“God too, has sinned, that’s what I used to think. He looked down on this blazing hell, and he remained silent.”
― Hwang Sok-yong
After I made such a good start on my new years resolutions, I am back on my bullshit. This week, we’ll discuss – and you’ll never guess this – a war! In my defense, I bought the book at the airport on my way home for Christmas – so technically it is a 2018 book.
Airport bookshops are a weird subspecies of bookstores – their stock consists entirely of the latest bestseller or really eccentric niche interests. Nothing in between. Oh, and some advice books for managers, I guess.
But I digress.
So I was at the airport, doing my rounds, and saw this book. I picked it up and realized I knew next to nothing about Korea. My only point of reference is the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC. It is, in my opinion, one of the best war memorials I have ever seen. I remember seeing it and being a bit creeped out – but that’s a good sign, isn’t it?
I was there in July or August (I distinctively remember it being a sweltering hot day when my sis and me later trudged over the bridge to Arlington Cemetery) and yet I feel like the foundation of the memorial was covered in fog. Which is impossible, but yet my mind insists.
Here’s a picture, if you have never seen the memorial:
It’s an impressive memorial for a War that most people forgot. Vietnam has pushed Korea out of memory, and if the conflict is brought up at all, it’s often to serve as a comparison to Vietnam.
These were my thoughts when I stood in that bookstore, Max Hasting’s book in hand. And if there is one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I do not like not knowing things.
So I bought the book.
And it was the perfect book to give me the basics about Korea – which is exactly what i was looking for.
After reading the book, I realized that Korea should not be used as a comparison to Vietnam. Rather, it should be discussed firstly in its own right, and secondly as a necessary stepping stone on the way to Vietnam
Korea has some uniqueness to it. It was the first proxy war of the Cold war. It is the only time (after WWII) that two superpowers were in direct conflict with each other (without ever officially declaring war). And it was, crucially, the first major conflict fought in a world where nuclear bombs existed.
But let’s start with what happened.
So, largely speaking, Korea wasn’t on anyone’s map, really. (literally – some US troops had to steal maps from schools to navigate). It came, politely put, as a surprise when, on the 25th of June 1950, North Korean forces stepped over the 38th parallel, which was the dividing line between the communist north and the Rhee regime in the South.
The communists invade the South, and the US goes “can you. not do that. Like. We don’t care much about Korea as a country, but we do care a lot about stopping communism, so go back to where you came from and we pretend this never happened.”
The North Koreans (this happened under the grandfather of the chubby dude who met with Trump) did not go back.
So the US complained to the UN. (This is also back when they still believed in international organizations.) Because the Russians were boycotting the UN in a hissy fit, the US actually managed to get the UN to go to war.
Everybody knew that this would be a US led war in all but name, and that the US military would call the shots.
Truman now had international support, he had a cause, and all he needed to get this war on the road was someone to lead his army.
And he chose Douglas MacArthur.
Now, if Douglas MacArthur would have been born in our days, he would be either an instagram fitness model or a contributing commentator on CNN.
Not to bad-mouth him – he commanded the troops in the Pacific during WWII and played a major role in the defense of the Philippines. He was the one to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945, and thereafter became the effective ruler of Japan.
Perhaps his time in Japan made him more partial to public relations than to warfare, or perhaps he simply lost touch with the world moving on – but this guy basically planned the Korea War as if it was a movie.
He directed most movements from his headquarters in Japan, and only flew over to fire the ceremonial first gun on major advances. He liked to talk to the press. A lot. He wasn’t what you would call ‘in touch’ with the reality on the ground.
But for a while, things went great. After the first territorial gains that scared the bejeezus out of everbody, the UN / US troops managed to fight the North Koreans back.
In fact, they might have been too successful, because MacArthur (without consulting Congress, or the President, or the American Public generally) decided to take this fight home to the North Koreans, and gave the order to invade North Korea.
“Guys, you’re getting terribly close to our borders” China said. “Could you stop. You beat them, let’s put things back to the way they were, and we promise to keep a closer eye on Kim from now on, so that this won’t happen again.”
“I can’t hear you over the noise of my pipe” MacArthur said, “Besides, we can take you on any day as well. USA! USA! USA!”
So the UN troops raced north, reached the Yalu river, which is the border between North Korea and China and… things turned bad.
Like. BAD – bad. Not ‘oups this is not what we planned’ bad, but ‘holy shit this is insane” bad.
Because China made good on her words and entered the war. And there was a teeny tiny thing called the Korean Winter coming as well.
And so MacArthur suffered the same fate as Napoleon and Hitler in Russia – his army was completely unprepared for the winter.
It must have been horrendous. Between freezing and being attacked by the Chinese, the UN troops turned and ran back south. There was a complete breakdown of command structure. Soldiers just bailed, and if they weren’t killed by the cold, or reached the south, they were taken prisoner by the Chinese, and up for a long couple years in horrific conditions.
MacArthur didn’t like reality to interfere with his opinions, so he … pretty much didn’t acknowledge the fact that his army was now not just retreating, but running away. Instead, he called upon China to surrender, and told them he would fight to the end.
By now, Truman was seriously creeped out by MacArthur and his behavior. So were most of the US allies. When it came out that MacArthur had serious plans to escalate the war and attack China directly (which would have drawn Russia into the conflict, causing WWIII), Truman finally found his guts and sacked MacArthur.
(Seriously, guys – we were a bit too close to WWIII there. All because of MacArthur. Never trust a guy with a pipe!)
So once MacArthur was gone (well, he still continued to give his opinion, whether he was asked or not) things … stabilized. In other words, there was a stalemate.
For the last two years of the war, neither side advanced very much. In fact, a General in the British Army, who had been fighting in WWI, said that the situation on the ground in Korea reminded him of Flanders. What a sad statement.
So while the negotiations dragged on, so did the fighting. It was ferocious, brutal – and completely in vain. There simply was no military solution to the conflict.
The only thing that could have created a breakthrough would have been a gigantic US offensive all along the front – but Truman rightly estimated that the US population had grown tired of the conflict and wouldn’t support the losses that this kind of exercise would incur.
One word about the PoWs – if there was ever one location where you don’t want to find yourself, it’s a PoW camp during the Korean War. Both sides ignored the rules of the Geneva convention. It is hard to say who treated prisoners worse – the Chinese who tried to indoctrinate their western prisoners and enforced a brutal regime of strict discipline – or the Americans, who displayed a healthy dose of racism towards their Asian prisoners and allowed their prison camps to succumb to absolute chaos.
In a war where no military victory could be achieved, the prisoners turned into hostages for the peace negotiations.
During the last fourteen months of the war, the front lines hardly moved at all.
The breakthrough came when the newly elected US President Eisenhower strongly hinted that he wouldn’t mind using a nuclear bomb to solve this conflict.
(The question whether Eisenhower actually intended to use the bomb, or used it as a bargaining chip to scare the Chinese into cooperation is hotly debated. Hastings says Eisenhower never seriously considered dropping a bomb, but it’s up to discussion.)
The Chinese quickly caved and finally, on July 27th, 1953, the Korean War ended.
The losses on both sides were horrible – the UN coalition suffered over 200,000 men killed or wounded. The Chinese casualties are, of course, harder to estimate in the absence of official (reliable) figures, but are estimated to be about double that.
As in every conflict, it was the civilian population who suffered most – about 2.5 million Koreans are thought to have been killed or wounded during the war that devastated much of their country.
Most heartbreaking – and much like WWI – is the fact that the prewar boundary almost lines up with the armistice line, which forms the border between North and South Korea to this day. All this suffering and sacrifice was for naught.
Interesting bits I left out:
- So you might have asked what the government of South Korea thought of all of this, and the short answer is “nothing good.” Much like Vietnam two decades later, the US was fighting the fight for a corrupt and undemocratic regime. Syngman Rhee, the President of South Korea during the war, sounds like a completely abhorrent person. But the US couldn’t allow any civil war in the South, so they tolerated Rhee and pretended they didn’t notice his autocratic tendencies.
- The story behind the 38th parallel is fucking fantastic. So during WWII, Japan had invaded Korea, which meant that after the empire fell, the US was afraid that the Soviets would invade the entire island. They had to come up with a dividing line, pronto – two junior staff members took a National Geographic magazine, realized the 38th parallel split the country roughly in half, and called it a day. So one of the most important frontiers in the 20th century was decided by complete randomness.)
- MacArthur came up with increasingly fantastic military plans. Before they realized what a nutcase he was, the military actually went along with them – most famously, the Inchon Landing. It was supposed to be a repetition of DDay in Normandy, except that… well, everything was badly planned, not thought through, or just ignored.
Actually, I should tell you the story of Inchon because it is so batshit crazy and tells you a lot about MacArthur.
So, when it comes to amphibious landings, you want the following: a low tidal range (to make it easier to get to land), the element of surprise (as your forces are never more vulnerable to enemy attack than when stepping ashore), a landing time early in the day (to give the troops enough time to secure their position) and no currents (so that your troops don’t end up where they shouldn’t).
Normandy was chosen, amongst other factors, because it had a near perfect combination of the above.
Inchon, where MacArthur wanted to land, did not. For starters, it has a thirty-two-foot tidal range. This meant that there were only three possible dates where the tidal flood would be big enough to give the big landing craft three hours ashore. There was also a fierce current, and an offshore island. This meant that you had to take the island first (losing the element of surprise) before you could launch your operation.
The generals looked at this and said: “No fucking way.”
MacArthur said: (and this is a quote) “I never thought the day would come when the navy would be unable to support the army in its operations.”
Yes, you read that right. He basically guilt-tripped the navy into a foolhardy operation that only succeeded because the North Koreans were at that point completely starved of supplies and ammunition.
So yes, Korea was a mess, but at least there was a clear cut reason for starting this war. There was a clear act of aggression from the North Koreans. Unlike twenty years later, one might add.