By Chet Yarbrough
The Korean War
Karl Marx said that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. The casualties of war are not only the dead and buried; i.e. they are the survivors, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children left behind.
Max Hastings’ book reports the tragedy of the Korean War (1950-1953) fought by United Nations forces against North Korea and China. The end of the Korean War is a return to its beginning with no winners and mostly losers at the 38th parallel. Hastings suggests that South Korea ultimately benefited from its continued separation as two countries but one wonders if the cost of human blood and treasure is worth today’s North and South Korean reality.
Are foreign-nation’ interventions new history or a second coming of repeat tragedies? America repeats many of Korea’s mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq.
Hastings characterizes Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s leader (1948-1960), as corrupt as Kim il-Sung’s regime in North Korea. (A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Korean deaths were instigated by Syngman Rhee’s regime.)
(Rudolph Rummel, a Political Science professor at the University of Hawaii, writes in “Statistics of Democide” that 350,000 to over 3,000,000 Korean deaths are attributed to Kim Il Sung’s North Korean reign.)
How similar to America’s support of Rhee in South Korea is America’s support of Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-1963), or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (1979-2003)?
Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem history is one of corruption — as totalitarian and politically repressive as Rhee’s South Korean government. The wars in Korea and Vietnam are over but their history seems tragic and repetitive.
America supported Hussein because of real-politic’ beliefs. Iraq’s oil reserves and Hussein’s strategic opposition to Iran had value to America. But, with Iraq’s Kuwait invasion, Hussein became expendable.
There is little question that Hussein was a despicable ruler; i.e. he murdered his own people and repressed the population of his country just as Rhee, and Kim il sung did in Korea.
The first President Bush. like Harry Truman in Korea, marshaled the forces of the United Nations (with America as the major military component) to push Hussein out of Kuwait. However, the second President Bush, more like Douglas MacArthur, believed in American infallibility in removing Hussein from office.
MacArthur believed China should be attacked to end Chinese incursion into North Korea; if Truman had not intervened, the Korean war would have escalated. No command intervention was possible in Iraq because the second Bush was President, the supreme commander; not a mere General, subject to his Commander and Chief. With faulty intelligence, the second Bush administration convinced Congress that invasion of Iraq and removal of Hussein was a moral, if not real-politic, necessity.
America’s invasion (the capture, trial, and execution of Hussein) leaves Iraq in a condition that may be no better than North Korea’s. It seems whenever one thinks they know what is good for another, there is a cognitive dissonance between what one wants and what one gets.
How similar is Koje-do Island’s P.O.W. camp in Korea to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib’s prison? Hastings reports of the overcrowding, abuse, and neglect of North Korean, and Chinese P.O.W.s on Koje-do Island.
He notes the use of over burdened, lackadaisical American military personnel and hostile South Korean soldiers as guards. These “guards” abused or abdicated their responsibility; they let inmates control prison compounds. Hastings tells of prisoners at Koje-do being hung by their testicles and drowned by water hoses secured to their mouths. How different is that from a naked prisoner at Abu Ghraib being abused by American soldiers or reported water boarding of Al Qaeda’ combatants by the CIA?
When did human beings become “Sammys”, “Commies”, “Dinks”, “Skinnies”, “Gooks”, “Charlies”, and “Towel Heads”? War brings out the worst in human beings by demonizing the enemy making killing more socially and psychologically acceptable.
Hastings shines a bright light on the ugliness and heroism of war. Hastings immortalizes the Irish 1st Battalion RUR (Royal Ulster Rifles’) battles in Imjin and Kapyong in 1951 with heart-rending and inspiring stories of determination and bravery. In contrast, his stories of fighting in subzero weather, being captured by the enemy, or fighting to the death are stomach turning episodes of despair.
The Korean War became the first instance of focused psychological indoctrination of prisoners of war. Though generally unsuccessful, according to Hastings, North Korea attempts to brain wash captured enemy combatants to become communist agents (like the fictional Manchurian candidate).
An irony of Hastings report of brain wash failure lies in the Orwellian control presently exercised in North Korea by Kim Jong il, the new Dear Leader. (The current Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un, follows in his father’s footsteps in 2013. Kim Jong-un seems to be following the same path of intimidation, repression, and North Korean’ victimization as his father and grandfather.)
The glaring hubris of General MacArthur and his replacement by General Ridgeway reinforces one’s belief in the importance of good leadership. A recurring theme in Hastings’ Korean history is the importance of ground forces’ confidence and spirit in the success of individual battles. (This is a theme portrayed in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.)
Witnessing the return of many veterans, it seems American’ confidence and spirit have been shaken by mid-twentieth and early-twenty first century military interventions. Hastings shows that there is no definitive answer to the value of American intervention.
Now, we are bombing Syria. Hastings provides interesting historical background for one’s consideration of intervention’s long term value.