Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: This Kind of War

The Korean War tends to get ignored in history classes, wedged as it is between World War II and Vietnam, but it deserves a lot more attention, because it was the first major conflict of the Cold War, and as such set the pattern for most of the conflicts that followed, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy.

T. R. Feherenbach’s This Kind of War provides a few chapters’ worth of background on the country of Korea, its politics, and how the United States got involved in a “police action” that was in fact a very nasty shooting war. For most of its existence, Korea has been a unified country, albeit one that faced invasion or occupation by one of several great powers in the area: namely, China and Japan, but later also the Soviet Union. As World War II was ending, the Russians were invading Manchuria, which Japan had captured from China back in the ‘30s. They got as far as Korea when the U.S. War Department (soon to be the Department of Defense) started worrying about having a Communist-dominated country so close to the Japanese mainland. Unlike Europe, the U.S. had no intention of sharing the occupation of Japan with any of the other Great Powers. Planners in the Pentagon tried to find a natural stopping point for the Soviet armies; finding none, they suggested the 38th parallel, a geographic line of latitude that cut Korea almost exactly in half. The Russians were made to hold up at the parallel, and soon established a Communist puppet government in North Korea under the dictator Kim Il Sung.

This artificial division between North and South Korea bothered citizens and political leaders on both sides of the parallel, and both sides felt the Korean Peninsula should be unified (predictably) under their respective governments: Kim Il Sung’s in Pyongyang or Syngman Rhee’s in Seoul, the traditional capital of the nation. The North Koreans struck first, in 1950, invading and overwhelming the South Korean army and its U.S. advisors.

Fehrenbach then spends the remainder of This Kind of War covering the conflict from several different perspectives, from the political to the cultural to the strategic to the grunt-level tactics and the prisoner-of-war experience. These multiple layers give the book richer detail than it might have had if the author had just covered the war from just one, and Fehrenbach’s prose is at turns humorous, lofty, and grotesque, for all such things could be found in war.

At the political level, Korea was unique to the American experience of war in that it involved no immediate national interest: North Korea’s attack was not on U.S. soil or (for the most part) citizens or soldiers. South Korea was not a particularly rich or important country from an industrial or resource perspective. What the nation had was the unhappy luck to be positioned geographically between the newly Communist People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and Japan. It was one of several flashpoints that would develop along the border between the First and Second Worlds from 1946 to 1990. The only vital interest political interest the U.S. had there was containing the further expansion of an aggressive Communism, and this President Harry Truman and his advisors were firmly determined to do.

What made American policy different in Korea was that the goal was not to engage in an all-out general war with the Communist world (a goal that would create problems throughout the war, which was not even called a war during its execution). They simply wanted to “hold the line.” This was the first direct application of the policy of containment, and it was a hard sell to the American public and the United Nations. The U.N allowed the U.S. to take over the defense of South Korea thanks to two errors by the Communists: they made a blatantly hostile move against another nation, and the Soviet Union, which held veto power in the Security Council, boycotted the proceedings. The U.S. would never have such a carte blanche mandate again.

The problem of containment became obvious once the U.S. started committing ground troops on the Asian mainland. After the North Koreans were halted at a narrow pocket around the city of Pusan, the question became what to do next. Douglas MacArthur, proconsul of Japan, was made Supreme Commander of U.S. forces in Korea, and he went to work within two months of the invasion. He ordered a combined Navy/Marine landing at the port of Inchon, near Seoul, to attack the right flank of the North Koreans’ southern advance. With that beachhead established and American fighting spirit restored, the North Korean armies were pushed back across the peninsula to the Yalu River, at the northern border with China and Russia.

From a strategic point of view, America held superiority at sea and in the air, and was easily more maneuverable than the Communist armies once it brought in enough motorized vehicles and tanks. The problem was that MacArthur was restrained from using American superiority to its greatest extent; the result would have been a general war with Red China and possibly the Soviets, a war President Truman did not want. This chafed MacArthur and his subordinates, especially when Red Chinese “volunteers” swarmed over the border and pushed U.S. and U.N. troops back south of the 38th parallel. MacArthur wanted to bomb sites within Chinese Manchuria to punish the Red Chinese, and said so on several occasions. On the last occasion, writing to a U.S. congressman, Truman had had enough and relieved MacArthur of his command.

Political considerations also won out on the tactical level, especially after the battle lines stabilized (for the most part) in mid-1951. Individual units—corps, brigades, battalions, and eventually even platoons—were prevented from gaining too much of an advantage or making too aggressive of a move on their enemies because the goal was containment, not total victory. This sort of fighting brought the U.S. Army back to the sort of static trench warfare that was common during World War I, and was very costly in terms of artillery and lives (more artillery shells were fired in the three years of the Korean War than in all of World Wars I and II!). A static army is a depressed army, but it is also an army vulnerable to unpopular casualties, able to react only when the enemy attacks, giving them the initiative.

From the cultural angle, Korea was an eye-opening and painful experience for the American public. Used to all-out crusades to defeat evil, the public didn’t understand that the nation could not go back to its pre-1941 isolationism, and that the U.S. role in the world had changed. As one of two superpowers, and the only one capable of resisting Communism, America was now assuming the mantle of the British Empire, holding the line and policing the seas. A general crusade against Communism, à la World War II, was no longer possible in a world with nuclear weapons.

Worse, from the Defense Department’s point of view, was that the American public’s desire to withdraw from world affairs after 1946 meant that the armed forces, particularly the Army, were slashed to the bone. In addition, the culture of the Army had changed after the war. Having routed fascism and made the world safe for democracy, Americans assumed that nuclear weapons would keep the Communists at bay, and they had a distaste for large standing armies that was as old as the republic itself. In Fehrenbach’s view, the Army was allowed to get soft: discipline suffered, equipment was allowed to fall into disrepair and the men as a whole—mostly draftees—did not think like soldiers. America was used to citizen-soldiers, not “legions defending the frontier,” but that was what it had inherited after World War II.

Given all these constraints and problems, Fehrenbach notes that it was remarkable the U.S. did as well as it did. Basically, the American soldier, after getting his teeth kicked in for the first couple months of the North Korean invasion, relearned the art of war the hard way and stood up to their Communist enemies as well as any generation before them.

A couple of things struck me about this book, which was written in 1962, before John F. Kennedy began sending large numbers of advisors to Vietnam. First, Fehrenbach makes a compelling and impassioned plea for the U.S. to establish a professional army, “legions,” rather than to continue to depend on citizen-soldiers to defend a frontier that most citizens do not care about unless the frontier is right on their doorsteps. Unfortunately, the change from draftees to an all-volunteer force did not occur until 1973, after an even worse and more contentious bloodletting in Vietnam.

Another strange side effect of containment in Vietnam was that the U.S. couldn’t expand its military operations into neighboring “neutral” countries for a similar fear of starting a world-wide nuclear war. When the U.S. government finally did start bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia—destroying the Viet Cong’s supply chain—a valid object in war, it faced a massive public uproar against what was already an unpopular war. Fehrenbach predicted the war protests of the late 1960s in 1962, but no one in Washington was listening. They continued to believe that they could send citizen-soldiers into holding actions, and thus permanently soured much of the nation against military action of any kind.

For the modern reader, This Kind of War and the Korean War in general still hold important lessons because Korea was a paradigm shift for politicians and military planners in the post-World War II era, much as the first Gulf War was the first major conflict of the post-Cold War era. While America now has an all-volunteer, professional army (“legions”) as a result of the Cold War, it now wishes to fight “crusades,” where there are clear enemies, clear victories, and clear exit strategies. The U.S. military never really much liked containment because their operational hands were tied by political considerations and they couldn’t engage in the kinds of bold maneuvers that characterized much of World War II. The Department of Defense can once again send massive tank columns on swift thrusts into enemy territory, provided that the enemy in question doesn’t have nuclear weapons. With a nuclear-armed enemy, goals and operations must necessarily be limited, or the nukes will come out, and once that Pandora’s Box is open, it’s very hard to get it closed again.

The lessons of Korea and This Kind of War are simple, but ugly: if you don’t want to destroy civilization through nuclear war, you have to engage in limited operations against your enemy’s proxies, and you need “legions” to do so. A democracy is not prepared to volunteer for an all-out crusade unless the homeland itself attacked and a maximum effort is expected. And as more and more nations acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. military will have to fight more Koreas in the future under even tighter constraints.

And lastly, there’s this ugly truth about why the Korean War remains relevant today: we’re still there. There are still U.S. Marines on station near the 38th parallel. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) still exists. Kim Jong-Il, son of Kim Il-Sung, now rules North Korea with the same iron hand as the previous Beloved Leader. North Korea still has troops and bunkers amassed on their side of the border. South Korea and Japan are now major U.S. trading partners. Russia is no longer Communist, but China still is, as is North Korea, and all three now possess nuclear weapons. North Korea has been exporting nuclear hardware to places like Syria, Pakistan, and Iran. Korea is a problem that has not gone away. Nearly 60 years later, the best we’ve been able to manage on the Korean Peninsula is a cease-fire, and sometimes not even that. Another war is possible; what it will look like is anyone’s guess, but it will have its roots in the last war.

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