BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
20 JUNE 2000
KOREA: LESSONS OF A WAR NOT LEARNED
Fifty years ago this week, Harry Truman proclaimed that the
Korean War -- which had just kicked off -- was a "Police
Action." Harry not only came up with a misnomer, he didn't
send enough "cops."
His next mistake was to believe the air generals who assured him that flying machines would stop the invading North Koreans.
Granted, airplanes pummeled Korea from one end to the other, but bombs weren't what stopped the Reds. Their steamroller was halted by determined mud soldiers behind rifles and machine guns, gallantly dug in along a tiny scrap of what was left of South Korea, the Pusan Perimeter.
This week, on the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, we honor those who fought there and remember the 33,686 American warriors who were killed in action during that three-year-long bloodbath.
Back in those heady days, the United States was the only superpower on the block, and it rushed a bunch of our young boys -- as green and ill-prepared for war as the tanks they rode in on -- off to defend a country most Americans couldn't find on a map. The brass thought the American flag and the presence of GI Joe would turn the Red aggressor around.
Truth to tell, Gen. MacArthur's inept intell folks actually believed that when the enemy saw the Red, White and Blue on top of our wheezing tanks, they'd toss down their weapons and flee in panic. Instead, our pathetically trained troops, who would've had a hard time guarding a PX in downtown Tokyo, came close to being bulldozed into the sea by what the Pentagon then rated as a third-class force.
Yes, the brass back in 1950 were wrong about what air power could do. Yes, our experts back in 1950 failed to understand the enemy. Yes, our forces back in 1950 were not trained hard and disciplined enough, nor was their state of readiness up to slugging it out with a mean and nasty foe.
Have we learned anything from the nightmare of Korea? Nope. Maybe that's why it's called "The Forgotten War" -- because no one on high really wants to remember what went down there.
Maybe that's why the same mistakes made in Korea were repeated in Vietnam.
And repeated again during the Gulf War, where fortunately for our first-to-go paratroopers and Marines, Saddam Hussein twisted his moustache and did TV while Stormin' Norman used the time to build a massive force right in front of Iraqi bunkers. An awesome hammer that set a new record in war-winning.
The most recent go-around with Serbia was more of the same. A tiny, 1970s-equipped Serbian army outfoxed the mighty air power of NATO -- which succeeded only in knocking out a dozen Serb tanks at a cost of about a half-billion bucks a vehicle.
Of course, the Pentagon went into denial mode and lied about what happened at the end of three out of four of these exercises. The generals and flacks spun: "We stopped 'em cold." "We won all the battles." "Air power won our first war."
At almost 70, I am a military cynic, convinced that the powers that be are dead set on never learning anything useful from the past. I console myself that the cheaters usually get caught out in the end, but that doesn't make us any smarter the next time around. Or bring back the dead.
If Korea exploded all over again this week and a million zealots came screaming South, we'd be in even worse shape than we were in 1950. At least then we had battle-trained officers and noncoms who were as tough as one-dollar steaks, vets from World War II with the combat savvy to turn tenderfoot teens into warriors. Then, too, social experiments and low standards hadn't destroyed the most essential components of combat effectiveness -- discipline, unit cohesion and teamwork. Factors that forge THE BROTHERHOOD that makes the impossible easy. And, back then, our military wasn't spread around the world, near broken from saving all those global villages.
We're lucky the North and South Korean presidents are hugging and kissing like two long-separated brothers at a family reunion. Thanks to President Clinton and Secretary of Defense Cohen, it would be mission impossible to save South Korea again today.