It is a commonplace that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Whatever the truth of that statement, it’s certainly the case that young boys re-fight the last war in play, at least if their nation “won.” For this Baby Boomer, that war was the so-called Korean conflict. No young American could have wanted a better introduction to humankind’s ultimate violent pastime. It was perfect for me, since it ended the year I was born. More important, it was the first war in which jet aircraft engaged in dogfights. The contest involving swept-wing silvery streaks high in the sky, although apparently it went less decisively against the enemy than I imagined, presented warfare in the best possible light: a duel between skilled warriors on equal terms. And everyone ejected safely. Fast forward to “MASH,” with its deeply sardonic view of Korea in the midst of a different Asian conflict, and you have perfect bookends for a simplistic take on the “forgotten war”–from idealistic combat to farcical slaughter in one generation. Korea served a similar purpose for Boomers that World War I did for the Greatest Generation, until each faced its very different call to fight.
The historical reality was more complex, of course, but it does nothing to diminish the abstract perfection of the war. When I was old enough to appreciate the idea of mass sacrifice, Korea provided numerous examples. Fighting on a peninsula that spans 10 degrees of latitude and on beaches as well as mountain peaks, Americans suffered tremendously in extremes of climate, from the broiling Pusan Perimeter to the arctic conditions of the Chosin Reservoir. If captured, they faced a grim future in either North Korea or China. Over 40% of US prisoners in Chinese hands in the winter of 1951 appear to have died from a combination of disease, starvation, and forced labor. The term “brainwashing” was practically invented to describe what happened to some US POWs, although now we would call it “enhanced interrogation.” Finally, while the families of nearly 4700 Americans remained in doubt about the fate of their soldiers, the remains of others are still being returned. Of course, the Koreans, both north and south, suffered incalculably more in fratricidal warfare, driven by opposing leaders determined to re-unite the peninsula under their own control. North Korea lost ten times as many troops as the US–though possibly not as many as the South–and up to 2 million people, or 20% of the civilian population in the north, perished. Political activists were massacred, prisoners executed, and captured soldiers used as bargaining chips for years after the fighting stopped. The US unleashed the full weight of its air superiority, leveling most cities in North Korea and several in the South as well. In fact, the overall civilian death toll of the war matched that in the worst sectors during World War II.
For those who regard the Cold War as a period of ideological clarity, however, Korea provided the chance for both sides to show their devotion to the cause. Although 1.5 million men were drafted in the Korean period (1950-1953), 1.3 million volunteered in the same year. World War II veterans were exempt from induction, but many Regular Army units on occupation duty in post-War Japan were thrust into battle, along with Marines and National Guard units. In short, a higher proportion of military aged men were in the armed forces in 1953 than at the height of Vietnam (11.6% vs. 9.8%), and those who see value in military service for its own sake must marvel at the change. Even Elvis Presley served his two years and was promoted; contrast the record of later celebrities. Today only about 4% of 18-24 year olds are serving. In Korea, the demand for replacements in Army combat units was so great that racial segregation was broken on the battlefield, even before Pres. Truman’s executive order of 1948 was confirmed in 1951 (interesting global speculation on this). The Marines took longer, but now black Americans are significantly over-represented in the Corps. So Korea marked a turning-point in the military deployment of US resources. And for those who feel that a volunteer army is incompatible with freedom and prosperity, it is notable that draft calls, having peaked in 1953 at 470,000, fell steadily throughout the 1960s –until Vietnam.
Americans were not alone, however, and this is another remarkable feature of the war. Thanks to the United Nations resolution against North Korean aggression, the doctrine of “collective security” was put to the test as never before. The US lost over 30,000 dead–90% of the non-Koreans killed–but soldiers from more than a dozen countries shared the hardship and the casualties. Want an example of “Western” solidarity against the Communist threat? Picture the plight of the two wounded soldiers from Ethiopia or the solitary POW from Greece. The United Nations forces showed remarkable cohesion and effectiveness, although in the end, contrary to Gen. MacArthur’s pronouncement, there was a “substitute for victory” against worldwide Communism: containment. The other side showed considerable unity as well. In the face of turmoil at home and the need to shore up their own socialist utopias, the Soviet Union, China and East Germany joined forces to rebuild the devastated North Korean economy during the 1960s. The closest thing to a showdown between the superpowers proved to be a draw. Americans did “die for a tie.”
Apart from outright triumph, though, the Korean War had everything a fair-minded Baby Boomer could wish from a war: it encapsulated physical misery, untold terror, and atrocious cruelty as well as the human capacity for endurance (even the Chinese, it turns out, were human). Korea showcased everything, resolved nothing. The conflict made use of every available weapon except, thankfully, atomic bombs. It complicated the politics of the People’s Republic, as it continues to do. It has created a perennial quandary for the military establishment in the US, in terms of both money and strategy, and now it presents the opportunity for endless negotiation between a quasi-Westernized dictator and high-net-worth individuals like Dennis Rodman and Donald Trump. To top it off, the Korean War is not even over, technically speaking. (In fact, if you’re a stickler for Congressional declarations, it never actually started. Tell that to the Marines at Chosin or the civilians at No-Gun-Ri.) To be sure, with the rise of North Korea’s nukes, the situation resembles the state of perpetual hostility depicted in Orwell’s 1984, and it’s depressing to think we have come no further. On the other hand, given the exhaustive thoroughness of this international conflict, why would we ever have another? Did we really think we could improve on it?