risky a U.S. military campaign against North Korea would be.)
At a time when a majority of Americans favor taking military action against North Korea if diplomatic efforts to reverse Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program fail, Duckworth calls for a detailed breakdown of the costs in the Trump administration’s cost-benefit analysis ahead of any preemptive or preventive war. What she’s requesting is rare in the annals of war and impossible to predict with certainty. But it’s also largely absent from the current debate in the United States about how to deal with North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal.
“Before Americans can effectively determine whether to support military action or not, they need as much information as possible,” Duckworth writes. “This entails understanding how many families will watch their children deploy overseas and never return, how long the conflict will last, how much combat operations will cost and the continuing resources that will be required over the coming decades to properly care for Veterans who return home with service-related injuries.”
Duckworth’s full letter is below:
Dear President Trump:
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) represents one of the most difficult national security and foreign policy challenges facing our nation. Since 2006, the DPRK has tested six nuclear devices. Last month, the DPRK claimed it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. With close to 29,000 U.S. personnel stationed in Korea and another 50,000 in Japan, should hostilities break out, the ability for the DPRK to inflict horrific casualties on our military is of significant concern.
I am concerned that Members of Congress and the general public may not understand the size and scope of potential loss of life of U.S. military personnel, in addition to the scores of innocents that would be killed if a war erupted on the Korean Peninsula. To that end, I am writing to request that the United States Government bring transparency to the true costs of war associated with major combat operations on the Korean Peninsula.
As the drumbeat of war accelerates, the American people must understand the potential consequences of the United States engaging in armed conflict against the DPRK. The public was provided a brief window into the gravity of such action when one of your former senior advisors told a reporter that projections estimate approximately 10 million people residing in the capital of South Korea, Seoul—including many Americans—would be killed by conventional weapons in the first 30 minutes following an outbreak of war with the DPRK.
I fear the country is being deprived of an accurate assessment of what war against the DPRK would entail. Every citizen requires a transparent assessment of these costs to hold their elected representatives accountable for votes that carry life or death consequences. Accordingly, I am requesting you act swiftly to provide the public with declassified estimates of potential casualties, costs and a range of end states that could result from a limited or full-scale war against the DPRK.
The American people, through their representatives in Congress, make the decision to declare war, not the Executive Branch. Whether the public ultimately supports preemptive military action against the DPRK, or decides that a diplomatic solution is a superior course of action, we should all agree that the national conversation on when and why the United States goes to war must always be anchored around a set of cold hard facts.
Before Americans can effectively determine whether to support military action or not, they need as much information as possible. This entails understanding how many families will watch their children deploy overseas and never return, how long the conflict will last, how much combat operations will cost and the continuing resources that will be required over the coming decades to properly care for Veterans who return home with service-related injuries.
As a United States Senator and as someone who flew missions in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I recall the lack of full debate and the absence of tough conversations during the run up to the Iraq War. A United States Army General was silenced and derided for disclosing the true number of ground forces that would be required to stabilize Iraq in the aftermath of major combat operations. This act of intimidation sent a shameful message to military officers and civilian experts who could have offered valuable insight before Congress voted to Authorize Use of Military Force in 2002.
We must never allow the consequences of war to be hidden from Americans. To be clear, I am not a dove, but I am also not a reckless hawk, with scant appreciation for what the men and women in uniform, and their families, sacrifice every single day on behalf of our great nation. As long as I am serving in the United States Senate, I will do everything in my power to prevent a repeat of the past rush to war. This requires providing my constituents and Americans throughout the country with a comprehensive, transparent accounting of what the United States Government estimates would be the cost of another Korean War.
Tammy Duckworth, United States Senator