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A Week on the War That Wasn’t

Here at On Violence, we don’t like to chase the news.

Long time readers know this, and may even be rolling their eyes at the above sentence, since we’ve written about this before here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But we have to say it again, because we haven’t written about America’s second war with North Korea yet. Wait, you might ask, we went to war with North Korea?


You wouldn’t have guessed it based on the media coverage. Remember when war was imminent? Headlines like “North Korea Warns It Is on Brink of Nuclear War With South” terrified all of us. North Korea set a date! Even America’s resident ombudsman, Jon Stewart, got in on the action, covering it unironically here, here, here and here. A future war with North Korea even has a Wikipedia entry.

But we’re not at war. Why? As Michael C, in his original draft of tomorrow’s post, wrote:

“Yet this latest round of saber-rattling seems to have everyone worried. Possibly, even more than usual. And I have to specify, more than usual. As this On The Media segment makes clear, every year when U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct massive joint training exercises--which simulate both repelling a North Korean invasion and sometimes a South Korean attack on North Korea--North Korea gets all riled up and makes increasingly hostile threats.

So I won’t chime in to say how I think a war will go with North Korea. After this exercise, I believe that affairs on the peninsula will calm back down.”

Which is exactly what happened. It’s odd to think that just two months ago, America was on the brink of war. Then the Boston bombing happened, and everyone forgot about the war of the moment. When the Boston bombing coverage died down, the media moved on to political scandals and tornadoes. No one’s mentioned North Korea again.

And all of this was quite predictable. There are a couple of lessons here. One, everyone should listen to On The Media, especially people who comment on the media. (We’re looking at you, Jon Stewart.)

Two, constant media hype usually doesn’t spread information, it spreads disinformation. And speculation. A Pew poll from the time showed that the people who followed the North Korean story tended to overstate the threat of war from North Korea. If constant media coverage doesn’t help, what does? Deliberate long form journalism based on extensive fact checking and context.

On a practical, diplomatic level, hyping the possibility of war can only exacerbate tensions, not ease them. It’s times like these when the press makes military leaders and politicians feel obliged to go to war, rather than fearful. This should never be the case.