Murray Polner: Review of Melinda L. Pash’s "In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War" (NYU Press, 2012)

Murray Polner is a History News Network book review editor.

In 1950, a scant five years after the end of World War II the United States entered into yet another of its interminable wars by sending its military to fight in Korea, a war which lasted from 1950 through 1953, though the Korean War era officially ended in January 31, 1955. This so-called “Forgotten War” cost the lives of 36,940 Americans, with 92,134 wounded, many grievously, and 8,176 missing in action (that's not to mention the over two million Koreans who died on either side). The GIs returned home without victory parades. A conservative veterans organization, Melinda L. Pash writes in her new book, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War, at first turned its back on them. They were, critics charged, “soft on communism and morally weaker that the veterans of other wars,” as Pash writes, quoting Paul Edwards’ 2000 book To Acknowledge a War: The Korean War in American Memory. Other detractors insisted they were the first American army to lose a war. Thirteen POWs were later charged with collaborating with their captors and twenty-one refused repatriation. Writers like Eugene Kinkead in The New Yorker, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Betty Friedan and others wrote that Korean POWs were morally and educationally weaker than previous POWs, lacking the backbone to deal with their Chinese captors. Even “coddling mothers” were blamed. Few of the explanations advanced, however, made much sense and few if any asked why so savage a war was ever fought in the first place.

In all, there were 6.8 million Korean War-era veterans, but only 1,789,000 served in Korea according to Pash (quoting Tom Heuertz’s “The Korean War +50”) A disproportionate number of casualties were conscripts. Several million or so Koreans, military and civilian, died and North Korean cities were leveled by U.S. bombers.

After the initial invasion by North Korea, the conflict became a more-or-less American war since the Republic of Korea forces broke early on. The Americans initially fought with too many untrained soldiers, many from hastily recruited units in the States and others from undemanding posts in occupied Japan, where they served in support roles. “Many men,” Pash writes in her notes, “stationed in Japan and subsequently sent to Korea at one time had been classified ‘limited service’ for mental or physical reasons and sent to places like Japan after being moved to ‘general duty.’ Many of these became psychiatric casualties only after a few days of combat in Korea.”

American civilians with no family members in the war or in danger of being drafted remained largely unaffected. S.L.A. Marshall, the military historian, called it “the century’s nastiest little war” and General Omar Bradley famously denigrated it as “the wrong war at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.”

Melinda L. Pash teaches history at Fayetteville Technical Community College and she tells an overlooked, gripping, and often heartbreaking and extensively documented story of the men and women who served. She recounts stories by those who were involved, what they encountered in combat, how non-whites and nurses coped, the harsh fate of POWs, and finally their return home, almost anonymously, without celebratory parades.

While Pash slights historical perspective -- for example, why Truman and his advisors felt it absolutely necessary to go to war and the implications it created for the future -- In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation is thoroughly convincing given our historic addiction to war and the ever-present possibility that future generations will surely be forced to fight many more wars.

Korea had been ruled brutally from 1910-1945 by Japan and its Korean collaborators, among them Syngman Rhee, who was installed by the U.S. as Korea’s president following Japan’s defeat in World War II. At the same time, after the division of Korea at the 38th parallel, the Soviet Union placed Kim Il Sung in power in North Korea. From the start the partition between the two Koreas was a marriage made in hell. Rhee, who would oppose the truce ending the war in 1953, began counter-insurgency warfare against his opponents, especially in the rebellious South Cholia region where his forces killed tens of thousands. In North Korea, the dictatorial Kim Il Sung, who fought the Japanese in Manchuria, was no less brutal to his real and imagined rivals. For several years, a civil war of sorts raged between north and south. Meanwhile, the Communists had come to power in China in 1949, and the Malayans and Vietnamese were battling British and French colonialists, the latter two backed by the U.S. Even more ominously, the Cold War between the two great nuclear powers was gaining momentum.

On June 25, 1950 North Korean armies, with Soviet approval, crossed into South Korea. David Halberstam’s vivid history of the war, The Coldest Winter, says Stalin approved Kim’s request to attack the south but cruel cynic that he was, told him that, if he ran into trouble, the Soviet Union would not help, though he surely hoped to keep the U.S. bogged down in war. When the North Koreans attacked, Truman, desperate to ward off Republican attacks for being insufficiently tough on communism and plagued by Joe McCarthy and his followers, allowed himself -- against the wishes of some of his advisors -- to be drawn into reading a longstanding civil war as an attack on our Asian friends as well as our nation’s very survival.

He forged ahead without a congressional declaration of war, establishing an unhealthy precedent for future presidents. The UN, still dominated by the U.S., endorsed the war -- the Soviets having foolishly boycotted the Security Council the day of the vote—and British, Canadian, and Turkish troops, among others, joined in. It then became a limited “police action,” the prevailing fiction designed to keep the Soviet Union and China far away. That is, until General Douglas MacArthur had his troops march north to the Yalu River, the demarcation line between China and Korea, an advance the Chinese viewed as a direct threat. In November, 300,000 Chinese “volunteers” poured in to fight the Americans and their allies and thus extended the war for another few years, resulting in an American military defeat disguised as a stalemate and also the famous dismissal of the general by the president.

“No strong, organized draft protest ever developed during the Korean War,” Pash writes. Other than a few pacifists like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League, all pitifully few in number, Pash believes that World War II and the onset of yet another paralyzing Red Scare in the late '40s and early '50s rendered Americans more conformist -- at least until their more skeptical children and grandchildren came of age in the '60s.

In addition to the poorly trained men initially sent into battle, many soldiers had no idea why they were there despite attempts by the military to inculcate them during basic training. “In the end,” writes Pash, “men continued to filter into Korea throughout the war with almost no information on why they had been sent.” Told that they were fighting to save South Korea from North Korean and Chinese communists and to keep America safe was sufficient for many soldiers interested only in staying alive. In any event, all soldiers and Marines, whatever their motives, had to follow orders or else.

There is an especially perceptive segment on the travails of black and other non-white troops. Despite Truman’s order ending segregation in the military, blacks were targeted in Korea, where they “drew the worst assignments and found little redress despite complaints.” More blacks were sent into combat than whites, she writes, citing a VA study. A great many in the all-black 24th Division, led by white officers, were court-martialed, some sentenced to death for alleged cowardice, a case which brought Thurgood Marshall to Japan and Korea to defend them.

MacArthur’s headquarters had signs supporting racial segregation and, according to Marshall, “the ‘great man’ did absolutely nothing to clean up his command.” She reports that “Hispanics had the highest rate of [combat] exposure.” The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry suffered over five hundred casualties yet several hundred were imprisoned for disobedience, ninety-five court-martialed and ninety-one judged guilty. Forty years later the Army declared there had been “bias in the prosecution.”

In any event, Americans rallied around the flag as they always do when wars begin. The libertarian editor Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr. has written about that “mysterious thing called nationalism, which makes an ideological religion of the nation’s wars.” Even so, as the war dragged on, as pointless wars often do, many Americans began objecting to the war and hailed Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower when he finally chose to end it. But others, like the China Lobby and hawkish generals, politicians and media, were furious that the U.S. had not fought an all-out war against China and A-bombed some Chinese cities a la Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When MacArthur returned home after his firing and was promoted as a possible Republican presidential candidate, vast crowds cheered him when he toured the country and later delivered his “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech before a hushed and reverent Congress. He soon faded when it became clear that other than encouraging a war with China and dropping another nuclear bomb he had little to offer the nation.

But ordinary GIs and junior officers did. Neither angels nor heroes, the vast majority were faithful Americans for whom the war became the high point of their lives. Many returned home with illnesses and wounds from “amputated limbs, shrapnel buried in their tissues, lost eyesight, diminished hearing, paralysis.” They developed TB, parasites and malaria. And many probably came home with what we now call PTSD.

In the end, then, the real question will always remain: Was the war worth it? And if it was, for whom?

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