The Korean War is not generally characterized as a war of attrition or as a holding action or as a war we weren’t allowed to win, even though apparently that is exactly what it was, some time before the Vietnam War became the definitive “war we weren’t allowed to win.”
The Korean War is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War” which has never made sense to me at all because I was keenly aware of it, both when it occurred and over the years since. I was nine years old in 1952, and my oldest brother had embarked on his Naval career which placed him in Korea as a Combat Photographer attached to units on the ground.
In recent years, many fine books have been published on the subject. Some of them are narratives from the viewpoint of those who were there on the ground, at Chosin Reservoir and in the mud; and some are from the vantage point of analysts who have access to raw materials from that time as well as the added perspective of “50 years on” to re-discuss what is described by one author as the outpost war. That is the subtitle for Lee Ballenger’s 2000 work: U. S. Marines in Korea, Vol. 1:1952; The Outpost War.
It was war on a Motel 6 scale: just enough provision both at the “safer bunkers” and up on the ridge to make it endurable but never enough for sustained efficiency; endurable for an indefinite period because the folks directing this war had decided, for political reasons, not to win it. There was enough materiel flowing through the supply pipeline to make it endurable for as long as necessary~~but no plan for a fullscale, Katie-Bar-the-Door, knockdown/dragout, “let’s get it on” war that would have a winner when it was over. It had some of the worst characteristics of both earlier and later wars.
Think of the jungle trails of Vietnam (photo at left)~~ here’s the Korean version: the trail runs along a rocky ridge and cold rain is falling as the Marines run hundreds of yards just below the crest, sort of hunkering down as they arrive at the outpost to take their shift, out there on the pointy end of the International Spear (which is carefully sheathed lest it cause unwanted damage) and here they pass the night watching for movement that always must be expected on the face of the opposing hill where the North Koreans hold the territory, as well as that line of shrub-bushes that can be seen with binoculars. So they huddle there in the cold and the rain, waiting for the relief that will show just before dawn, so they can exchange places. Then the worn out group moves back to the safer bunkers to rest, dry off, eat something and then do it all again.
Think of the trenches of France (2 photos at left)~~here’s the Korean iteration (photo at right): locked into front line positions month after month, uselessly pummeling one another night after night after night; day after miserable day, sometimes dying from the heat, sometimes dying from the cold; watching for the opportunity to take 10 yards of real estate away from the enemy’s maneuvering options or listening intently to the night air, wondering if this is the hour when the North Koreans and Chinese will come silently up the hillside under cover of the sound of heavy rain…or will they wait for a dry and moonless night?
Let’s just say Gen. George Patton wouldn’t have done well with The Philosophy of Combat In The Korean Conflict. The final sixteen months of this pointless and bloody exercise were described by the chief U.N. negotiator, Adm. C. Turner Joy, as a futile tragedy. He pointed out that “the final agreement of 27 July 1953 was substantially the same as that submitted on 28 April 1952.” All during those awful months the Marines on the outposts kept trudging to their positions night after night, trying to stay sharp, trying to maintain skills that were impossible to maintain (unless they were regularly attacked).
The quotes that follow are all from Ballenger’s book.
“A limitation on military offense was one of the defining aspects of the Korean War. For the first time in modern history, total victory over an enemy was rejected. It was replaced by a policy of containment–of warfare that extended only as far as politically defined limits and no farther.” This policy was intentional. It was not a result of poor planning or unanticipated problems.
This from Lee Ballenger: “Under political constraints, UN military forces could not attempt to win the war on the battlefield. Aircraft could not bomb airfields or other military targets in China. They were not allowed to chase opposing pilots across the border in hot pursuit. Naval vessels off the Chinese coast could not shell targets on the mainland or blockade China’s harbors. On land, there would be no amphibious landing behind the Chinese lines. Land forces were not permitted to advance or capture any significant new territory on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere.
“Introduction into Korea of additional divisions for reinforcement was also rejected. Most important for the times, the atom and hydrogen bombs (possessed by) the United States and deployed to Okinawa and to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific were not used. This was most remarkable in view of the fact that, based on post-World War II political and military thought, the atom bomb was America’s primary weapon of offense.
“To appreciate just how remarkable these limitations were, one must consider that both China and the Soviet Union also took steps to limit their responses to the Korean threat. Much of the possible escalation to war that could have happened did not occur. The Soviet Far East Fleet station in Vladivostok, for example, made no pretense of confronting the U. S. Seventh Fleet in the Sea of Japan. No Soviet submarine presence was detected, nor were there any belligerent Soviet maneuvers or routine naval exercises to worry UN naval forces.” The major belligerents on the world stage pulled their punches….for years!
“….The UN decision not to employ Nationalist Chinese forces in Korea was met with a Communist quid pro quo: Formosa was never threatened with invasion. China also ignored Japan, (which was) the site of UN Headquarters and a major staging and supply area for the war. In Korea, Chinese Army manpower, tactics and strategy were consistently maintained at levels that continued the belligerency without significant escalation.”
Crazy-making is what it was. Ballenger summarizes, “Nearly a year and half of war transpired with nothing whatever to show for it except death and suffering. That was the Outpost War.”
I’ve realized as I’ve thought about the variables of life back-in-the-day that the reason good things were not celebrated excessively was the same reason bad things were not feared or talked about excessively.
That generation silently acknowledged that neither celebration nor fearful talk would change the reality that life would have to be dealt with as it actually was. No one in those parts or those times subscribed to the frustrating idea of spending life trying to force it to be other than what it was. We lived life as it was, not as we wished it was.
My parents and every other family in our community lived by the truth Jesus Christ spoke in Matthew 6:34, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” However, there was a miscalculation in the implementation of that truth by those good people: when things really were wrong, they were usually unwilling to make a serious fuss or raise their voices.
Whatever the group or personal reasons may have been, they just “kept on keeping on.”