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Korea: Remembering the War of Lost Lessons

August 18, 1985|Robert W. Gibson | Robert W. Gibson, The Times' international economics correspondent, spent 2 1/2 years as a Korean War correspondent and later, as foreign editor, directed Times coverage of the Vietnam War.

At least two decades late, a bill is moving through Congress to erect a Korean War memorial. "Now isn't that terrific?" said a former infantryman I had known in Korea. "And for 22 cents you can also buy a new postage stamp. It shows the Marines retreating from the Chosen Reservoir."

Actually, the old citizen-soldier was gratified. Underlying his irony was the sense that the events of 1950-53 are still beyond the possibility of realistic portrayal to an outsider. As much as Vietnam, Korea was a lonely, remote ordeal with horrors of its own, a monstrous moonscape of surrealistic images difficult to describe.

Vietnam was America's second unpopular war in modern times. Korea was the first, and in its ghastly 37 months, from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, nearly 6 million Americans were mobilized. Almost the same number of Americans were killed in Korea (54,236) as in Vietnam (58,012)--and in less than half the time. More than 10 times as many Americans were captured in Korea (10,218) as in Vietnam (766).

But even with a postage stamp and a memorial to come, the Korean War is unlikely to find its proper niche in the American psyche. In the military history section of a major bookstore in Washington last month, there were 76 titles on World War II, 38 on Vietnam and 11 on World War I. Except for a specialist's treatise on the Inchon landings of Sept. 15, 1950, the Korean War had none.

Yet Korea was a profound event, for the first time bringing military forces of the non-communist and communist worlds into direct, heavy-scale conflict for a prolonged period. Vietnam may have been the first war the United States lost but Korea was the first war we failed to win, ending in stalemate and armistice.

Korea became the war of lost lessons. Most conspicuously, we learned--and then forgot--that the commitment of American forces does not automatically assure victory. Korea validated Gen. Douglas McArthur's warning that American foot soldiers should never be involved in an Asian land war.

Do lessons, even the hard way, always have to be repeated? Well into the Korean War, Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a "let Asians fight Asians" policy, and the army of the republic of Korea took over the great bulk of the fighting front. Years later came Vietnam and--well into it--"Vietnamization" of the fighting.

We also learned in Korea that strategic bombing is irrelevant against an underdeveloped nation. Those who authorized the bombing of North Vietnam ignored the fact that we launched round-the-clock bomber raids for one year against North Korea. We obliterated virtually all above-ground structures--to no good result. After a year, "Operation Strangle" was called off; despite the bombing, the Chinese had moved massive amounts of artillery and supplies to the front and could match us, for the first time, shell for shell.

Korea offered portents for American politicians. An unpopular war was proved to be a calamitous handicap for an incumbent party. While Eisenhower might have won the presidency anyway in 1952, the Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, bore the burden of "Truman's War." It was the major issue, and Eisenhower assured his victory by promising, if elected, to "go to Korea."

And while the U.S. Administration had trouble drumming up support for the Korean War, the communist side proved to be propaganda masters. By war's end, much of the Third World not only believed the United States had unleashed massive germ welfare but had actually started the war and was the aggressor.

Among Korean War veterans, the cynical ones say that Korea's greatest contribution to the world was the addition of the words "bug out" and "brainwash" to the English lexicon. As in most wars, however, some spinoffs indeed were positive: Advances were made in open-heart surgery, helicopter evacuation of the wounded (as "M*A*S*H" demonstrated) was introduced and a medication was tried that proved epileptics could handle combat stress.

Also, as in most wars, "advances" were made in military technique, although from beginning to end most of our weapons were drawn from the World War II arsenal. For the first time, jet fighters engaged in aerial combat, mainly over "MIG Alley." The U.S. Navy launched so-called "guided missiles"--old World War II Hellcats aimed by remote control at difficult targets. On the front, the Army deployed infrared sniperscopes for nighttime fighting.

But the proffering of wisdom for future application was Korea's greatest gift. For it, we paid an awesome price; a stamp and a memorial will not force our absorption of that wisdom, but perhaps time and contemplation will.

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