The Korean War was indisputably a “frustrating, profoundly unsatisfactory experience,” writes Max Hastings, the British historian and journalist whose new history of that war gives American readers a valuable, though limited and discomforting, perspective. It was, as Hastings and other writers have often noted, a war with marked parallels to the American involvement in Vietnam. The flood of books and films about Vietnam has served to keep that wound to the national psyche open and unhealed. Korea remains prominent because of its internal politics and its critical role as an American outpost in the Far East and for its dramatic and unrelenting war of words, and sometimes blood, with North Korea. Everything Korea is, and everything that happens there, including the 1988 Olympics, is directly connected to that series of events that began so unexpectedly on the night of June 25, 1950, and ended, more or less, with the armistice at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. That war, known for a time as a “police action,” until the term was ridiculed into oblivion, cost the United States 33,629 citizens, listed as dead and missing, in three years; some 55,000 Americans died in Vietnam over a much longer period, from 1963 to 1974. It does not diminish the tragedy of Vietnam to note that the Korean War may still claim the title that military historian S. L. A. Marshall gave it, “the century’s nastiest little war,” at least insofar as Americans have been involved.
Yet as another book, Clay Blair’s The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (1987), points out, the intense involvement of the United Nations in Korea, and particularly that of the United States, seems to have been forgotten by the public. Did this happen because, as Rosemary Foot has argued, it was The Wrong War (1985)? Many of the veterans who talked to Hastings about their memories of Korea thought that it was: They had little sense of purpose or mission, unlike soldiers during World War II, and little fondness for the Koreans whom they were defending. The people seemed alien to the white Americans and Commonwealth soldiers, brutalized or corrupt, hardly worth defending and certainly not worth dying for.
It is interesting to note that Hastings disagrees profoundly with the historians who argue that the effort in Korea was a tragic waste of lives and fortune. The author implies that this is indeed the received opinion among historians by characterizing himself as a “revisionist.” He concludes that for all of its difficulties, Korea was “a struggle that the West was utterly right to fight.” In his foreword, Hastings elaborates on his certainty of “the rightness of the American commitment” in Korea. Who can doubt, he says, “looking at Korea today, that the people of the South enjoy incomparably more fulfilling lives than those of the inhabitants of the North? Civil libertarians may justly remark that the freedom of the South’s 35 million people remains relative,” yet there is no doubt that “North Korea is still among the most wretched, ruthless, restrictive, impenitent Stalinist societies in the world,” while “South Korea is one of the most dynamic industrial societies even Asia has spawned in the past generation.”
The Korean War, the author explains, “does not purport to be a comprehensive history.” It does seem to have been considered by earlier reviewers as a comprehensive battle history, but the reader who wants to get the full sweep of the war, especially the role of the American army during the critical first year, will be much better served by Blair’s immensely detailed account. Similarly, nothing in this book quite matches the drama of Robert Leckie’s Conflict: The History of the Korean War, 1950-1953 (1962) or of S. L. A. Marshall’s classic Pork Chop Hill (1956). The politics that shaped American involvement in Korea are more fully examined in Joseph Goulden’s Korea: The Untold Story (1982), than they are here. Since Hastings does not, in spite of his inclusive title, pretend to be comprehensive, these are not great flaws. There is a striking inconsistency in this book, however, between the author’s optimistic conclusion and his narrative. What the United Nations in name, but the United States in fact, did in Korea was right, Hastings says, both for its reasons and for its results. How it was done, however, constitutes a sorry litany of errors, misjudgments, ineptitude, and culpable stupidity on the part of American diplomats, politicians, and soldiers. American achievements are diminished or ignored to such a degree that the reader is likely to think that the author suffers from British resentment of American hegemony and concentrates on American failures at the expense of truth.
This reaction, while justified, should not detract from the accomplishments of this book. Hastings’ purpose is to show how an awareness of what happened in Korea can be heightened by a double perspective on the conflict not previously available. The first part of that perspective is the British view. The author is a newspaper editor in London and the author of two books about World War II, Overlord (1984) and Bomber Command: The Myths and Realities of the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945 (1979), and coauthor of The Battle for the Falklands (1983). Simply as an account of the war from the British perspective, The Korean War is a valuable record, full of insights that go beyond the merely political. Global politics had something to do with the hard feelings; the older British soldiers “found the...
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