By Chet Yarbrough
The Korean War
By Max Hastings
Narrated by Frederick Davidson
Karl Marx said that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Was the Korean War worth it? 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 begins by suggesting 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 only 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, though less corrupt and venal than his North Korean counterpart, Kim il sung (1945-1994). (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 Iraq’s oil reserves and his strategic opposition to Iran but, with the Kuwait invasion, Hussein became expendable to most nations of the world. 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 and back into Iraq. However, the second President Bush, like Douglas MacArthur, believed in American infallibility. 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; not a General subject to his Commander and Chief. With faulty intelligence, the second Bush administration convinced Congress that invasion of Iraq was a 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 that let the inmates control the 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 or reported water boarding of enemy combatants?
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 a heart-rending and inspiring story of determination and bravery. In contrast, his stories of fighting in subzero weather, being captured by the enemy, suffering from dysentery, seeing friends mutilated and killed, and fighting to the death for meaningless plots of ground 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). The irony of Hastings report of brain wash failure is the Orwellian control presently exercised in North Korea by Kim Jong il, the new Dear Leader. (The current Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un, follows his father’s footsteps when he becomes Leader, after his father’s state funeral on 12/28/11. He appears, in 2013, 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 but 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” which is equally well narrated by Frederick Davidson.)
Hastings fails to give a definitive answer but he provides an interesting historical background for one’s own decision about the efficacy of military intervention.