Books: War of the barking mad

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The Korean War: The West Confronts Communism 1950-1953

by Michael Hickey

John Murray pounds 25

The Korean War, in which three million people died, two million of them civilians, was an unnecessary conflict which solved nothing and was fought mainly because of Cold War neurosis. The absurd American policy of "containment" - combating communism everywhere, even when no vital US interests were involved and purely for reasons of credibility - would reach its reductio ad absurdum 20 years later in Vietnam. Colonel Hickey's title suggests that this is going to be another of those "fighting for democracy" tracts but, despite an excess of sympathy for the US stance, the book turns out to be remarkably even-handed and insightful.

After the Second World War, Korea was divided into two spheres of influence, a Russian one in the north and an American in the south. In 1948 two separate nation-states emerged at either side of the 38th parallel of latitude; seeing how precarious their client state in the south was, the Americans retained troops there. In 1950 North Korean forces crossed the border. The ensuing war fell into five distinct phases. In the first, the North Koreans swept aside the South Koreans and pinned the Americans down in the Pusan perimeter. Secondly, following the amphibious Inchon landings, the forces of the Americans and their allies pushed the North Koreans back to the Yalu river on the border with China. Then the Chinese in turn invaded and drove the allies back deep into South Korea. The Allies counter-attacked and forced the enemy back to the 38th parallel. The fifth phase was a stalemate, with bloody battles fought as both sides sought to go to the peace conference table from a position of strength.

The USA had the enormous propaganda advantage of being able to operate under the aegis of the UN. It has been an abiding ambition of Washington, successfully achieved, to camouflage wars fought for its own national interest under the umbrella of UN "peacekeeping". Until the late 1950s the UN General Assembly was an American poodle, and the only barrier to US hegemony was the veto exercised by the Soviet Union on the Security Council. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, the Russians had stupidly boycotted all meetings of the Security Council, as the UN still recognised the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Formosa as the legitimate Chinese government instead of the recently victorious Communist regime under Mao. This Soviet fit of the sulks played straight into the Americans' hands and allowed "containment" to masquerade as "the defence of the free world".

Hickey is shrewd enough to see through all this. Although he has great admiration for the American fighting man and the field commanders, he has little more than contempt for Truman and Acheson, the architects of US foreign policy. He has an admirable penchant for calling a spade a spade. While holding no brief for the seedy North Korean regime of Kim Il-sung, Hickey is rightly even harsher on South Korea's Syngman Rhee, another of those Asian paladins of freedom and democracy in the class including Marcos, Zia and Suharto. During the UN occupation of North Korea in late 1950, Rhee's paramilitary thugs carried out 150,000 executions without trial of "communists", allowing wholesale liquidation by Rhee's apparatchiks of noisy neighbours, sexual rivals and even the people across the river whose faces did not fit. Needless to say, Washington connived at these atrocities on the age-old American principle that Rhee was "our sonofabitch".

Hickey is devastating in his portrait of General MacArthur, commander- in-chief of the UN forces, the phoney "American Caesar", who used to have his "difficult" mistresses bumped off by hoods in "accidents". Outgeneralled by Chinese marshal Lin Piao in November 1950, MacArthur tried to disguise an utterly disastrous defeat by talking of Chinese "hordes", insinuating that he had been beaten by sheer weight of numbers. In fact, as Hickey points out, the Chinese rarely attacked at more than regimental strength and relied for their success on fieldcraft, deception and surprise rather than vast numbers.

MacArthur challenged, ignored or disobeyed all orders sent from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was totally out of hand until Truman abruptly sacked him in April 1951. The president had little choice, for the American Caesar was dragging Washington to the brink of global war. His master plan for ending the Korean War was to drop 50 atomic bombs on Manchuria and land 500,000 of Chiang Kai-shek's troops at the mouth of the Yalu. He said he wanted to create a no-go area caused by cobalt irradiation across the neck of the Korean isthmus which could prevent any movement there for years. He forgot that in that case Chiang's troops would be caught in the no-go area. Or did he? It is always difficult to be sure about mental processes when one is dealing with the barking mad. The best, if slightly charitable, judgement on MacArthur is that made by General George Marshall, as truly a great man as MacArthur was not: "never any damn good ... a four flusher and no two ways about it".

Hickey's iconoclasm does not spare his own nation. He demolishes the tabloid legend of the "Glorious Glosters", according to which 850 of Britain's finest died fighting to the last man in a "Custer's last stand" engagement on the Imjin river, by pointing out that the Gloucestershire Regiment's casualties were 63 killed and 75 wounded; 700 survived. My one reservation about this stimulating and perceptive book is that Hickey provides no footnotes or citations to his sources. When he advances a highly controversial proposition and says merely, "As one historian has written", we badly need to know who the historian is. But this is a minor blemish in a thoroughly accomplished piece of work. Hickey served in Korea, but he has not allowed his own memories to affect his judgement nor cloud his objectivity.