While ground warfare had changed little, the American society and the American soldier had

Saturday, August 8th, 2020

At the start of the Korean War, the American troops were driven back, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), but they weren’t at all prepared to retreat:

Gay, who had been Patton’s chief of staff in Europe, admitted he did not know how to conduct a retreat — thus far in his military experience he had never been involved in one.

[...]

The land viewed from afar is beautiful, rolling terraces and rice paddies, each a subtly different shade of green. But each paddy is a humid, stinking oven, and the bare hills are like broiler plates.

When they left their trucks and moved up onto the hills and ridges, American soldiers, as one officer put it, “dropped like flies.” Their legs, unused to hard pulls, gave out. The heat and exertion gave them throbbing headaches. During these weeks exhaustion and heat knocked out more men than NKPA bullets.

Short of water, lacking water discipline, they drank from ditches and paddies, developed searing dysentery.

They sweated until their shirts and belts rotted, and their bellies turned shark-white. Salt tablets became such an item of priority that they had to be air-dropped on units, along with vital ammunition.

Korea is a land cut by multiple hills and valleys, lacking roads. It is no terrain for a mechanized army. The principal — and sometimes only — means of getting from one place to another through the hills is shank’s mare. But American troops, physically unhardened for foot marches, were road-bound. They defended on roads, attacked on roads, retreated on roads. If their vehicles couldn’t go, they did not go either.

FEAF soon made the roads unpopular with the Inmun Gun. On the roads, tactical air strafed them, rocketed them, burned them. The Inmun Gun left the roads and went over the ridges, and it seemed to bother them not at all. They went stolidly up the slopes with the patient, sideways, Korean peasant tread, and they carried their machine guns, mortars, and mountains of ammunition with them.

They set their guns up on the high ground behind the Americans, interdicting their supply roads. Americans had trouble attacking up the hills to knock them off. And when their roads were blocked, Americans could hardly drag themselves over the hills to safety, let alone their heavy equipment. Second to the Soviets, the American Army became the principal supplier to the Inmun Gun of guns and ammunition.

The great problem was that in 1950, an infantryman in Korea was called on to do almost the same things Caesar’s legions had done, and to suffer the same hardships. In twenty centuries, infantry warfare has changed but little in the burdens it puts on the men in the mud. But in 1950, while ground warfare had changed little, the American society and the American soldier had.

Comments

  1. Adar says:

    Young men called to active duty during WW2 had survived the depression and knew how to do with little. That American young man of 1950 had spent his teen years in a society USA that was doing quite well with unaccustomed prosperity actually never equaled since then.

    That North Korean troop once more a combat vet of Stalingrad and the Chinese Civil War and ready.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Why not simply post a review of Fehrenbach’s book? It is not clear what is gained from all these derogatory extracts.

    After all, the American soldier who got his ass kicked by the mighty North Koreans turned around and beat those same powerful North Koreans all the way back to the Yalu River. Or was that later success entirely due to contributions from socialist European countries to the the UN command?

    It would be possible to write a book about the debacle US forces experienced at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa in the first major use of US land forces in WWII — and completely ignore the longer-term successes. But such a book would read more like agitprop than history.

    In war, the side which launches a surprise attack almost always gets the initial success of one free shot. Combat is always messy. Leaders always have failings — military leaders and especially political leaders. The grunts always pay for their leaders’ many mistakes. War is hell — we all know that. So what is Fehrenbach’s book adding to our understanding?

  3. The Real Kurt says:

    Gavin Longmuir,

    While I don’t know where he got the impetus to post these excerpts, I am pleased.

    TKOW is one of the most important books of 20th Century history, a deep meditation on the role of the military in an open society.

    At the very least, consider that it’s on the required or recommended reading lists for each of the major branches of the US military.

  4. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Real Kurt: “TKOW is one of the most important books of 20th Century history, a deep meditation on the role of the military in an open society.”

    Thanks, Real Kurt. That is useful! A genuine review of the book would be helpful to those of us who are not familiar with it.

    On the other hand, repeatedly printing selective quotes which show no deep meditation, only criticisms of the American soldiers who were put ill-prepared into an impossible situation? That sounds more like something the Chinese government is paying for.

  5. Freddo says:

    My reading of these quotes is more “this is what will happen when you send green troops into combat with insufficient equipment, supplies and support: largely ineffective with occasional stories of bravery and success when a veteran soldier/officer manages to hold things together; and bravery not preventing you from being overrun and killed by a superior enemy”.

    Amazing how quickly the institutional experience from WWII was either forgotten or ignored at the highest level of civilian and military leadership.

  6. The Real Kurt says:

    Freddo and Gavin,

    Freddo is more right than not. This book does not outright condemn the politicians (from memory, it’s been about 25 years since I read it), but it is a blistering attack on the lack of preparedness of the US military at the time, and it prefigures a lot of the criticism that was justifiably leveled at US conduct of the Vietnam war only a few years later.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “it is a blistering attack on the lack of preparedness of the US military at the time”

    Fair enough. Freddo’s summary is spot on.

    Now, instead of printing selected extracts which make today’s Chinese military massing opposite Taiwan smile, why not delve into the very interesting issue — How did the US/UN (lots of dead Brits etc in Korea) turn this sorry situation around and end up crushing the mighty North Korean army?

    The US/UN side accomplished this in the middle of an ongoing war. The US could not suddenly give the troops there 5 years of combat experience. How did this North Korean “superior enemy” with the advantage of a surprise attack end up getting beaten so completely? (The later entry of China into the war really is a separate chapter).

    UK Field Marshall Slim wrote a book “Defeat into Victory” about an analogous situation for the Brits in Burma in WWII. That kind of analysis would be instructive.

  8. The Real Kurt says:

    Gavin,

    Get the book, if necessary from the library, and read it.

    You will find it instructive.

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