BreakPoint Blog

Remembering the Korean War

During the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement that forged the truce between North Korea and the U.S. (the U.S. is still technically at war with North Korea), it is critical for the U.S. to reflect on the often overlooked Korean War.

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.


Re: Jason Taylor
Again, I think you are oversimplifying the argument. I would ask maybe specifics on what scenario you suggest would have made us "win" in Vietnam. From the way I analyze it we could have stayed indefinitely in Vietnam, set up permanent bases and decided to engage in a much more intensive carpet bombing campaign and scorch-earth policy to eliminate the threat. But then you have to consider other externalities to the Vietnam War. This more intensive engagement would have meant more civilian casualties, and more money. All these things have consequences. The U.S. had other priorities outside of Vietnam and had to weight the cost of expending more money and men on fighting there. If we are talking about the moral consequences, we could have engaged in a more intensive scorch-earth style policy to root out the insurgency. That would have had repercussions not just on our own public sentiment, but the Southeast Asian region as well.

I entirely agree that counterinsurgency is an incredibly difficult task and is more properly handled by professional soldiers. With counter-insurgency strategies with a smaller, all-volunteer army one does face repercussions though. U.S. soldiers today have had more tours than any American fighting force. That has physical and psychological toll on persons. So if winning a counterinsurgency can take a long time, you have to factor these extended tours upon soldiers and what that can do in the long term to America's armed forces.
My point about "ignoring" was awkward. It did not mean refraining from waging war on insurgents. My point was that counterinsurgency more then other types of war is the job of professionals and the less the rest of the country fusses about it the better. Insurgents, more then anything want attention. Almost every successful insurgency ever won against a Western State was won by draining home front morale. Conscription brings the war to their notice.

As for the "incoherent strategy,inability to foster a government and greater willingness of the VC", that doesn't really cancel out the fact that we could have fought forever if it weren't for public opinion. Conscription was a deliberate shot in the foot in that regard.
Re:Jason Taylor
What I meant to say in my original response was insurgents, not counterinsurgency. Ignoring insurgents, not counterinsurgency forces.
Re: Jason Taylor
I apologize. I think I misread your comment. Did you mean that insurgents best fight counterinsurgency forces by ignoring them?
Re: Jason Taylor
I am not necessarily advocating a return to a conscript force. What I am rather pointing out has been one of the unforeseen consequences of using an all-volunteer armed forces: it makes it easier for civilian disengagement. As a college-aged male myself, I know that I could potentially be called to service if there was a draft and so there is some personal incentive for it not to come to that. However, the draft could be one way of forcing people to engage more with the costs since they must bear the sacrifices themselves. Another way, and I think a better and more practical solution, is greater civilian involvement in veteran's affairs and actually financially paying for the wars that we are participating in while they are happening instead of kicking the cost down the road.

In regards to your commentary on counterinsurgency, I do not quite understand. You can ignore them, but that usually means you have to give up your objectives in the country you are fighting (a.k.a exiting the country like we did in Vietnam). I think you are simplifying the reasons we lost in Vietnam as well. Low morale from conscripts played a role, but an incoherent strategy, inability to foster a legitimate and effective regime in South Vietnam, and the greater willingness of the Viet Kong to stay and fight because it was their homeland were some of the chief reasons for the U.S.'s failure in Vietnam (Granted, your point factors into my last point to some degree).
Conscripts cannot be used for counterinsurgency. They are not professional enough, and they carry morale discontent like a plague. Using Counterinsurgencies are most easily fought when they are ignored. Using conscripts to fight insurgents is like using them as police. We lost Vietnam largely because we used conscripts.
Furthermore it is ethically dubious. It is one thing to use soldiers who soldier as a job to play poker with human life. That is what governments have always done. It is another to use conscripts who see no urgent threat. And why is it a bad thing that most of society gets to be at peace?