More than anything else, the Korean War was not a test of power

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

The Korean War kicked off 70 years ago today — and ended four years later with an armistice, not a “real” treaty.

While reading There Will Be War, Volume 2, I came across an essay — the book is a collection of science fiction stories and nonfiction essays — by T. R. Fehrenbach, called “Proud Legions,” that was borrowed from the introductory chapter of his book This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War, and it impressed me enough to buy the book. Here is a taste:

It was a minor collision, a skirmish — but the fact that such a skirmish between the earth’s two power blocs cost more than two million human lives showed clearly the extent of the chasm beside which men walked.

More than anything else, the Korean War was not a test of power — because neither antagonist used full powers — but of wills. The war showed that the West had misjudged the ambition and intent of the Communist leadership, and clearly revealed that leadership’s intense hostility to the West; it also proved that Communism erred badly in assessing the response its aggression would call forth.

The men who sent their divisions crashing across the 38th parallel on 25 June 1950 hardly dreamed that the world would rally against them, or that the United States — which had repeatedly professed its reluctance to do — would commit ground forces onto the mainland of Asia.

From the fighting, however inconclusive the end, each side could take home valuable lessons. The Communists would understand that the free world — in particular the United States — had the will to react quickly and practically and without panic in a new situation. The American public, and that of Europe, learned that the postwar world was not the pleasant place they hoped it would be, that it could not be neatly policed by bombers and carrier aircraft and nuclear warheads, and that the Communist menace could be disregarded only at extreme peril.

[...]

The great test placed upon the United States was not whether it had the power to devastate the Soviet Union — this it had — but whether the American leadership had the will to continue to fight for an orderly world rather than to succumb to hysteric violence. Twice in the century uncontrolled violence had swept the world, and after untold bloodshed and destruction nothing was accomplished. Americans had come to hate war, but in 1950 were no nearer to abolishing it than they had been a century before.

But two great bloodlettings, and the advent of the Atomic Age with its capability of fantastic destruction, taught Americans that their traditional attitudes toward war — to regard war as an unholy thing, but once involved, however reluctantly, to strike those who unleashed it with holy wrath — must be altered. In the Korean War, Americans adopted a course not new to the world, but new to them. They accepted limitations on warfare, and accepted controlled violence as the means to an end. Their policy — for the first time in the century — succeeded. The Korean War was not followed by the tragic disillusionment of World War I, or the unbelieving bitterness of 1946 toward the fact that nothing had been settled. But because Americans for the first time lived in a world in which they could not truly win, whatever the effort, and from which they could not withdraw, without disaster, for millions the result was trauma.

During the Korean War, the United States found that it could not enforce international morality and that its people had to live and continue to fight in a basically amoral world. They could oppose that which they regarded as evil, but they could not destroy it without risking their own destruction.

[...]

Perhaps the values that comprise a decent civilization and those needed to defend it abroad will always be at odds. A complete triumph for either faction would probably result in disaster.

[...]

“Discipline,” like the terms “work” and “fatherland” — among the greatest of human values — has been given an almost repugnant connotation from its use by Fascist ideologies. But the term “discipline” as used in these pages does not refer to the mindless, robot-like obedience and self-abasement of a Prussian grenadier. Both American sociologists and soldiers agree that it means, basically, self-restraint — the self-restraint required not to break the sensible laws whether they be imposed against speeding or against removing an uncomfortably heavy steel helmet, the fear not to spend more money than one earns, not to drink from a canteen in combat before it is absolutely necessary, and to obey both parent and teacher and officer in certain situations, even when the orders are acutely unpleasant.

Only those who have never learned self-restraint fear reasonable discipline.

Americans fully understand the requirements of the football field or the baseball diamond. They discipline themselves and suffer by the thousands to prepare for these rigors. A coach or manager who is too permissive soon seeks a new job; his teams fail against those who are tougher and harder. Yet undoubtedly any American officer, in peacetime, who worked his men as hard, or ruled them as severely as a college football coach does, would be removed.

Comments

  1. Adar says:

    “it [Korean War] also proved that Communism erred badly in assessing the response its aggression would call forth.”

    YES. The communists were surprised the USA and others were willing to commit the resources they did to a locale not so important and frankly very low on the totem pole of concerns. The response of the allies in Korea did give the communist pause with regard to further adventures.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    The US, or at least Truman, certainly showed restraint, but MacArthur didn’t. He had a long lists of targets for nuclear bombs in China. The question then was what the Soviet Union would have done. They were flying Mig 15’s over Korea.

    But the bigger point, ignored by Fehrenbach, is that the Chinese army actually defeated the US and its allies. They did so by force of will.

    In the 60’s the North Vietnamese did the same thing. They simply ground us down, accepting huge losses in the process. The Taliban have done the same thing. And it seems our toleration of losses is declining.

  3. Kirk says:

    I honestly can’t agree that China “won”, in any way, shape, or form. Best they achieved was a second-place position in a politically constrained stalemate.

    The facts of the 1950-1970 political situation in the US were that the appeasers were at their apogee in terms of influence and power. Just like with Nixon, who started playing hardball with North Vietnam, the hawks would have left Red China a devastated disaster zone, had they been let free to do as they wanted.

    You can’t describe a military as “defeated” when the political leadership behind it chickens out, and refuses to let them off their leashes. Unconstrained, there’s no doubt but that the US military would have turned China into a charnel house, and Mao’s “strategic genius” mostly lent itself to wiping out an awful lot of his own potential troublemakers–Huge swathes of the Chinese troops committed to Korea, and who were wiped out, were former Nationalists deemed untrustworthy.

    Whole thing was a bloody mess, but you can’t describe the Chinese as more than slightly superior during some periods of the war at a tactical and operational level. Strategic? Highly arguable, given that we don’t really know what their aims were, even now.

  4. Unicephalon40D says:

    >”You can’t describe a military as “defeated” when the political leadership behind it chickens out”

    That is EXACTLY when you describe a military as “defeated.” War is political and strategic as much as it is operational, and the Chinese won primarily by force of political will.

    What America “coulda, shoulda” done is entirely irrelevant, even if you’re correct. What it did was lose. And it has kept losing ever since.

  5. Faze says:

    If MacArthur’s nuclear bombs had been able to kill Mao, even if they also killed 40 million civilians in the process, the Chinese people would, by the 1970s, still have come out ahead. With Mao dead, there would have been no famine, no Cultural Revolution. Being nuked by MacArthur would have delivered a better outcome for China than what they actually got over the next 30 years.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    What if they gave a surrender and nobody came?

    Has this ever happened? The political leadership tried to make peace but the military rebelled?

  7. Sam J. says:

    “What if they gave a surrender and nobody came?

    Has this ever happened? The political leadership tried to make peace but the military rebelled?”

    Algeria

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algiers_putsch_of_1961

  8. Sam J. says:

    I don’t believe the US lost in Korea or Vietnam. It was thrown by the Democrats. The US and the military didn’t lose it the Democrats did. In Vietnam the Democrats voted two hand grenades and a couple magazines of ammunition while the greatest tank invasion since Kusk in WWII was coming from the North. They told Ford they would impeach him if he used air power and at that time we had battle ships that could have pounded the North coming down the country from offshore. If we would have supported them there’s no way the North could have prevailed.

    As for Iraq that’s a war for Israel it has nothing to do with the US. I hope we lose this one.

  9. Unicephalon40D says:

    “I don’t believe the US lost in Korea or Vietnam. It was thrown by the Democrats. The US and the military didn’t lose it the Democrats did.”

    But that’s exactly what a “loss” is.

    If you’re a boxer and you take a dive, you’ve still lost, even if you cope by saying “the other guy didn’t really beat me.”

    If you’re a boxer and your corner throws in the towel, you’ve lost, even if you’re not taking a beating. The other guy wins, even if he was taking worse than he was dishing out.

    The political structure of the modern USA isn’t compatible with foreign war or lasting sacrifice. There’s nothing the Democrats hate more than people like you and me. Communists and Arabs are their best buddies.

    You could say “America defeats itself” — and that would be accurate, and representative of a trend. But that trend started a long time ago. It started when America was a serious country. How much worse are things today?

  10. Bruce Purcell says:

    Korea being a peninsula, we could build a line of defense and watch the sea. We’d have had to build fortifications around the whole interior border with Vietnam.

  11. Sam J. says:

    I don’t agree that the US military was militarily defeated in Vietnam or Korea. Now, if you are equating wars to sporting events, as you have to, then we lost. The Democrat party lost, not the military.

    Bruce Purcell: “Korea being a peninsula, we could build a line of defense and watch the sea. We’d have had to build fortifications around the whole interior border with Vietnam.”

    Pournelle: “And in Viet Nam the North sent 150,000 men south with as much armor as the Wehrmacht had in many WW II engagements. That was in 1973, and of that 150,000 fewer than 50,000 men and no armor returned to the North, at a cost of under 1,000 American casualties…”

    Well, if during 1975 the results were the same, could the North have continued? I suspect the South could have held them off indefinitely with copious supplies and air support.

  12. Sam J. says:

    The “There Will Be War” series is absolutely fantastic.

  13. Adar says:

    “the Chinese army actually defeated the US and its allies. They did so by force of will.”

    NO! The Chinese spring offensive of 1951 was stopped. Then the allied forces began a counter-offensive and Chinese troops began to surrender en masse in platoon, company and battalion size. The commies asked for the truce negotiations as they knew their armies were falling apart. Truce talks too readily agreed to by the USA side.

  14. Gavin Longmuir says:

    North and South Korea are one of the clearest examples of the failures of Communism. As, indeed, were East and West Germany. Even in Vietnam, where the Democrats shamefully abandoned the South Vietnamese people, the victorious Communists are no longer Communist in any meaningful sense — they make Hewlett-Packard printers and promote foreign tourism to a very active beach & bar scene.

    The strange thing is that Western Lefties still want Communism — despite the indisputable lessons of that history. But maybe that should not be a surprise, since those Western Lefties know nothing of their own history either.

  15. Harry Jones says:

    Before you declare something a failure, first know what its true purpose was.

    Lots of things fail spectacularly to accomplish their stated purpose and yet persist, with ardent and happy supporters. Whenever you see this, ask yourself: cui bono?

    Look to the ardent supporters. They are likely the ones seeing the benefit. Then ask yourself: what do they get out of it? Sometimes it’s an obvious material benefit such as money or power, but sometimes it’s a more nebulous emotional or psychological benefit, such as narcissistic supply.

    The only way to kill an institution is to make it stop being of benefit to any stakeholders. Before you can do that, you need to know the whom and how of that benefit.

  16. Lucklucky says:

    Precisely, Harry Jones. The Left does not care about results or methods; they care about their own ego.

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