The Korean War is distant within the U.S. collective memory, perhaps because it did not have the memorable, clear-cut victory that previous wars before it had, nor did it figure so prominently in cultural changes as the Vietnam War. However, if the U.S. is to understand the military engagements it has conducted over the past 60 years, it must go back to the beginnings of the Korean War. Not only does this pay proper homage to the veterans who fought in Korea, but it allows us to inculcate important lessons on how the U.S. conducts war and what this reveals about American society as a whole.
One major lesson learned from the Korean War is the importance of setting clear, objective, conceivably attainable goals. What I mean by clear, objective goals are ones that are measurable and quantifiable, are usually tied to taking or holding specific ground, and usually allow for a proactive engagement instead of a reactionary response. In the Korean War, the initial goal was the holding of the 38th parallel or the original demarcation line between North and South Korea. This was a clear and objective goal. It was a geographic spot that the U.N. forces could push the enemy back from, and hold. It was attainable given the resources and realistic commitment to the war effort. The United States could in all likelihood push the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel with the forces they held, even if the initial stages of the war found them with their backs against the wall in Pusan.
It should be noted that conceivably attainable goals are somewhat flexible and are affected by a myriad of factors including resolve, tenacity of fighting forces, and sheer, unexpected circumstances. This allows for the commander to assess changing situations on the ground. That assessment was undertaken by the military and political commanders in the Korean War. They expanded the scope of their goal and wanted to unify the entire Korean peninsula. Again, this was a clear, objective goal. However, it overstretched the resources and resolve of the U.N. fighting forces. They did not heed China’s warnings that if they approached their border they would assault U.N. forces. When the Chinese entered the conflict, the U.S.-led U.N. forces had to engage a much larger, tougher enemy than the North Koreans. The limited engagement had become a much larger conflict, and was protracted for over two-and-a-half years.
Similar scenarios have played out in recent conflicts. The objective in Afghanistan was eliminating a safe haven for al-Qaeda operatives and targeting terrorist organizations connected with the 9/11 attacks. That mission expanded into a much larger one of state reconstruction via infrastructure projects, promoting democracy, and building a national military. The costs have increased immensely and have exceeded the initial estimates of how many resources and how much time were necessary to complete the military mission in Afghanistan. This also has tested the resolve of the soldiers and the public at large, who have grown tired of the protracted conflict. Just like the Korean War, the U.S.’s current conflicts have been longer than expected and witnessed their initial goals expand. The downside has been the lack of assessment before expanding these goals. I am not going to debate the merits of committing to missions like this, but if we do make such commitments, we should at the very least do so with deliberate intent and assess the costs. When the U.S. does not fully account for the potential costs of its missions, it suffers unnecessarily.
One final lesson from the Korean War is the consequences of using a smaller segment of the population to fight. This lesson is not just for the U.S.’s leadership, but for society at large. This is, of course, a consequence of having an all-volunteer military, where there is no longer mass conscription and every male had to at some level consider serving the armed forces in times of war. But this disengagement has had unforeseen consequences both for civilian society and soldiers. Soldiers are forced to bear the cost of much longer tours, since in times of war the U.S. cannot call up more men and women to fight. This brings immense physical, psychological, and familial strain. And civilians are allowed to be disengaged with the conflict. It has gotten to the point that during the Iraq War, the U.S. government enacted a tax cut. Instead of saying, we will at least pay for this war, we will at least sacrifice financially for our soldiers as they went overseas, we gave ourselves a break. The U.S. public was not even comfortable bearing the financial burden of the war. As a result, soldiers continue to feel alienated from a public that does not respond to their suffering and ignores the sacrifices they bear, except maybe when Veterans Day comes around.
If we continue along the same path and forget the lessons of the Korean War, we risk not only making past Korean War veterans suffer via neglect, but our current soldiers as well. Underestimating the enemy, unwillingness to weigh long-term consequences, and inability to properly limit our goals will continue to lead the U.S. into further military disasters. Civilian disengagement will continue to marginalize soldiers and allow the U.S. to drag on wars that may have only tacit public support. Korean War veterans have had their sacrifices largely forgotten. They have endured the sorrow of public silence. The U.S. does not need to replicate that with this generation of veterans. Civilian engagement with the sacrifices borne by U.S. soldiers is tough, but it is a vital civil act. Perhaps that is the most important lesson we can take away from the example of the Korean War.