They too were paid to die

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

At the start of the Korean War, casualties among officers of high rank in the United States Army were greater in proportion to those of any fighting since the Civil War, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War):

They had to be. There were few operable radios with the regiments in Korea, and almost no communication from command posts down to the front positions.

If commanders wanted to know what was happening, or make their orders known, they had to be on the ground.

And the troops themselves, who had never developed any respect for N.C.O.’s or junior officers, often would ignore their orders — particularly if the order involved something unpleasant or unpopular.

Understandably, the junior leaders soon became defeatist. A great many of them died, recklessly, but it was not enough.

It was not because the colonels and generals had lost their minds that so many of them began to stand with bazooka teams or to direct rifle fire. There was no other way. So it was that men like Bob Martin were blown apart doing a rifleman’s job, or battalion commanders like Smith of the 3rd, 34th Infantry, collapsed and had to be evacuated, and men like Major Dunn, marching ahead of a rifle company, were lost.

The high-priced help was expendable, true. They too were paid to die. But it was no way to run a war.


  1. Adar says:

    Most of those senior commanders had seen combat action [some extensively so] during WW2 and had done quite well. Smith of Task Force Smith for instance. Those officers just found themselves in a next to impossible situation. Radio comms might not have helped so much anyhow. NK troops moved too fast and in a manner not so orthodox to American commanders.

  2. Kirk says:

    Few people really appreciate that an army is more an organism than it is a collection of people working together.

    You can have very experienced, well-trained officer cadres and still have your ass handed to you because the middle management is incompetent, absent, or alienated from the core leadership cadre. Likewise, without the time and ability to train and bond with the lower enlisted, both the officers and the NCOs may find that their efforts are meaningless. Which is why so many experienced WWII-era officers and senior enlisted found themselves having to do the work of the lower ranks, and dying in job lots. You read the casualty rosters from the early days of the Korean War, and it’s astounding how many guys died that should have never seen direct combat.

    An effective army requires a lot of things, not least of which is confidence in its internal connections; a commander has to have a certain amount of confidence that his orders will be followed, the NCOs have to have a certain amount of confidence that those orders should be followed, and the junior enlisted have to have confidence that their seniors know what they’re doing and that their sacrifices make some damn sense. Absent that network? The whole thing falls apart.

    You don’t just throw X number of officers and senior enlisted at a chart of positions and mix in a bunch of fresh-from-civilian-life tyros and expect the whole thing to work. There’s an entire web of relationships and experiences that have to be in place and working before you can call such a collection of men a functional combat organization. You’re just not going to be able to throw these things together overnight and ad-hoc, which is what most of the early Korean War units actually went through. Even the ones brought in from Japan were incomplete and hashed together in a lot of ways; they were never exercised or trained together, and a lot of them fell apart as soon as the bullets started flying.

    You also had the entire “Atomic War” thing going on, which had most in the Army expecting that the most they’d be doing was occupying nuked territory and fighting bandits. That’s not a mentality conducive to dealing with sudden conventional war conditions that they were never trained for, and had been told not to expect. This pernicious fantasy had hold all up and down the chain of command, creating much of the effect we saw in Korea.

    As a counterfactual, I’d love to know the results of the US treating Korea as a full-bore no-holds-barred theater, using nukes casually. No doubt there would have been international consternation at the whole thing, but perhaps we’d be in a different place today with the North Korean and Chinese armies vaporized every time that they concentrated enough to justify a nuking; a few judicious nukes dropped in Manchuria, maybe Peking, and then an ultimatum delivered to Mao?

    It’s certainly true that the Soviets and CCP were entirely unready to wage nuclear-scale warfare during the Korean War. Had the US taken them to the mat, it’s an interesting question what would have come out of all that. Would an irradiated Korean peninsula have been too high a price to pay for world peace and no Cold War?

    I remain convinced that the only thing you gain from a situation where there is a proxy war is more war spread out over a longer period, with accompanying demolition of standards and practices. Much of what we do now, after playing footsies with the Soviets and CCP for three-quarters of a century, would have been considered war crimes back when. All we’ve accomplished with this “shadow war” BS is an erosion of customary standards of international conduct. Better, I think, to be ruthless about it all, declare war, and fight until destruction of the enemy requires their surrender. Look how little trouble the world has had out of Germany and Japan, perennial assholes until 1945. You want the Russians and Chinese to reform similarly? You want Islam to cease being a bunch of inbred assholes? Then, be willing to do damage unto them all equivalent to Germany. Maybe more–The Islamics don’t strike me as being intelligent enough to recognize defeat the way Germany did, and may require even more extensive culling.

  3. TRX says:

    Early in WWII, Churchill said “Victory will go to the side that makes the fewest mistakes.”

    All too often, it seems that the worst of those mistakes are made before the war even begins…

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Nukes. If you have a weapon you’re unwilling to use, that weapon is worse than useless.

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