Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lessons from Korea: ‘This Kind of War’

Review by Bill Doughty

The Marines remember Korea.  Lessons learned in frozen battlefields and bloody ridges of Korea influenced a generation of U.S. Marine Corps and other military leaders.

T. R. Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War” turns 50 years old this year.  Subtitled, “The Classic Korean War History” (and originally subtitled “A Study in Unpreparedness”), the book is a key pick on the Commandant’s reading list.

The book opens with a passage from Sun Tzu, translated from Chinese, from “The Art of War.”

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even into death.  If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt, kind-hearted but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder, then your soldiers must be likened to spoiled children; they are useless for any practical purpose.” -- Sun Tzu

Itself a lesson of warfighting, Sun Tzu’s admonition and description comes to mind throughout Fehrenbach’s book as he describes toughness, will, pride, training and a commitment to fight “on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”

That’s especially true for the United States Marines, then and now.

“Except in holy wars, or in defense of their native soil, men fight well only because of pride and training -- pride in themselves and their service, enough training to absorb the rough blows of war and to know what to do.  Few men, of any breed, really prefer to kill or be killed.  These Marines had pride in their service, which had been carefully instilled in them, and they had pride in themselves ... and they had discipline.”
1st Marine Division Marines board a ship in San Diego, heading to Far East.

The author sees the Korean War as an ongoing conflict between two blocs -- Communism and the freedom-loving West, rooted in the past, with Korea, or Chosun, doomed for inevitable continued conflicts.

Because it was written just ten years after the armistice in the midst of the Cold War and just as the Vietnam War was getting started, some of the author’s insights are best appreciated as fresh observations of their time, of the past, but Fehrenbach makes his points with an eye to the future, too, almost predicting drone warfare and radical islamic terrorism:

“Nothing had happened to pushbutton warfare; its emergence was at hand.  Horrible weapons that could destroy every city on earth were at hand -- at too many hands.  But pushbutton warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon , hopefully will never be an end of national policy ... There is another kind of conflict -- crusade, jihad, holy war, call it what you choose.  It has been loosed before, with attendant horror but indecisive results.”

U.S. Marine infantrymen in Chosin, Dec. 5, 1950. (USMC photo)
Along with fiery descriptions of Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill, among other battles, much of the book focuses on the political and social influences that affected they way the war was prosecuted, especially by the Army.  The author also touches on the Air Force’s role and says this about the Navy:

“It was hard for all the services.  The Navy, forced to blockade and patrol, had lonely cheerless duty in the China seas, unrelieved by much action.  Its carrier pilots flew dangerous patrols, and sometimes its landing parties went ashore on North Korea -- but the rest of the time the Navy sowed mines, or harvested them, and merely stood on station in the gray waters off Korea.  Without its utter control of those seas, there would have been no U.N. stand in Korea ... the Navy was fulfilling its primary mission -- keeping control of the seas, and holding the sea lanes open.”

Fehrenbach sees the Korean War as a bulwark against communism overtaking Asia.  Again, his conclusions have to be appreciated in the time they were made -- when the Soviet Union still existed and before Communist China embraced capitalism.

“The Korean War ended inconclusively on 27 July 1953,” the author writes in his concluding chapter.  “The lesson of Korea is that it happened.”  

He warns against forgetting the lessons of history:  “Aristotle wrote, ‘Almost all things have been found out, but some have been forgotten.’

Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” by the way, is listed on the Commandant’s Professional Reading list as “book of the month.”

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos says "Reading is a critical continuing action ... a critical aspect of our commitment to the profession of arms."

Remembering the Legacy

Today, July 27, 2013, Commander-in-Chief President Barack Obama remembered the veterans who served and preserved freedom for the Republic of Korea 60 years ago.  He put the so-called “forgotten war” in context of its legacy, focusing on some of the reasons it should be remembered.  Here is part of his speech to Korean War veterans and their families at the National Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“Freedom is not free.  And in Korea, no one paid a heavier price than those who gave all -- 36,574 American patriots, and, among our allies, more than one million of our South Korean friends -- soldiers and civilians.  That July day, when the fighting finally ended, not far from where it began, some suggested this sacrifice had been for naught, and they summed it up with a phrase -- 'die for a tie.' 
“It took many decades for this memorial to gain its rightful place on this great Mall where we tell our American story.  It has, perhaps, taken even longer to see clearly, and understand fully, the true legacy of your service.  But here, today, we can say with confidence that war was no tie.  Korea was a victory.  When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom -- a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North -- that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.
“When our soldiers stand firm along the DMZ; when our South Korean friends can go about their lives, knowing that the commitment of the United States to the security of the Republic of Korea will never waver -- that is a victory, and that is your legacy.
“When our allies across the Asia Pacific know -- as we have proven in Korea for 60 straight years -- that the United States will remain a force for peace and security and prosperity --that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.
“And for generations to come, when history recalls how free nations banded together in a long Cold War, and how we won that war, let it be said that Korea was the first battle -- where freedom held its ground and free peoples refused to yield, that, too, is your victory, your legacy.” -- President Barack Obama

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