What We Learned From the Korean War

The only American boys who got home for Christmas in 1950 came on hospital ships or in coffins. The Chinese entered the war as they had promised they would, and they did it in far greater numbers and with greater military capacity than MacArthur had predicted. By late November the First Marine Division faced annihilation at the Chosin Reservoir and fought their way out in what some have described as one of the great military actions of American history.

The Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team was nearly annihilated northeast of the reservoir. And units of the 8th Army that had advanced far to the north on the western side of the peninsula retreated under heavy Chinese assault. South Korean general Sun Yup Paik said the "God of Death himself hovered" over them. Correspondent Homer Bigart reported that it was "the worst licking Americans had suffered since Bataan." The largely American UN force was pushed back south of the 38th parallel and 5,964 Americans died in November and December 1950.

The war would continue for 30 more months, pushing and pulling a little north and a little south of the 38th parallel. And nearly 22,000 more Americans would die from 1951 to 1953.

In the last months before the 1953 truce, the U.S. Army fought the Chinese for Pork Chop Hill in a brutal battle. Everyone knew the treaty was coming but the fight continued over a piece of real estate whose ownership would finally be resolved at the Panmunjom talks rather than on the battlefield. In July 1953, as all recognized the agreement was near conclusion, 1160 more Americans died. As some of the troops in Korea described it, they "died for a tie."

Thirty Americans died on July 27th. A recent special VFW publication described the last American killed that day, a young Marine from Illinois who stepped on a land mine and died the next morning.

As we note the anniversary of the end of this war, we need to do two things: resolve that it is long past time to honor those who served and sacrificed in this brutal war, a war that many of their fellow citizens ignored. We might also pause now to reflect on the nature and consequences of this war. We can learn much from the Korean War experience.

Korea established a pattern that has been unfortunately followed in American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are wars without declaration and without the political consensus and the resolve to meet specific and changing goals. They are improvisational wars. They are dangerous.

The wars of the last 63 years, ranging from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq (but excepting Operation Desert Storm, which is an outlier from this pattern) have been marked by:

  • Inconsistent or unclear military goals with no congressional declaration of war.
  • Early presumptions on the part of the civilian leadership and some top military officials that this would be an easy operation. An exaggerated view of American military strength, a dismissal of the ability of the opposing forces, and little recognition of the need for innovation.
  • Military action that, except during the first year in Korea, largely lacked geographical objectives of seize and hold.
  • Military action with restricted rules of engagement and political constraints on the use of a full arsenal of firepower.
  • Military action against enemy forces that have sanctuaries which are largely off-limits.
  • Military action that is rhetorically in defense of democracy--ignoring the reality of the undemocratic nature of regimes in Seoul, Saigon, Baghdad, and Kabul.
  • With the exception of some of the South Korean and South Vietnamese military units, these have been wars with in-country allies that were not dependable.
  • Military action that civilian leaders modulate, often clumsily, between domestic political reassurance and international muscle-flexing. Downplaying the scale of deployment and length of commitment for the domestic audience and threatening expansion of these for the international community.
  • Wars fought by increasingly less representative sectors of American society, which further encourages most Americans to pay little attention to the details of these encounters.
  • Military action that is costly in lives and treasure and yet does not enjoy the support that wars require in a democracy.

Some of the restraints and restrictions on the conduct of these wars have been politically and even morally necessary. But it is neither politically nor morally defensible to send the young to war without a public consensus that the goals are understood and essential, and the restraints and the costs are acceptable.

On June 27, some veterans of the Korean War and their survivors will gather at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall. This is a powerful memorial that every American needs to visit. And it is a memorial that lacks a record of the names of the 36,574 Americans who died in Korea.

The veterans of the Korean War want those comrades they still mourn to be recorded as individuals who served and who sacrificed when their nation asked them to. Retired U.S. Army Colonel William Weber, the Chair of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation, possesses three Purple Hearts and two prosthetic limbs from his service in Korea. He recently wrote to Speaker John Boehner, "The surviving comrades of the 36,000+ fallen have been ravaged by time and illness and their numbers dwindle, but they cry out in their last plea to their countrymen and the Congress to honor their fallen comrades by recording their names for posterity."

This recognition needs to be considered as honoring the implicit contract that a nation presents to those who serve. Those who died on our behalf and at our request in Korea deserve a public accounting and a permanent record equivalent to that powerful reminder provided across the National Mall to those who fell in Vietnam. Wars marked by unknown casualties mourned quietly by anonymous families and largely unnoticed by a preoccupied nation -- forgotten wars -- are profoundly dangerous.

In addition to remembering those who served, we need to reflect on the lessons of Korea. In fact it is three other wars with over 65,000 dead -- and counting -- past the time for us to do this. And it is tragically past time to quit repeating the experience while expecting a different outcome.

If the agreement signed at Panmunjom 60 years ago remains temporary and tentative, it nonetheless ended a cruel war. As President Dwight Eisenhower said when announcing the agreement, the conference table had worked: he hoped that "all nations may come to see the wisdom of composing differences in this fashion before, rather than after, there is resort to brutal and futile battle."

Presented by

James Wright is president-emeritus and professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is a former Marine and the author of Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them.

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