Today marks the 62nd Anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Korean War of 1950-1953. It is often remembered as “the forgotten war” in the United States, lost somewhere between the good war of 1941-1945 and the bad war of 1964-1975. It was the first challenge of the Cold War era, an attempt to stand up a weakened state from a well coordinated attack from its northern neighbor, and it cost over 50,000 American lives, to say nothing of those of the United Nations Forces deployed, including New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Colombia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, South Africa and others.
That narrative of hegemonic responsibility is notably different than that of the deep civil conflict that the people of the Korean Peninsula feel about the war that has, since 1953, been on temporary hold across the heavily-mined DMZ. The war divided families between two hostile and autocratic regimes (with liberalization being a latent phenomenon even in “democratic” South Korea), and led to the death, displacement, and maiming of an estimated 3 million Koreans, north and south. The perpetual military footing of the two countries, made worse by the nuclear posturing between the USA and the newly-enriched North Korean state, remains one of the world’s great crises, and one that seems no closer to being solved, given the intransigence of the North Korean state and the external influences of the United States, China, and Russia.
The country’s division is lamented locally, whether for factional propaganda or as expression of national longing between the two relatively homogeneous (at least until 1945) halves of the peninsula, divided along the 38th parallel for political expedience between two factional movements by the Soviet Union and the USA. The Koreans now live in two militarized states, one far less than the other but both entangled in a world of barbed wire and a perpetual security trap. One has become very prosperous in comparison to the other, but it is still forced to accept a threat it can neither dispense with or remove, while peripheral powers continue to hold the ability to interfere in the political destiny of the Korean people.
In the United States, we view that as the price of the Cold War. Korea is too often forgotten in our country, but it is often spoken of as a war of necessity and fought to impasse. In Europe, as the United States and Russia fell from joint trusteeship of liberated Europe into two armed camps, Korea became the great stopping point of the east. Lenin’s vision of Asiatic Communism had always been of concern to Colonial powers in Asia, British, French, and Japanese alike. They all strove against it in varied forms, but in Korea, swallowed up as it was in a fight over the body of the defeated Japanese Empire, the twilight struggle, made all the more threatening by the now mutual possession of atomic weaponry, was made flesh and blood. Korea was a test of wills between the two world powers; US forces fought under the guise of the UN, but led from the front and in far greater numbers. Russian pilots flew sorties over North Korean airspace, and Russia delivered the T-34 tanks that ran-over the initial South Korean defense.
The crushing defeat of South Korean and American forces was dramatically reversed in the course of a bitter summer by Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant amphibious assault on Inchon. Triumph gave way to disaster as the Chinese Communist Party, denied total victory in the Chinese Civil War by the US guarantee of Jiang Jieshi’s Nationalists on Taiwan, turned the tide by invading and nearly destroying dispersed UN forces over the course of one of the largest series of campaigns (in terms of manpower) seen since the Second World War. The UN and South Korean forces were able to hang on in the face of mass numerical superiority due to the limited scope of military operations, wedged as they were on the narrow Korean peninsula, and material advantages which kept them from being driven into the sea. Thus they weathered the 1951 Spring Offensive with a massive dose of firepower, killing so many Chinese soldiers that the Chinese High Command felt exposed to a counterthrust , and pulled back to the 38th parallel to reconstitute their forces.
The war’s period of movement was over by the summer of 1951, a year after it began; within a year the war had run from the perimeter of Pusan to the Manchurian border and back again. Ground to a halt, the war then became an attritional struggle along the approximate lines of the DMZ, a struggle of entrenched forces while negotiations commenced at Panmunjom. They would not be concluded for another two years, a time which saw the struggle over strategic hills and roadways, but, luckily, not the use of atomic weapons on the battlefield or over the cities of Asia. In the meantime though, there was plenty of death and suffering for populations trapped by the armies and fleeing ahead of brutal political agents on both sides. Troops too suffered a long and bitter tour along a line fraught with individual danger. American soldiers served not towards some inevitable victory, no march on the Rhine, but on long tours. Most looked forward not to peacetime, but to getting out of the heavily-conscripted Army once and for all. The “rotation blues” had Yankee soldiers counting down the days till they could escape the freezing winters, monsoon summers, and night-time probing attacks by Chinese infantry.
Meanwhile, the Armistice bogged down over the question of repatriation and borders, and the two sides struggled to dislodge each other, either by aerial attacks with napalm during the day or by well-coordinated infantry assaults under the cover of darkness. Little moved, instead men simply dug in deeper.
When eventually the Armistice was signed in late July, 1953, the external actors had mercifully backed down from hope of conclusive victory. The United States had not mobilized for all out war in Asia, instead opting for negotiations, and Russia and China too declined total war over Korea. By this point Stalin had died, Truman was out of office, and MacArthur had been relieved for his potentially dangerous autocracy. Millions were dead and, with the exception of a few shifts of the antebellum border, nothing had changed politically, neither in the leadership of the two Koreas or the posture of their forces. The sides moved on and found other battlegrounds, while the Koreans buried their dead and tried to move forward towards some future prosperity, with hope for some future reconciliation and restoration of national destiny. As yet, that future still is undefined, and possibly it shall become something else: a people irrevocably divided by language, custom, worldview, and experience as one side explores the promise of the global economy and the other the promise of inward self-strengthening as a hermetical kingdom.
Heraclitus once wrote that:
“All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice, they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
The Korean War’s outcome is appropriately deceiving. For Americans, what we take with us and what we leave behind is measured in both hard numbers and in ideas. The United States keeps the 8th Army in South Korea, thousands of servicemen and women who hold posts that have been guarded by American arms for over half a century. The US still holds the power of operational control over South Korea’s military in the event of Northern attack (control it continues to maintain after numerous delays of transfer of authority), and it has inundated South Korea with cultural and economic influences from soap operas to multinational conglomerates. Thousands of Korean-Americans now live in the United States and have added their own influences to the patina of our country’s rich cultural diversity.
As it was and is, Korea was left as a tense frontier for ideological struggle, a shibboleth to the failure of either side to overcome the other by conventional means. We killed the promise of turning the Cold War into a hot one, and left it there to endure in temporary abatement. Yet, what we avoided we carried forward. Guarding the no-man’s land at the DMZ is a ritual sacrifice and a communion for American foreign policy, taken as a sign that the United States fought a limited war with no prospect of total victory, and then accepted the continued consequences of a limited outcome. There was no liberation, no sweeping victory over totalitarianism, for it might have required more of American citizens, or else the annihilation of millions more in nuclear war. The DMZ is the Cold War’s word made flesh, a covenant says “Thus far, and no farther” on both sides.
What Americans took away from Korea, what they long to forget perhaps along with that war, is what TR Fehrenbach, a US Army historian and Korean War veteran, described in his book This Kind of War: A Study in Military Unpreparedness. For Fehrenbach, Korea represented a challenge to America’s ad hoc approach to foreign wars, ushering in the age of standing armies of millions prepared to hold the frontiers against regional anarchy or the external threat of Communist expansion. The “Proud Legions” that Fehrenbach predicted would be professional soldiers who were willing to hold, until the collapse of empire, the distant outposts. A classicist, Fehrenbach well predicted much of the later transition the Army would undergo after Vietnam; an end to conscription and the fostering of a large professional army dedicated to combat and fraternity away from popular understanding and populist inclusion.The Army of Iraq and Afghanistan is far more akin to this understanding than to the Conscripts and reluctant Reservists that arrived in Korea from Japan in July 1950, much as the Armies of Trajan and Hadrian were different than those who had formed Rome’s Citizen militia in the days of Hannibal.
Fehrenbach was, however, a perceptive writer who was not keen to overgeneralize about what the overall lesson of Korea might be for American foreign policy, or really for policy at all. The threat remained from the North, so there was no way to say with certainty how long (he was correct in saying it would be long, as we are still waiting) the armed camps would be postured and how long the Korean people would remain a hostage to the political intentions of two distinct political systems, united in an death grip by mutual fear and aggression. He concluded that it would be difficult to draw any great truths or lessons from the War, writing “The lesson of the Korean War is that it happened.”
Perhaps this final cryptic sentence recognizes that the Armistice signed 62 years ago today represents some kind of lucky coincidence, a fortunate outcome considering the high stakes involved after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, or perhaps it represents the lesson that ideological polities established by force of arms have limits, in this case the 38th parallel. Too many Americans didn’t care enough about Korea to sign up in droves to die there for something far short of total victory, and thus the line was drawn. Perhaps it is also a stark recognition of how the US was not able to return to peacetime functioning. As the guarantor of European and Asian regimes opposed to Soviet Communism, there would be no happy endings or prolonged disarmament after fascism fell, for, as Fehrenbach was quick to say “there are tigers in the world” which could only be forgotten at extreme peril. From thence was born a state wedded to the preservation of world order by the sword and by barbed wire.
In a sense, Korea was a test, a test of what Americans would define as the limits of peace and war. We are wise to remember this, that, in the world after Korea, “war and peace” are no longer so easy to read as the doors to the Temple of Janus. To keep half of Korea for capitalism and democracy, and to keep the world from being destroyed, America had to recognize its frontiers and be mindful of the hazards of world power.