This being the first month of the new year, I should be wishing you health, peace and prosperity, but I think a look back in history would be far more appropriate. With the phony war heating up in Iraq, and North Korea playing nuclear poker, the prospects for 2003 seem pretty lousy, give or take a few thousand dead —perhaps hundreds of thousands if things really go wrong. Mind you, very few wars in history, if any, would have started had the leaders known in advance what they were getting into. I’ll stick to the 20th century, the bloodiest ever, and the one that proved beyond doubt that the more our masters study the past, the less wise they become.

In January 1903, the world was at peace, and Britain ruled an empire where the sun never set. It was the sole superpower, capable of waging naval wars on many fronts, but the previous year had seen its army almost humbled by a rag-tag bunch of Boers, an intimation of decline.

The following year, Japan went to war with Russia and sank its entire fleet. The defeat brought on the first Russian revolution. In the greatest conflict up to that time, the Austrian empire did not envisage in 1914 that its aggressive line against Serbia would lead to not only the greatest bloodletting Europe had ever seen, but also to the fall of the dynasties, starting with the house of Habsburg. The Tsar did not take in the consequences of his disastrous mobilization in 1914, giving an opening for that nice guy Lenin to come to power and murder millions.

While the Russians mobilized, the Kaiser prepared to checkmate him by putting into effect an immense mobilization operation involving the entire German railway system. It was meant to take German armies into Belgium, and Britain, being treaty-bound to defend the tiny country, declared war. Herr Hitler also miscalculated, believing that his conquest of Poland and France would force Britain to sue for peace. We know how he ended up. Once he was sure of an Axis victory, Benito Mussolini got into the conflict by invading Greece and finished up in a Milan piazza hanging by his tootsies.

FDR did not figure Japan would go to war over the American embargo on Japanese trade, nor did the militarists in the land of the Rising Sun understand that the Americans would quickly recover from Pearl Harbor.

To put it bluntly, war, or even preparation for war, goes hand in hand with miscalculation and even disaster. Who would have ever thought that American military superiority would stumble in Vietnam or that the Soviet bear would leave Afghanistan with its tail between its legs? America became the numero uno superpower once Europe had ruined itself through war. It became the sole superpower once the Soviets were revealed to have no clothes in Afghanistan. But as someone wrote recently, it is not a permanent appointment. As Andrew Alexander wrote, “If something nags you about the proposed attack on Iraq, do not be surprised. It is called history.”

Having brushed up on my history, I look back to June 1950, where as a 13-year-old, fresh down from Lawrenceville for the summer, I heard that war had broken out in a far away place called Korea. My father’s tanker business skyrocketed overnight, and he took the time to inform me that Korea was in a peninsula sandwiched between China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. I had never heard of the place, nor had most Americans, and in this we had something in common with Winston Churchill, who theatrically and untruthfully announced he had “never heard of the bloody place.”

After three years and four million dead there was no peace treaty, just an armistice. We flattened North Korea’s dams, factories, and cities, and napalmed its forests. They killed as many people as they could lay their hands on. “Korea no longer matters,” muttered Churchill, back in power but going senile.

Fifty years later Korea matters more than ever. The DMZ, where two million soldiers face each other, is the last Cold War frontier. When Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950—yet another invasion that backfired terribly—the North and South Koreans resembled each other. No longer. The ones from the south are now taller and heftier than their starved northern brothers. South Korea has gone from a terribly poor, Third World agrarian country to a global economic power, whereas North Korea is a Spartan state that practices an “army first” policy, its citizens starving and poorer than they were half a century ago.

Kim, of course, is rich in other matters. What Kim Jr. has is the world’s largest concentration of tubed artillery with chemical shells targeted on Seoul’s ten million souls. He also has a couple of nukes that can reach Japan. So despite Donald Rumsfeld’s bellicose rhetoric against Kim Jr., this is the kind of nasty customer one doesn’t want to get into a fight with. Kim Jong is no Saddam. He is not about to let anyone in to inspect him, doesn’t give a hoot how many of his people starve to death or are killed in battle, and will launch his deadly missiles on the South the minute he smells a rat.

Although I’m sure brave samurais of the neocon, armchair warrior persuasion in Washington are eager to fight Kim Jr. to the last South Korean, the latter are not at all convinced. In fact, they insist on dialogue, and for some strange reason I see their point. What is to be done? I can only tell you what I hope happens. America has rightly declared that it will offer no new bribes to induce Kim to shut down his nukes. Our only chance of seeing the Sparta of the East go softly into the night is if the regime collapses. My hope is that in the next ten years—the time it will take for Kim to advance his nuclear capability—he will implode.

Don’t forget 1945. The West faced the same challenge back then in the Cold War with Stalin’s Russia. Then, hawks in the Pentagon tried to persuade President Truman to strike the Soviet Union before a tyrant like Stalin could get The Bomb. My father and many of his friends were of the same opinion. We had seen communism from up close and knew better. Still, Truman decided that trying to preserve America’s nuclear monopoly was not worth killing millions of innocent Russians. It took a further 45 years of vigilance, but the evil empire did implode, just as so many had predicted it would. Despite their genocidal tendencies, Stalin and Mao played the brinksmanship game cautiously, even prudently. They knew they would fry if push came to shove.

The lesson of the Cold War was that a free, rich West could afford to face down poor, evil regimes over time. The risk now is that American hawks will prevail, and that Uncle Sam will lash out at Iraq in impotent fury at North Korea’s defiance and capacity to deter the Pentagon from attack. North Korea just might not sit tight while American armies are knocking out Iraq. A million-strong North Korean army could invade the South.

Fifty years ago the West was led by men who had seen war up close. No longer. The oil Washington will gain from defeating Saddam will seem small if a nuclear war shatters the two Koreas and Japan. As Paul Robinson wrote in the London Spectator, “To defend our wealth and privilege, we feel entitled to inflict death and destruction on others to protect ourselves against the merest risk of a risk.” Hear, hear! Neocon warriors, relax. You have nothing to lose but a few million Koreans.