Posts Tagged ‘Korean War’

Review: American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

March 3, 2011

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Raymond Manchester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like most Americans, I knew of Douglas MacArthur before listening to this audiobook. I knew he was a five-star general of the army like Eisenhower, Marshall, and Bradley. I knew he commanded forces in the Pacific in World War II, constituting the southern effort that mirrored the central Pacific effort commanded by Chester Nimitz. I knew that he was sacked early in the Korean War by President Truman for insubordination. I knew that he was called “Dugout Doug” by troops who believed he did not share their privations in forward positions, close to the enemy.

I learned so much more about MacArthur in this book. I learned that his Army career spanned a remarkable 52 years, and that he was a general officer for something like the last 30 of these. Contrary to the “Dugout Doug” epithet that followed him in the Pacific, he was hardly a coward in the face of the enemy – in fact, it was quite the opposite. He was virtually suicidal in taking undue risks in battle. In World War I, though he was a high-ranking officer (colonel as chief of staff for the Rainbow Division, and later brigadier general in command of his own units), he insisted on commanding from the front, not some tent or quarters far removed from the battlefield. He accompanied his troops on raids and reconnaissance efforts armed only with a riding crop and refused to wear a steel helmet or carry a gas mask (he was gassed at least once because of the latter). Much later, when he withdrew to Corregidor in Manila Harbor after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, while everyone else rushed for cover when the island came under air attack, he routinely came out of the underground shelters to observe. It was much the same when he later returned to the Philippines after withdrawing to Australia to regroup. Though the Japanese knew the location of the house he was using as a command post and regularly strafed and bombed the area, he refused to leave the building or seek shelter when attacks came. In fact, one of the first actions he took upon assuming the private home as his headquarters was to demolish and fill in an “unsightly” bomb shelter that spoiled the aesthetics of the home’s lawn. Even during the Korean War, he still needed to get close to the front lines to get a feel for the fighting, much closer than many of his aides would have preferred (though in Korea he always made “day trips” to the fighting – flying in, touring, then returning to Tokyo at the end of the day).

Though he was quite fearless in battle, he was also a megalomaniac, highly egotistical, unable to accept blame for mistakes, and unwilling to allow anyone but himself to be acclaimed. His cables were routinely studded with accolades of his own exploits and triumphs, rarely if ever even mentioning the name of any other officer from his command.

I was unaware that Dwight Eisenhower had been one of MacArthur’s aides in the 1930s when MacArthur had retired from active duty and had gone to the Philippines to oversee the U.S. military assistance program there. It would forever sting MacArthur that Ike, who had been a major or lieutenant colonel while working for him, would have such a meteoric rise thereafter, pulling equal with him in rank as a five-star general of the army in the next decade and even further when he won the presidency – something MacArthur always coveted.

His seniority and reputation earned him a great deal of autonomy in how he conducted his business as a warfighting general. In World War II, orders were issued to all other theater commanders, but to MacArthur, the orders were sent for information only. This would lead to his ultimate fall from command in Korea. The man simply could not refrain from dabbling in politics, even going as far as launching an abortive presidential bid in 1948. He could not see the line between civilian control of the military, and was belligerent and insubordinate to commands and instruction issued even from the president himself. The lesson for American civil-military relations was clear – something was wrong with how the system allowed MacArthur to behave as he had – and would yet.

One thing I thought completely remarkable was that even after Truman fired him and he returned to the U.S. – his first time back in over a decade (he had been in the Philippines, Australia, and Japan during his time abroad) – he toured the country, making political speeches attacking the president while in full uniform, still on active duty, still drawing full pay and benefits from the military, jetting about the country on a military plane. This would never happen today.

In the end, MacArthur was a tragic figure – so talented, so gifted and driven (largely by the influence of his mother, who always pushed him to best the achievements of his father, who had been an Army three-star general), but also so terribly flawed. He failed to adequately prepare the Philippines for the Japanese invasion in World War II, responded sluggishly to reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which preceded the strike on the Philippines by several hours), and largely repeated these mistakes in Korea in 1950. US troops in Japan were soft from easy occupation duty there, and the U.S. posture on the peninsula itself was abhorrent when the North Korean attack came. Of course, MacArthur could never be blamed for any of these shortcomings. (In an interesting sidenote, many of the Japanese troops who attacked the Philippines in December 1941 came from Takou, Formosa – now Kaohsiung, Taiwan, from which I write these words. MacArthur failed to conduct any aerial reconnaissance missions of Southern Formosa to determine the disposition and strength of Japanese troops – something he and the Filipino people would pay dearly for.)

It’s a long book – nearly 800 pages in print and over 31 hours of unabridged audio – but very interesting for military history buffs and students of Asia-Pacific geopolitics. (MacArthur to this day is probably regarded more fondly in the Philippines and Japan than he is in much of the United States.) I have read another book by the same author, William Manchester, called “Goodbye, Darkness” about his experiences fighting as a Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II, and there is no doubt that he is a skilled writer. Recommended.

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Review: The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat

January 28, 2011

The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in CombatThe Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This gripping account of U.S. Marines in combat during the Korean War is a must-read! I was thoroughly engrossed by the storytelling. Despite the fact that it is a historical work, it reads like a novel.

The descriptions of bravery and selflessness of the Marines of Fox Company, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines fighting to defend Toktong Pass near the famous Chosin Reservoir in some of the most austere winter combat conditions imaginable (think alpine fighting where temperatures did not rise above minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end, with deep snow and howling winds) is truly remarkable. While the combat itself is old-fashioned, consisting mainly of static fighting positions and human-wave tactics by the Chinese volunteers, the lessons for dealing with the environment are still relevant for a possible new fight on the Korean Peninsula.

The commander of the company of Marines, William Barber, won the Medal of Honor for leading his troops through several days and nights of siege by Chinese forces that far outnumbered his forces, despite being seriously wounded himself early on. In all, “The Last Stand of Fox Company” is an inspiring account of leadership, comradeship, and perseverance in the face of severe adversity. Highly recommended.

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The new Korean War and Taiwan

December 20, 2010

Chinese Military Involvement in a Future Korean War

Capt Jacquelyn Schneider, USAF

Strategic Studies Quarterly, 2010 (4), 50 – 67.

I came across a timely article in a not-too-well-known journal last week that discusses the likelihood of China intervening in the next edition of the Korean War (which, based on contemporary news accounts, seems like it could start any day now).

It’s fairly well-known that the beginning of the original Korean War (1950 – 1953) in June 1950 had the side-effect of placing the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait to keep another conflict from erupting in East Asia at the same time.  The author of this piece, Jacquelyn Schneider, argues that ever since that time, Korea and Taiwan have been linked, which raises some vexing issues for the present:

However loathe the United States is to link actions on the Korean peninsula with Taiwan, it is historically impossible to completely separate the two issues. As mentioned previously, China’s attempts to initially reunify Taiwan with the PRC were stymied by the Korean War. Would it be possible for China to capitalize on the US focus on Korea to launch a simultaneous amphibious operation to conquer Taiwan?

Her question is an interesting one.  She answers it by looking at military capability to take Taiwan and willingness to do so.  Her take – the capability exists, but it is too difficult for non-Chinese to understand the Taiwan issue fully, for there is no equivalent in the American experience, and thus impossible to make a willingness judgment.

In my mind, if China would decide to enter a new Korean War, assuming that it was initiated by the North, then I think that there would be little additional loss in terms of international standing, economic losses, etc. from also initiating a move against Taiwan.  China would already be branded an outlaw and condemned in places like the UN for backing North Korea’s aggression, so why not settle up when it comes to Taiwan at the same time?  After all, why else would the PRC have in excess of 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles stationed opposite Taiwan, a burgeoning fleet of attack submarines, and a rapidly modernizing air arm?  It’s not to offset any equivalent military buildup taking place in Taiwan, that’s for sure.

Back to Korea, though, Schneider surmises that modern China as a largely integrated stakeholder in the international order has too much to lose, and thus chiefly for this reason (though also including the absence of a Mao-like leader, fear of domestic repercussions in term of refugee flows out of North Korea, and the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in Northeast China to U.S. attack) would not enter a new Korean War.  That’s all well and good, but I think there is more to it than that – what about treaty obligations?  My understanding of the PRC – DPRK treaty of friendship, etc. is that it makes security guarantees that specifically exclude those of the nuclear umbrella-type, but that it also states that the PRC is under no obligation to assist if the DPRK initiates the aggression.  How about this – the DPRK attacks South Korea (as we’ve seen them do twice this year so far), who then counterattacks into North Korea, and then the attacks escalate, from initial artillery and air strikes on mainly military facilities of both sides to more and more areas populated mainly by civilians, at which point U.S. forces become involved in a range of military operations, including troop movements (with the South Koreans) across the DMZ.  What now, China?  I think that in such a case, the PRC joins in – I don’t think they are going to sit idly by if U.S. forces are being actively involved, just as I think U.S. forces would be automatically committed if PRC forces were involved.  It’s like each side on the Korean peninsula has their “big brother” there waiting to jump in if the other side’s back-up decides to get feisty.

And, if that all happens, then who knows if China would decide to try to capitalize on the opportunity to move on Taiwan?  It’s certainly a possibility I hope the planners at U.S. Pacific Command have taken into account…

Schneider goes on to introduce some very sensible “rules of engagement” that would help prevent a rapidly escalating conflict in Korea between the primarily interested non-territorial powers, including the establishment of buffer zones and assignment of responsibility over refugees in particular locations.  I agree that measures such as these would be essential to keep from quickly moving down the road to a greatly expanded war in Korea. (Ah, but could the U.S. trust China to live up to their parts in the rules?  She talks about this as well…read the article.)

She returns to the Taiwan issue at the end:

The change [North Korea’s defeat and the reunification of the Korean peninsula] could prove advantageous for decoupling the Taiwan situation from the Korean peninsula. By demonstrating the will to use force, openness in military planning, and gracious collaboration in victory, the United States would demonstrate its inherent trust in China to participate in the region as a stabilizer.

…and then the closer:

In a game of multiple iterations, a Korean conflict could help the United States and China more advantageously perceive utility and value of each nation’s interests and actions in Asia. By building trust between the two players in the Asian region, the probability of provoking conflict becomes less likely. Perversely, if executed properly, a conflict on the Korean peninsula could serve as a stabilizing event in the Pacific region.

I’m not buying it.  It’s just too optimistic.  I can only see negative and ill effects on the Asia-Pacific region from a new Korean War – heaps of dead bodies in Seoul, a shattered former North Korea hollowed out from refugee outflows, and an even greater tension between China and the United States, if not outright war.  I think she’s right about decoupling Korea and Taiwan, but only because there would no longer be troops facing off over the 38th Parallel.  If China refrained from invading Taiwan at the same time, then cross-Strait tensions would be vaulted to new highs.  Let’s hope Korea doesn’t kick off anytime soon – the U.S. is militarily still too preoccupied with exiting Iraq and searching for the door in Afghanistan.


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