Military history



And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

— Matthew, 24:6.

THE KOREAN WAR ended inconclusively on 27 July 1953. Not until long afterward was it even dignified by the name of war—the governmental euphemism was Korean conflict—and it rapidly became the most forgotten war in American history. There was little in it, from near-disastrous beginning to honorable but frustrating end, that appealed to American sensibilities. Because they cannot look back on it with any sense of satisfaction, or even the haunted pride that a defeated nation sometimes finds, Americans prefer not to look back at all.

Yet men forget, as always, at their peril.

There have been millions of words written about the cold war, Communist-Western competition, and Korea. Perhaps, as Major Hanson Baldwin wrote:

The angry voices speaking shrilly in the land—the carping arguments of men who contend the war was lost and of other men who term Korea "victory"—will pass away. But the deeds of those who fought, the men who died and those who lived, beget their own posterity. Arguments and objectives, grand strategy and national policy, even Korea as a fork in the road of history, may come to have, in future generations, less meaning than the human drama of life and death in the stinking valleys and denuded hills of a peninsula where wars have raged since man first raised fist to man.

Somehow, the fateful moments when Task Force Smith first sighted the ominous approach of a powerful enemy from its green wet hills through the Korean rain, or when the 5th and 7th Marines understood that they were cut off and surrounded at frozen Yudam-ni or when General Matthew B. Ridgway asked MacArthur if he had permission to attack "if things seemed right"—these moments of life and death and human drama have more historic significance than all the words spoken in Cabinet, all the long communiqués, all the painful hammering out of the policy of containment.

For every time a nation or a people commits its sons to combat, it inevitably commits its full prestige, its hopes for the future, and the continuance of its way of life, whatever it may be. If the United States ground forces had not eventually held in Korea, Americans would have been faced with two choices: holocaust or humiliation. General, atomic war, in a last desperate attempt to save the game, would have gained Americans none of the things they seek in this world; humiliating defeat and withdrawal from Korea would have inevitably surrendered Asia to a Communist surge, destroying forever American hopes for a free and ordered society across the world.

A nation that does not prepare for all the forms of war should then renounce the use of war in national policy. A people that does not prepare to fight should then be morally prepared to surrender. To fail to prepare soldiers and citizens for limited, bloody ground action, and then to engage in it, is folly verging on the criminal.

This, from the scamper at Osan to the bloody withdrawal from the Ch'ongch'on to the heroic resistance at Chipyong-ni, the Imjin, the Soyang, and Pork Chop Hill, is a lesson Americans and others must take from Korea.

Because the Korean War was not, as most large wars were, the end of an era, but only a bloody skirmish in the middle of the post-World War II age, no definitive history can yet be written. The principal figures of the Korean War are still living, and many are still in power. The game still goes on. Yet Korea set certain patterns for the future.

The Communist powers, notably Soviet Russia, would remember the rapid escalation from a small, almost civil-type conflict into a large-scale action involving most of the major powers of the world. After Korea, overt, brutal armed aggression, which had produced so violent—and unexpected—a counteraction from the West, would be avoided. Now the emphasis would be on infiltration, subversion, and insurgency to gain Communist ends in the fringe areas; the trick was never again, as with the South Korean invasion, to give the West a clear moral issue.

Communist planners, studying the lessons of Korea, could not help wondering what the result might have been could they have slipped several North Korean divisions into the South clandestinely, keeping them supplied across a fluid border. They might well wonder if the West would have then sprung to the defense of autocratic old Dr. Syngman Rhee, even though the interests of the West were equally imperiled.

The Red Chinese, impervious to human loss and suffering, gloried in their sudden leap to large-power status—for by defying the United Nations, and holding the Western armies in check, they became a great power in the East. They learned many of the lessons of modern ground warfare, and proved that Chinese armies could perform creditably in the field. They, more than the Soviets, would be eager to try again, for they had less to lose; but they still could not move without their industrial ally's aid and consent.

Neither power would desire general war, for both were realists, not perhaps in what they say, but in what they do.

They were balked, not defeated. Inevitably, they would try again, if not Korea, elsewhere. Within a year after Korean fighting ended, they would succeed in Vietnam, this time without overt aggression.

From the Korean War the United States drew troubled conclusions. American policy had been to contain Communism along the parallel, and in this, American policy succeeded. But not one realized, at the beginning, how exceedingly costly such containment would be. The war reaffirmed in American minds the distaste for land warfare on the continent of Asia, the avoidance of which has always been a foundation of United States policy. But the war proved that containment in Asia could not be forged with nuclear bombs and that threats were not enough, unless the United States intended to answer a Communist pinprick with general holocaust.

Yet the American people, Army, and leaders generally proved unwilling to accept wars of policy in lieu of crusades against Communism. Innocence had been lost, but the loss was denied. The government that had ordered troops into Korea knew that the issue was never whether Syngman Rhee was right or wrong but that his loss would adversely affect the status of the United States—which was not arguable.

That government's inability to communicate, and its repudiation at the polls, firmly convinced many men of the political dangers of committing American ground troops in wars of containment. Yet without the continual employment of limited force around the globe, or even with it, there was to be no order. The world could not be policed with ships, planes, and bombs—policemen were also needed.

Less than a year after fighting ended in Korea, Vietnam was lost to the West, largely because of the complete repugnance of Americans toward committing a quarter of a million ground troops in another apparently indecisive skirmish with Communism. Even more important, the United States, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported, simply did not have the troops.

Korea, from Task Force Smith at Osan to the last days at Pork Chop, indicates that the policy of containment cannot be implemented without professional legions. Yet every democratic government is reluctant to face the fact. Reservists and citizen-soldiers stand ready, in every free nation, to stand to the colors and die in holocaust, the big war. Reservists and citizen-soldiers remain utterly reluctant to stand and die in anything less. None want to serve on the far frontiers, or to maintain lonely, dangerous vigils on the periphery of Asia. There has been every indication that mass call-ups for cold war moves may result in mass disaffection.

The United States will be forced to fight wars of policy during the balance of the century. This is inevitable, since the world is seething with disaffection and revolt, which, however justified and merited, plays into Communist hands, and swings the world balance ever their way. Military force alone cannot possibly solve the problem—but without the application of some military force certain areas, such as Southeast Asia, will inevitably be lost.

However repugnant the idea is to liberal societies, the man who will willingly defend the free world in the fringe areas is not the responsible citizen-soldier. The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legions are made.

His pride is in his colors and his regiment, his training hard and thorough and coldly realistic, to fit him for what he must face, and his obedience is to his orders. As a legionary, he held the gates of civilization for the classical world; as a bluecoated horseman he swept the Indians from the Plains; he has been called United States Marine. He does the jobs—the utterly necessary jobs—no militia is willing to do. His task is moral or immoral according to the orders that send him forth. It is inevitable, since men compete.

Since the dawn of time, men have competed with each other—with clubs, crossbows, or cannon, dollars, ballots, and trading stamps. Much of mankind, of course, abhors competition, and these remain the acted upon, not the actors.

Anyone who says there will be no competition in the future simply does not understand the nature of man.

The great dilemma of our time is that, with two great power blocs in the world, each utterly distrustful of the other, and one, at least, eager to compete, we cannot compete with thermonuclear weapons. Competition, after all, is controlled action or controlled violence for an end, and nuclear weapons do not lend themselves to control. And in nuclear war there is apparently no prize, even for first place.

Yet men must compete.

It is still possible that one or both segments of mankind will embark upon what will be the last crusade. It is much more likely that they will collide again on lesser scale, as they have before. But even on a lesser scale the game can be lost, or won.

We can lose the game not only because of the nature of our enemies, but because of our own. We understand we cannot ignore the competition, and realize with frustration that we cannot end it by putting our competitor out of business with a bang, but we will not willingly face the fact that we may walk along the chasm, beset by tigers, for many years to come.

There will be more threats in fringe areas, like Korea, because Communist doctrine demands them. Here ends and even morality will be vague. There will be no cheap, easy, or popular answers to these threats. We may have the choice of limited, controlled violence for temporary ends—or of blowing the whistle on the game—and with the game, possibly mankind.

The enemy is no superman, as was proved on Pork Chop Hill. Anything he can do, we can do better—if we have the will. At Pork Chop men said we played the enemy game, not our own—but from Saigon to Berlin the enemy game may be the only one in town.

Korea showed, or should have shown, that all is not easy in this world, that for the rest of this century things may not get better but will probably get worse, and to talk despairingly of going up in smoke or frying in hard radiation is no answer. If the free nations want a certain kind of world, they will have to fight for it, with courage, money, diplomacy—and legions.

Korea showed it was time to tell the men who man our legions that there is nothing easy is this world, that there are tigers, and to furnish them not only with atomic life eradicators but tiger guns. Korea showed that a free government must be prepared to do the unpopular thing, even if it destroys itself. Governments are not important; nations and peoples and what they stand for, are.

It was time for free, decent societies to continue to control their military forces, but to quit demanding from them impossible acquiescence in the liberal view toward life. A "modern" infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future—but it must also be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised. for instant obedience, and prepared to die in the mud.

If liberal, decent societies cannot discipline themselves to do all these things, they may have nothing to offer the world. They may not last long enough.

Aristotle wrote, Almost all things have been found out, but some have been forgotten.

Americans have learned of Brad Smith, who first saw long, black T-34s rumble forward in the rain at Osan, of the late Company A, of Frank Muñoz and Company at the horror of Kunu-ri, of Mike Shinka on Obong-ni, John Yancey led back blind from the icy hills beside Chang-jin, and Joe Clemons' dozen men who were King indeed on Pork Chop Hill. These were the Korean War—the misery, the waste, the splendor, the courage, the trauma that lingers still. Millions of Americans can find no meaning in any of it.

It is while men talk blithely of the lessons of history that they ignore them.

The lesson of Korea is that it happened.

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