The Forgotten War
In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film about an American soldier captured in Korea and programmed by the Chinese to kill the American president, Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a soldier who is brainwashed to forget everything his masters tell him which might interfere with his mission. For the generation of Americans that has grown up since 1962, the Korean War is almost as obliterated in the American memory as it is in the consciousness of the zombielike Shaw. Is this merely because it was a national tragedy, a compound of errors and ineptitude as well as of sacrifice and heroism? So was Vietnam, the subject of so much more scholarly and popular attention, and the source of so many parallels with Korea. In both cases, American soldiers died by the thousands in an Asian civil war, and a corrupt regime was defended against ruthless, patient, and resilient northern invaders. In both wars there were prolonged negotiations during which American military strength was leashed, a president left office humiliated, and his successor vowed a quick solution. There was also public indifference to the returning veterans and congressional resolutions to stay out of foreign wars. The similarities between Korea and Vietnam are almost endless (as, it should be noted, are the differences), and to even a casual student of American politics and culture they are fascinating. For the moment, books and films about Vietnam are popular. Like Korea, however, in another ten years it too will be forgotten, as all wars are quickly forgotten, except by those who were personally involved and the hard core of military history buffs. Those who doubt this sad truth may test it by asking the next college graduate they meet the location and meaning of Bataan, the Somme, or San Juan Hill.
Certain names and incidents are full of associations for many: Frozen Chosen; the Pusan Perimeter; the Thirty-eighth parallel; Panmunjom; the triumphal amphibious landing at Inch’ŏn and the useless one at Wŏnsan; brainwashing; the riots by the North Korean prisoners at Cheju-do; Hamburger Hill, Porkchop Hill, and Heartbreak Ridge; the fighting retreat of the Marines from the Chosin Reservoir; “bugging out,” a less heroic term associated with the headlong flight of the American Eighth Army when the North Koreans attacked; General Douglas MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” speech after he was sacked by President Harry S. Truman; General Walton “Johnny” Walker’s death and General William Dean’s capture; and Matthew Ridgway and the second push northward. There were also the papa-sans, slickie boys, hooches, and kimchi, the cold and the heat, the stench of dead bodies, and the stink of fields fertilized with human feces. All that was long ago, however, only a few years after World War II had ended, and even for those who were in Korea during the war and after, let alone those who have been born since that war, the notoriously misnamed “police action” has become a confused montage of memories and images.
It all comes together, though, in Clay Blair’s monumental narrative reconstruction of the first and most critical year: from the blitzkrieg that began on June 25, 1950, to the beginning of the sitzkrieg, about twelve months later with the truce talks, which dragged on for another two years. Some comparisons provide an index to the ferocity of that year: By the time Seoul was secured by American forces in mid-September, less than ninety days after the North Koreans attacked, total American ground casualties “stood at about 27,500, including about 6,000 dead, about 19,000 wounded, and about 2,500 captured or missing.” By the signing of the armistice in July, 1953, nearly 34,000 Americans would have died in battle. It took the United States twelve years in Vietnam to lose 56,000 men. More Koreans died than could be counted, perhaps as many as 2 million.
Why was the United States there? Why did American forces fight so poorly during the first year? Was the effort worth the cost? Blair does not neglect these questions, at least not the first two. Indeed, there seems to have been little omitted from his vastly detailed book—which has been faulted for the minutiae with which he recounts not only major but also minor engagements—with thumbnail...
(The entire section is 1743 words.)