Folks, this week’s read is a TREAT. Unexpected and yet absolutely astonishing. I read this book in two days, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The story of how I came across it is a bit convoluted – back when Trump appointed Mattis as his Secretary of Defense, there were a couple of articles about the former General, all of which noted that Mattis was known for reading a lot and preparing reading lists for his subordinates.
Well, I looked up those reading lists and realized Mattis and I have a similar taste in books – not sure what that says about either of us. Anyway. “This Kind of War” was on the list as well, and yet, I had never heard of it before. It is considered a classic about the War in Korea, so I figured I’d give it a try. And I need to thank Mattis now, because I would have missed out if I had never read it.
We talked about the Korean War a couple of weeks back, so I’m not going to repeat the basic history of the conflict. Instead, I want to focus on the arguments that made me sit up and take notes. Because Fehrenbach has a story to tell.
The first point Fehrenbach makes is to distinguish between citizen and soldiers. According to him, You can be either, but not both at the same time – and, more importantly, they don’t work for the same kind of wars.
Take World War 2. It’s all part of the myth of the ‘Greatest Generation’ now – this idea that a generation of citizens went to arms to defend freedom.
Korea, however, sent citizen soldiers (remember that the Army got downsized after 1945, and Korea forced the military to recall a lot of their former soldiers from their civilian life) to fight a political war. This, Fehrenbach says, didn’t work, simply because the citizen- soldiers didn’t understand what they were there to accomplish. Their only valid reason to go to war ever is to defend values. Korea, however, was a political war – the goal was to defend the frontier, just like the Roman Empire fought wars on their frontier. But citizen soldiers will not understand this – they will resent being sent abroad to fight for what amounts to a power play.
You can send professional soldiers to fight a political war – they see themselves as tools. I thought about this a lot and I tend to agree with this idea. Decades of the war on terror have created a new caste of warrior-soldiers in the US. It is known that the military is recruiting from a small subset of families. It should also be mentioned that poor kids are statistically far more likely to sign up than kids from privileged backgrounds. The author is not too worried about this – he says having a warrior caste is compatible with democracy as long as you acknowledge it exists and it isn’t a closed caste – meaning people have a choice to leave (or join) if they want to. Still, I wonder if it is a good sign that the interests of the US are defended by poor kids who see the military as their only way to pay for College.
As a side note – This book was published in 1963, back when things were (very) different. I would love to hear the author’s opinion on the state of the military today.
It is absolutely astonishing to know that this book came out before the Vietnam War. It does a terrific job at explaining the trap the US walked into in Korea – and by that, I mean less on the battleground and more in defending the war back home. To know what the author couldn’t have known – that the US would commit the same mistake again in five years in yet another Asian country – made me remember that old line about history repeating itself, if only because we never learn. It was all there.
The second great point of this book is to talk about the enemy – specifically, how the US fought the wrong one.
Obviously, the geopolitical foe of the US was the Soviet Union. There were three options to act: let the Soviets get away with everything, combat them directly and head-on, or put a foot down whenever they are trying to change the status quo.
Of course, the second option – engaging the Soviet Union – was rendered almost impossible by nuclear bombs. If the US were to engage the Soviet Union directly, the conflict would end in Armageddon.
But, the author says, the American public only supports war if it is to be waged against a formidable foe in a battle over core values. There is no compromise when you are fighting a moral foe – you either win (by extinguishing your enemy) or you get destroyed. It makes more sense if you remember the Second World War, when all of these conditions were met. The United States found itself in an epic struggle against the ultimate foe. The war was fought not to gain territory or influence, but to beat the ultimate evil. This, according to the author, is the only kind of war the American Public wants to fight.
Of course, if you put Korea (or, of course, Vietnam) against this ideal, it comes up short. It is immediately evident that these wars were fought not against the ultimate foe (which would have been the Soviet Union), but out of political reasons – namely, to stop the spread of communism (not communism itself).
The question that was asked over and over in Vietnam was ‘But why are we here?’. The honest answer was, of course, because the American empire was threatened at its frontier, much like the Roman empire was threatened in Saxony. But because this answer wasn’t acceptable – or, quite simply, good enough – there was this disconnect between the war aims and the actual war that was fought on the ground.
“What are we fighting for?” Nobody knew, because nobody told them: They fought Korea because they couldn’t fight Russia. It was a war at the wrong time, at the wrong place, against the wrong enemy. Just like Vietnam.
They should have known, really. Or, rather – there was no reason they couldn’t have known that Vietnam would turn out to be a disaster.