Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lessons from a Past War--Korea

I've been reading David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter,
a history of the Korean War. It's good, as one would expect of the author. (Since my early memories include following the course of the war, it's an exercise in nostalgia for me as well. I'm not learning much new about the political side from the American side (the UN is totally ignored) but the Chinese/Korean/Soviet side is newish to me.)

I just finished the account of the Wake Island meeting between Truman and Gen. MacArthur. MacArthur's at the peak of his glory, having pushed through the Inchon landing which created the most dramatic reversal in American military fortunes I can think of. (The North Koreans had succeeded in capturing 90 percent or so of South Korea, with the big issue whether we could hold onto the Pusan perimeter. Within 45 days of the Inchon landing, MacArthur's troops had crossed the 38th parallel and were close to conquering all of North Korea.) According to MacArthur, the meeting went very fast, no one raised big issues (how far north Mac should go, the likelihood of the Chinese intervening, etc.).

A couple things stand out to me:
  1. I've been in meetings like that. Bureaucrats, like people, don't like conflict, so meetings of bureaucrats from different bureaucracies (at Wake, there were Truman and his civilians, the Joint Chiefs representing the military, and MacArthur representing himself) sometimes dissolve into conflict, but often skate over thin ice to get to the end of the meeting.
  2. The psychology reminds me of our psychology around January 2002. We'd sent our Marines to Afghanistan and for a little while it seemed that our worst fears (following the Soviets and the British) were going to be realized. Then, all of sudden the bombing took effect, the Northern Alliance went forward, and the Taliban collapsed. So Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had the prestige and moral authority to do what they wanted. MacArthur did what he wanted, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and an eventual stalemate.

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