The Korean War by Max Hastings
The Korean War is oft-dubbed the Forgotten War, as it has routinely been overshadowed in both academic and popular culture by the worldwide conflict that preceded it and the Vietnamese quagmire that followed. Mention the Korean War to most Americans and the only reference they'll have, if any, is probably M*A*S*H. Yet this was a brutal war between two major powers (U.S. and China) and their indigenous allies with casualties leading into the millions, the first major military engagement between the still nebulous spheres of Western and Communist hegemony, and the closest the world has come to seeing nuclear war aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his 1987 book, The Korean War, Max Hastings also argues persuasively that Korea deserves attention not just for the costs and ramifications of the war itself, but for how portentous it was of America's future mishaps in Southeast Asia:
Above all, perhaps, Korea merits close consideration as a military rehearsal for the subsequent disaster in Vietnam. So many of the ingredients of the Indochina tragedy were already visible a decade or two earlier in Korea: the political difficulty of sustaining an unpopular and autocratic regime; the problems of creating a credible local army in a corrupt society; the fateful cost of underestimating the power of an Asian Communist army. For all the undoubted benefits of air superiority and close support, Korea vividly displayed the difficulties of using air power effectively against a primitive economy, a peasant army. The war also demonstrated the problem of deploying a highly mechanized Western army in broken country against a lightly equipped foe... Yet because it proved possible finally to stabilize the battle in Korea on terms which allowed the United Nations--or more realistically, the United States--to deploy its vast firepower from fixed positions, to defeat the advance of the massed Communist armies, many of the lessons of Korea were misunderstood, or not learned at all.
And in time, the entire conflict would lapse into the recesses of history. It was easier for most Americans to simply move on than to face some rather upsetting facts: that we had been caught by surprise by the invasion; that our military had been allowed to deteriorate and was thus ill-prepared for war; that our choice to make a stand in Korea was haphazardly made and lacking in strategic war aims; that the American soldier performed poorly in the early stages of the war; and that all the might of the American war machine could not push the combined Chinese and North Korean enemy much past the 38th parallel without incurring casualties that our political will could not endure.
Thus a story that has many of the makings of great history, from the justice in repelling an aggressive invader to the dramatic see-saw nature of the front lines to Douglas MacArthur's last gasp of genius at Inchon before his inglorious fall, has been largely underexamined by those unwilling to grapple with a war that defies easy understanding or categorization. Hastings sought to "make at least a modest contribution toward remedying the omission" with his book, which opens with the dramatic tragedy of Task Force Smith, the first Americans to engage with the marauding Communist forces, who found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by the enemy:
The official figures show that Task Force Smith had suffered 155 casualties in the action at Osan. By the time they returned, they discovered that any shortcomings in their own unit's performance on July 5 had already been outstripped by far less honorable, indeed positively shameful, humilitations suffered by other elements of the American 24th Division in its first days of war, as the North Korean invaders swept all before them on their bloody procession south down the peninsula. And all this flowed, inexorably, from the sudden decision of the United States to commit itself to the least expected of wars, in the least predicted of places, under the most unfavorable possible military conditions. Had the men of Task Force Smith, on the road south of Suwon, known that they were striking the first armed flow for that new force in world order, the United Nations, it might have made their confused, unhappy, almost pathetic little battle on July 5 seem more dignified. On the other hand, it might have made it appear more incomprehensible than ever.
With the Soviet Union boycotting the U.N. so long as Chiang Kai-Shek controlled the Chinese seat, the U.S. and its allies were able to push through resolutions endorsing the use of force to repel the North Korean attack. With allied forces driven back and hanging on to a tiny corner of southeast Korea surrounding Pusan, the stage was set for the type of dramatic action that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers was made for:
For all its undisputed Korean provenance, the name of Inchon possesses a wonderfully resonant American quality. It summons a vision of military genius undulled by time, undiminished by more recent memories of Asian defeat. Inchon remains a monument to "can do," to improvisation and risk-taking on a magnificent scale, above all to the spirit of Douglas MacArthur. So much must be said elsewhere in these pages about American misfortunes in Korea, about grievous command misjudgments and soldierly shortcomings, that there is little danger here of overblowing the trumpet. The amphibious landings of September 15, 1950, were MacArthur's masterstroke. In a world in which nursery justice decided military affairs, Operation Chromite would have won the war for the United States.
And yet the operation was almost too successful. With the Communist forces in disarray, MacArthur was not the only one who got wrapped up in delusions of grandeur. It seemed inevitable to continue the counteroffensive beyond the status quo ante bellum at the 38th parallel in an effort to utterly defeat the North Korean regime and re-unify the peninsula. Yet little thought was given to how the Chinese might feel about the massive American army that was soon approaching their country's borders, particularly after the U.S. had deployed the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait. Instead, American intelligence focused on the Soviet passivity, assuming the Chinese would never act alone. They were wrong:
Westerners, and Americans in particular, sometime made the mistake of allowing their scorn for propagandist rhetoric... to blind them to the very real Chinese fear of encirclement. Throughout the Korean War, Washington persistently sought the communist ideological logic behind Chinese actions. It might have been more profitable to consider instead historic Chinese nationalist logic. Korea had provided the springboard for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria only a generation before. As the Americans drove north after smashing Kim Il Sung's armies in September 1950, Peking was appalled by the imminent prospect of an American imperialist army on the Yalu.
And thus starting in November 1950, the U.N. forces found themselves driven from the cusps of victory by hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, many of them hardened veterans of their recent civil war. By January 1951, the Chinese and North Koreans had again advanced south of the 38th parallel, recapturing Seoul along the way. Though General Matthew Ridgway would eventually lead allied forces back across the parallel, the entrance of the Chinese in such smashing fashion signaled the end of any possibility other than a negotiated settlement. That the war would last a further two years without any significant change, with thousands more dying while the diplomats postured and prevaricated, is one of the great tragedies of the war and is reminiscent of the utter wastefulness of the First World War:
From time to time the planners in Washington and Tokyo conceived grand initiatives for airborne drops or amphibious landings behind the enemy flank, designed dramatically to concentrate Peking's minds upon the negotiating table... The confidence of many American commanders in their ability to smash the Chinese line and reach the Yalu once more, if the leashes were slipped and the UN armies plunged all out for victory, remained a source of deep frustration. But the political realities ensured that their hopes were stillborn. The American public was weary of Korea. It was narrowly possible to sustain America's national will for the defense of a line across the peninsula until a compromise was reached, for avoiding the concession of defeat to the Communists. But the political consequences of any action involving many thousands of casualties--as an all-out offensive must--were intolerable.
The author's British perspective is both an asset and a handicap. He is able to provide insights to the international sense of the war that a U.S.-centric author might overlook, particularly regarding their fears of MacArthur and America's apparent nonchalance about the threatened use of nuclear weapons. The British contributions to the war effort also demonstrate how quickly that country stepped into the role of loyal U.S. ally, even as their domestic economy shuddered under the costs of rearmament. Devoting an entire chapter to the Imjin River battle, however, while of great interest to Hastings' countrymen, seems out of proportion to the single sentence mentions of Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. For all his discussions of the British Commonwealth Division, one might be surprised to learn that the U.S. had twenty-five men on the peninsula for each Commonwealth soldier. And while much of his criticisms of the average American foot soldier are surely valid, Hastings' reliance on the condescending remembrances of British veterans to substantiate these criticisms is more parochial than persuasive (and not remedied by reference to the few anecdotal American sources he collected on the subject).
Through most of the text, Hastings employs a technique similar to Stephen Ambrose's volumes on World War II, relying largely on "oral interviews with participants in the Korean War and those familiar with its diplomatic and political aspects" to construct a narrative of the war. For those who love Ambrose's style, and there are legions, this will seem an ideal way to learn about the Korean War. But as much as I enjoyed the flavor provided by the first-hand accounts in Ambrose's books, particularly Band of Brothers, I can't say I find history by anecdote a particularly helpful way to understand military conflicts of this scope, let alone the geopolitical causes and consequences. Instead, the reliance on extended quotations tends to result in a disjointed narrative rather lacking in overall coherence and substantive analysis. To his credit, Hastings admits up front that he does not purport to write a comprehensive history. So this is not a bad place to start for those, like myself, wholly lacking in prior reading on the Korean War, but not satisfactory as a sole source for rescuing this conflict from its near-universal neglect.