December 23, 2015

1950. Bill Costello on the Follies of the Korean War

"Far Eastern Report" by Bill Costello
"A soldier of the 24th Infantry Division waits to board a plane bound for Korea in 1950" (source)



August 18, 1950 - Columbia Broadcasting System
The United States came to the end of World War II thinking it had learned almost everything there was to know about the science of fighting. We romped into the home stretch with plenty of power to spare, and then we settled down, gloating with satisfaction over our possession of the atom bomb, believing we had the rest of the world buffaloed.

It took a little country like North Korea, with a population of ten million, to bring us to our senses. In just a few weeks in this primitive, obscure corner of Asia we have discovered that the United States is no better prepared for war than it ever has been in peacetime and that we have been deluding ourselves into thinking this is the century of electronic push-button wars, where the dirty job of digging slit trenches has become obsolete. There are several thousand GIs in Korea who know that a foxhole, a rifle, and sometimes even a knife can still mark the borderline between life and death.

Right from the start we kidded ourselves in two respects. First of all, our decision to intervene militarily in Korea was taken with a certain condescension. The President called the North Korean army "bandits," and a magazine writer referred to it as a "Soviet satellite bush league army." We know better now. The tired youngsters of the 24th Division know that for a country of ten million, the North Korean army packs quite a punch, especially when it can be mechanized with the help of an industrial power like Russia. The Korean Reds may not have the staying power of a nation of 150 million, but right today theirs is not exactly a bush league army.

In the second place, we had let ourselves think that everything in our society, everything in our armed forces, especially, was all-powerful. The atom bomb became a symbol, when in reality it was nothing more than a freak of military history. The discovery of atomic fission didn't enable a man to lift another pound or walk another mile. It didn't give half-strength divisions the same facility in deployment as full-strength divisions. Congress and the President, for their own devious reasons, thought lower taxes would make the public happy. So they cut the divisions down and restricted the development of new tanks and aircraft. Inventors kept putting new ideas on paper, but the tool and die makers in the arsenals couldn't turn them into working models.

People out here now, after a visit to Korea and a chance to see just how dirty and miserable and tragic war can be at its worst, are busy trying to rationalize our plight. They say "Well, of course, we were prepared for a major atomic war, but not for this primitive kind of foot-slogging. Just take the jet plane as an example. They can fly 600 miles an hour, fast enough to shoot down any bomber in existence. They were designed to protect us from attack. They were supposed to be an intercepting force, not a plane for giving close support to ground troops. Maybe they do fly too fast for strafing and rocketing; maybe we should have kept more Mustang fighters on the ready line, but it's not our fault we got mixed up in a piddling war when we were looking for a colossal, super-production, a war to end all wars."

That's the kind of argument people here are using now to rationalize our shortsightedness. The fact is, of course, it takes men to fight a war, and we didn't have the manpower under arms. We kept telling ourselves we have four divisions in the Japan occupation army. And even the officers in command there were reluctant to admit that they were mighty skinny, undernourished divisions. When the under-manned 24th went into action at Osan, a lot of people were frankly astonished that the Korean Reds didn't flee in panic to the safety of the 38th Parallel. That was part of our condescension. We still clung to the 18th century legend that Asiatic armies were cowardly and subservient, that they considered themselves inferior to Westerners and just wouldn't dare fight a pitched battle.

In this tragic mess we've learned something new about Asiatics. Maybe we've learned it just in time to avert a major disaster. And at the same time we've learned a great deal about our own military weakness. We know now that the forces Congress was willing to provide for General MacArthur were only the skeleton of an army. And in this summer of 1950, if the United States had had to fight four or three or even two wars in backward, insignificant mud-holes like Korea, the outcome would have been calamitous.

The first lesson of the war in Korea is that the atomic bomb is not a threat, not a policeman's "billy." Using an atom bomb in Korea would be like hunting sparrows with a cannon. The superbomb and the superbomber are weapons of desperation, to be used only in a final struggle for survival. The United States cannot hope to preserve the peace of the world unless it is willing to pay a price now also in blood, sweat, tears, and men. It takes foot soldiers to hold ground.

The war so far has been pretty orthodox. It has produced no real military surprises. The story is simply that the South Koreans were badly armed and the Americans were greatly outnumbered. It's true the Communists have shown unexpected skill in field operations. They have negotiated rough ground and the narrow lanes between rice paddies with their broad-tracked Russian tanks and they have taken advantage of their superior numbers to outflank American positions. Also, they have shown a willingness to die recklessly. But it's not at all certain that the North Koreans can keep on going at the pace they have maintained so far. Their resources, both in manpower and materials, are really pretty skimpy. You only have to visit Korea once to understand the terrible poverty and the scantiness of living.

Just by way of example, take the case of a tank driver. Few Koreans have ever seen an implement more complex than a sewing machine. To the average peasant a tank is an unfathomable mystery. The Russians may have trained hundreds of tank mechanics, but every one of them is irreplaceable. If the tank drivers are killed in action, the tanks will have to stop. It is the same with airplanes, trucks, and all the other products of modern technology. A peasant snatched from his rice paddy and given a rifle cannot match technical skill with the Americans who cut their baby teeth on screwdrivers and monkey wrenches. In a matter of days or weeks the supply lines from the north will begin to dry up under the incessant pounding of American air power, for the country is too poor to replace what is being destroyed, even with considerable help from the Soviet Union. Nowhere in Asia is there such a thing as great, expendable surpluses, such as modern war can consume. Asia is a realm of bare sufficiency or of outright scarcity. Korea, for example, has not even enough food for its own people.

So in a military sense there can be no doubt about the outcome of the struggle in Korea, unless Russian or Chinese Communist forces are thrown into the battle line. A question which is already assuming importance is "What comes after the fighting?" Who is going to win the peace? Can the United States reestablish the South Korean Republic and hope to perpetuate it without unifying the whole country? Military men are going to raise the first question when American armies have pushed the Communists back to the 38th Parallel. They will want to know whether to continue their drive to the north. They will have potent arguments in favor of an all-out offensive to destroy Communist armies. It is altogether probable that the retreating Reds will leave in their rear a guerrilla army preaching the same doctrines of reform as the Communists in China. Some believe there will be a hundred thousand guerrillas, working in the hills while American armies patrol the highways. It is hardly likely that those guerrillas can be crushed, even by a reconstituted South Korean army, so long as there exists in the north a military command to which it can be loyal.