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The Korean War: A History

Bruce Cumings

(Modern Library; US: Jul 2010)

The Forever War

“If our contemporary occupation of Iraq follows suit, the country will be divided, civil war will erupt (beyond what has transpired already), and millions will die but nothing will be solved, and in the 2060s, thirty thousand American troops will still be there, holding the line against the evil enemy (whoever he might be), with a new war possible at any moment.”
—Bruce Cumings, The Korean War


Although its dust jacket would have you believing that it’s simply a generalized and shortish (at least as compared to the tome-prone lengths of military histories) encapsulation of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings’ book is anything but just another history. With a directness that’s disarming for the field – which is riddled with writers who approach their subjects in slow and circling accretion of detail – Cumings wastes no time limning many long-ignored facts and striking down sheaves of clichés and shibboleths of received learning about this “forgotten” war. It’s an insurrectionary work of history that leaves few preconceptions intact.


Cumings begins with a tellingly acerbic note, referencing the “lessons” that Robert McNamara, architect of much of the Vietnam War (and the carpet bombing campaign of Japan during World War II) claimed to have learned afterwards, concluding that “we were blind prisoners of our own assumptions.” Cumings adds, “in Korea we still are.”


The potted history of the Korean War taught in the West doesn’t leave much room for anything that happened prior to the instigation of hostilities by the North Koreans in the summer of 1950. Much like how historians like Niall Ferguson believe that the 20th century’s two world wars were in fact one long conflagration, Cumings argues that the Korean War was the continuation of hostilities begun long before the Korean People’s Army (KPA) smashed through Republic of Korea (ROK) lines and rolled towards Seoul. Cumings writes that up to 100,000 southern Koreans may have died in fratricidal violence before 1950:


The Spanish Civil War is well known to have been fratricidal, bloody, and to have generated enmities that lasted for half a century… Spain may well be the best comparison for a Korean civil war that began well before June 1950 and still goes on today.


Before Cumings’ discussion of that legacy, however, he knocks out a sharp-tongued and contrarian history of the acknowledged “war” itself between the invasion in 1950 and the cessation of hostilities in 1953, demolishing several tenets of standard Korean War history. Firstly there is his disputation of General MacArthur supposedly secret and high-risk amphibious assault on Seoul in September 1950. While the attack did help turn the tide against the KPA, which had nearly thrown ROK and American troops into the ocean, Cumings notes that the landing was neither secret (the North Koreans were fully aware it was coming) nor that high-risk (the KPA had left only a shell garrison in the city that was easily overwhelmed).


Conventional thought has long had it that once the KPA had been routed and the heavily reinforced United Nations forces (really an American army with some few allied units, mostly from the United Kingdom) had pushed them back above the 38th parallel border, the war could have been concluded had MacArthur not insisted on advancing so close to the Yalu River and the border with China. Using documents of communications between the communist powers, Cumings (whose penchant for critical but underutilized primary documents strongly buttresses his positions throughout) argues that once the allies crossed into North Korean territory, conflict with the Red Army was inevitable:


North Korean and Chinese documents make clear that China did not enter the war purely as a defensive measure to protect its border, as has long been known, but also because Mao determined early in the war that should the North Koreans falter, China had an obligation to come to their aid because of the sacrifice of so many Koreans in the Chinese revolution, the anti-Japanese resistance and the Chinese civil war.


This little-studied pre-1950 bond of blood and sacrifice between Beijing and Pyongyang helps vividly explain the reaction of the Chinese to MacArthur’s advances across the 38th parallel. (The parallel was termed “an imaginary line” by the Americans’ United Nations ambassador, prompting this sarcastic question from Cumings: “Why is it aggression when the Koreans cross the 38th parallel but imaginary when Americans do the same thing?”) It also assists in the explanation of why to this day the Chinese government has stood so steadfastly behind North Korea’s increasingly enfeebled and manic leaders.


When the Red Army blitzed across the frozen Yalu in the winter of 1950, American troops were knocked back on their heels. However, Cumings takes issue with the oft-repeated descriptions of massive swarms of Red Chinese soldiers overwhelming the doughty Americans by dint of sheer numbers. He posits that frequently the total number of Chinese and KPA troops in the theater of operations were in fact not that dissimilar from the number of troops facing them from the south.


Further complicating the oft-accepted narrative of a democratic West pushing back the yowling Commie hordes is Cumings’ exploration of a subject that has received scant notice in the West; namely, the frequent massacres of South Korean civilians by the ROK and American troops, and the monstrously disproportionate air assaults on the North. Cumings digs up records describing how American troops backed and sometimes assisted in bloody repression of scattered pre-war revolts in the South against a leadership tainted by collaboration with the Japanese (it isn’t widely known that the US occupied South Korea from 1945 to 1948).


Perhaps because of this repressive groundwork laid before the war, and widespread anti-Asian racial animosity incubated in the Pacific War, Cumings can list a grim litany of instances, many reported in mainstream Western media at the time but somehow since forgotten, of American troops treating South Korean civilians with the same violent contempt many showed toward the people of South Vietnam years later. Cumings quotes John Osbourne of Life, who wrote in 1950 that it was a new kind of war, one that included “blotting out of villages where the enemy may be hiding; the shelling of refugees who may include North Koreans.”


The lack of follow-up by the press to the 1999 New York Times story about a 1950 incident in which “American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge” shows exactly how forgotten a conflict the Korean War truly is. In his stark concluding pages, Cumings explores far beyond the Korean Peninsula, covering the repressive political atmosphere back in the States and the beginning of the creation of the permanent military industrial complex that President Eisenhower presided over before warning the nation about; all of this leading to the current situation where thousands of American troops remain garrisoned near the battlefields of an unconcluded conflict.


Not only was this one of the century’s most devastating wars (up to four million Korean dead), but one of the most unheralded and least-understood. Cumings has done great service to changing the latter.

Rating:

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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