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Have Nations Ever Gone to War Over a Joke?

Humor is often lost in translation, and jokes can arouse violent passion.

Tanks drive down a road during a North Korea military parade in July, 2013. In recent days, we've watched with a mixture of horror and disbelief as "the War of the Words" between the US and North Korea has escalated from jocular posturing to existential foreboding. (Photo: Uri Tours)

In 2016, a Scottish gold miner, Michael McFeat, nearly caused a war between the UK and Central Asia by inadvertently comparing Kyrgyzstan’s national dish to a horse penis. McFeat claimed that he simply mistook chuchuk sausage in good faith for the nethers of an equine. He was subsequently smuggled out of the country, narrowly evading an angry lynch mob, and warned by police at Manas Airport in Bishkek, who arrested him under race hatred laws, that his “act could send Kyrgyzstan to war with the UK.”

In recent days, we’ve watched with a mixture of horror and disbelief as “The War of the Words” between the US and North Korea has escalated from jocular posturing to existential foreboding. After threatening Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” followed by a more actionably sinister statement that military solutions are now “locked and loaded,” Trump tried to joke off the doomsday anxiety with a little levity. He reportedly telephoned the Governor of Guam, Eddie Calvo, to offer reassurance that North Korea’s threats against the US territory would be a boon for the island’s tourism. “All over the world they’re talking about Guam. Tourism, I can say this — you’re going to go up tenfold, with the expenditure of no money … [you’re] becoming extremely famous.”

If not a rehearsal for the “Geopolitical Apprentice,” this mocking disregard for nuclear diplomacy is also not without precedent in recent US history. For example, the satirical assassination of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (played by comedian Randall Park) in Seth Rogen’s 2014 farce, The Interview, provoked warnings of “stern” and “merciless” retaliation should the film proceed with its scheduled national release. As BBC News reported, “North Korea threatens war on US over Kim Jong-un movie,” while a spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry described the assassination scene as an “act of war” that the US government should censor. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain jokingly referred to Kim Jong-un on MSNBC as “this crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea,” to which Jong-un responded by asserting that American conservative politicians were all but declaring war on North Korea. As Newsweek’s Tim Marcin put it, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words — words might just spark a nuclear war.”

Nations have a way of going to war on a whim over unimaginably inane provocations and absurdly avoidable misunderstandings. The United States declared war on Spain in 1898 after the yellow journalists Hearst and Pulitzer blamed an internal combustion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in Cuba on the Spanish Empire. President William McKinley then declared war under the auspices of advice he had received from God during a dream. History buffs love to enumerate the “Most Ridiculous Causes of War,” which include chariot racing (532 AD), a slaughtered swine (1859), arunaway dog (1925), a decomposing severed ear (1738), the ransacking of a French pastry café (1838) and a tiny sliver of land containing the town of Toledo, Michigan (1835).

The United States and Soviet Union nearly put an end to this list (along with everything else) in 1962, when a combination of superlative intelligence and lapsing diplomacy caused a 13-day standoff that nearly erupted in total nuclear holocaust (i.e. the Cuban Missile Crisis). While Kennedy and Khrushchev, despite both having their thumbs on the trigger, were able to negotiate amilitary compromise through the de-escalation of combative rhetoric, it would be hard to imagine such successful brinkmanship today. With a president who routinely Tweets explosive threats and cryptic geopolitical warnings — often out of sheer fascination to see how quickly his words will appear on a cable news screen — “thumbs on the trigger” could now be tantamount to instantaneous detonation.

Trump is not the first POTUS to miscalculate the media aesthetics of nuclear politics. In 1984, Ronald Reagan accidentally joked about nuking Russia into a hot mic during a sound test. He jested: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Democrat Walter Mondale Reagan chastised Reagan for his cavalier gallows humor, remarking that a president has to be very, very careful with his words.” (Mondale lost every state but Minnesota to Reagan in the ’84 election.) Though Mondale’s cautious intellect did not have the same populist appeal as Reagan’s Hollywood charisma, this confrontation played to Mondale’s favor. He added briefly at a press conference prior to the election: “I am willing to accept that [Reagan] saw it as a joke … but others will think it is serious … I don’t think it is very funny.”

As fans of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) know all too well, it is a slippery slope between aggressive words and cataclysmic deeds when bellicose rhetoric shades too close to absurdity. The film’s fictive President Merkin Muffley (a thinly-veiled parody of Adlai Stevenson) aptly encapsulates this paradox: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers, who also plays Muffley), a barely closeted Nazi who struggles to suppress his automatically heiling arm throughout the film, attempts to solicit Muffley’s passions: “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost … if you [President] keep it a secret. Why don’t you tell the whole world, eh?!” In Kubrick’s satirical Cold War room, competition over “the doomsday gap” — i.e. who can engineer the most permanently destructive post-apocalyptic scenario — becomes the last line of defense between words and actions. Even bombastic threats demand follow-through in order to remain credible, especially when the arms race extends so ludicrously into the speculative post-apocalypse. Dr. Strangelove’s iconic finale — amushroom cloud montage set to the tune of Vera Lynn’s WW2-era ballad, “We’ll Meet Again” — is uncannily evoked by Trump’s vague but hyperbolic threats to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

It is utterly conceivable that this morbid escalation of jocular rhetoric between two brazen autocrats, Jong-un and Trump, could erupt in active military engagement, if not all-out nuclear apocalypse. Trump, of course, ad-libbed his “fire and fury” remarks from Truman’s threat to Japan in 1945 before nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Words that dictate action make retreat humiliating, if not impossible. World War I intensified from a delicate balance of international alliances, partly because, in 1914, no one could imagine the four years of hell, mass deaths, stalled entrenchment and feverish destruction that lay ahead — just as the prospect of hot war against a nuclear-armed country seems all too abstract to us today.

Yet North Korea has a disturbing track record for doubling down on hostile provocations. In 1976, the army attacked and killed two American officers with axes during a routine tree-clearing procedure at the Demilitarized Zone. They claimed that the tree-chopping had been perceived as an act of national aggression. The incident was contained through international diplomacy. In contrast, as late-night comedy host Seth Meyers joked about the president’s “fire and fury” comments, “When you respond to North Korea, you’re not supposed to sound like North Korea.”

Comedians know better than anyone that jokes have grave consequences. For example, when Trump kids around about police brutality, encouraging officers not to cushion the heads of “thugs being thrown into the back of paddy wagons” — “Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed someone?!” — it makes everyone unsafe: from the people of color routinely targeted by police violence to the broader communities that the police are supposed toprotect. Amy Goodman has cautioned that “Trump’s calls for violence are no joke, and people across the political spectrum should demand an end to his violent rhetoric.” No doubt Trump’s flippant authorization of police brutality preemptively encouraged the horrific eruption of mob violence by white supremacists and neo-Nazis against anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. If jokes offer pleasure in exchange for disavowing reality, Trump’s subsequent apologism for white supremacist terrorism and his false equivalence between neo-Nazis and the counter-protesters serve as stark reminders that ostensible jokes have obscene repercussions.

“Empire abroad,” as Hannah Arendt writes, “involves tyranny at home.” This truism haunted Trump’s Afghanistan War speech, wherein he invoked Charlottesville while declaring an indefinite continuation of war and unspecified increase in troop deployments to the region (and provoking yet another nuclear-armed state, i.e. Pakistan). Just as Trump’s inflammatory punching down has incited vigilante violence at home, it will trigger geopolitical crisis and military tyranny abroad. Steve Bannon, Trump’s jilted ethno-nationalist adviser, revealingly attempted to laugh off this implicit connection in an unsolicited interview with The American Prospect (a progressive journal), referring to the “alt-right” as a “collection of clowns” and dismissing Trump’s military grandstanding against North Korea as a mere sideshow.

Yet humor is often lost in translation, and tone-deaf jokes can arouse violent passions — from the notorious fatwa issued against Danish cartoonists for lampooning the Prophet Mohammed, to the terrorist attack of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to the detention and death of American tourist Otto Warmbier in North Korea over a mild prank (he stole a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel and was then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor). Trump himself has apalpable aversion to perceived enemy laughter, exemplified by his furor that the Paris Climate Accord will make the US into “the laughingstock of the world.” He fired up a crowd of his avid supporters in May:

At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? … We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be. They won’t be.

Part of the problem is that Trump himself cannot take a joke — a truth painfully apparent from his thin-skinned paranoia about being mocked by everyone from Rosie O’Donnell and Melissa McCarthy, to Xi Jinping and Malcolm Turnbull, to various leaders of NATO and the European Union. Laughter, perhaps even more than nuclear warfare, is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. Since jokes are easily misinterpreted and irreversibly blown out of proportion, Trump’s vivid terror of mockery is extremely dangerous. Humor thrives in that grey area between intention and action. Laughter at jokes is therapeutic precisely because it helps keep at bay the tendency for impassioned language to become self-fulfilling prophecy. The Cold War narrowly skirted unraveling into World War III, but Trump’s ongoing “War of the Words” may yet still do so. Do we have as much to fear from a misfired punchline as from North Korea’s miniaturized nuclear warheads and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles?

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