By Chet Yarbrough
The Korean War
By Max Hastings
Narrated by Frederick Davidson
Max Hastings (Author, British Journalist)
Max Hastings’ book reports the tragedy of the Korean War (1950-1953) fought by United Nations forces against North Korea and China. The end of the Korean War is a return to its beginning with no winners and mostly losers at the 38th parallel.
Hastings begins by suggesting that South Korea ultimately benefited from the war but one wonders if the cost of human blood and treasure is worth today’s North and South Korean reality.
Karl Marx said that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”.
Syngman Rhee (Last Head of State of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea)
Hastings characterizes Syngman Rhee, the Republic of Korea’s leader (1948-1960), as corrupt, though less corrupt and venal than his North Korean counterpart, Kim il sung (1945-1994).
What is of concern to some Americans is President Trump’s relationship with North Korea’s new leader, the son of Kim il sung. Is the stage set for history to repeat itself?
Koje-do POW Camp
Hastings reports overcrowding, abuse, and neglect of North Korean, and Chinese P.O.W.s on Koje-do Island during the Korean war.
Hastings notes the use of the least competent military personnel as guards while the more competent soldiers were fighting the war. Hastings tells of prisoners at Koje-do being hung by their testicles and drowned by water hoses secured to their mouths. How different is that to a naked prisoner at Abu Ghraib or reported water boarding of enemy combatants?
Abu Ghraib prison treatment.
How similar is Koje-do Island’s P.O.W. camp in the Republic of Korea to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison?
America repeats many of Korea’s mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq. The question is–are military interventions new history or the second coming of a repeat tragedy?
How similar is America’s support of Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-1963), and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (1979-2003)?
Summary execution of a Vietcong in Saigon (Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots Nguyen Van Lem)
Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem history is one of corruption as totalitarian and politically repressive as Rhee’s Republic of Korea’ government. The wars in Korea and Vietnam are over. Are Korea and Vietnam safer or better today than before outside military intervention? Vietnam re-unified after the war; Korea did not.
America supported Hussein because he opposed Iran. America’s relationship to Rhee is similar in that Vietnam historically opposed communist China.
Hussein gassed Kurds in northern Iraq and terrorized his country’s Shiite majority. Rhee declared martial law in the Republic of Korea and murdered an estimated 14 to 30,000 Koreans.
The question one may ask themselves, with Hussein dead, is Iraq safer or better today than before intervention?
Are South and North Korea safer or better as a result of the Korean war? From an economic standpoint South Korea is better and safer. That is not true in North Korea.
Francis Fukuyama, in a book titled “Political Order and Political Decay”, argues that violation of sovereign borders violates one of three pillars of a modern state. America’s invasion of Iraq destroyed the government’s ability to exercise power. The United Nations invasion of Korea results in a two state solution. That solution seems good for only some Korean citizens.
Whenever one thinks they know what is good for another there is a cognitive dissonance between what one wants and what one gets.
Hussein was a horrid ruler by American standards, but he was the head of a sovereign state. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un demonstrates the same qualities of leadership as Hussein.
Where will Trump lead America on the question of Kim’s reign? To paraphrase Samuel Clemens–history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
When did human beings become “Gooks”, “Charlies”, and “Towel Heads”? War brings out the worst in human beings by demonizing and animalizing the enemy making killing more socially acceptable.
Hastings shines a bright light on the ugliness and heroism of war. Hastings immortalizes the Irish 1st Battalion RUR (Royal Ulster Rifles’) battles in Imjin and Kapyong in 1951 with a heart rending and inspiring story of determination and bravery. However, his stories of fighting in subzero weather, being captured by the enemy, suffering from dysentery, seeing friends mutilated and killed, and fighting to the death for meaningless plots of ground are stomach turning episodes of despair.
After the 65th Chinese Army had exhausted itself attempting to smash through the defensive positions on the River Imjin held by the British 29 Brigade, the Brigade withdrew to a new line south of the River Han where, on 26 and 27 April, it rested and refitted for future operations. The Brigade had sustained over one thousand casualties at Imjin.
The glaring hubris of General MacArthur and his replacement with General Ridgeway by President Truman reinforces belief in the importance of good leadership.
A recurring theme in Hastings’ Korean history is the importance of ground forces’ confidence and spirit in the success of individual battles. (This is a theme portrayed in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” which is equally well narrated by Frederick Davidson.)
Was the Korean War worth it? Hastings fails to give a definitive answer but he provides an interesting historical background for one to consider its value.