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Modern history's forgotten war briefly attracted interest in June when President Obama enforced the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as ISAF commander in Afghanistan. This led to predictable comparisons with President Truman's summary dismissal in April 1951 of General Douglas MacArthur. McChrystal was an over-promoted special-forces officer who indulged himself in locker-room badmouthing of the White House. MacArthur ruled post-war Japan like an emperor and commanded the entire Pacific theatre. He was not infallible. MacArthur had failed to spot that the Chinese would enter the Korean War (1950-53) in massive strength if his forces ventured near the Yalu River, and then he talked too freely about invading China or using nuclear weapons. Truman caught the essence of the vainglorious general when he remarked: "I'll show that son of a bitch who's boss. Who does he think he is — God?"

In a recent House of Lords debate on North Korea's sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, Unionist peer Ken Maginnis recalled the sacrifice of more than 1,000 British and Commonwealth troops in Korea. More than 33,000 Americans died too. These pale into insignificance next to the four million Korean casualties (meaning killed, wounded and missing) in what began as a civil war waged by super-power proxies and escalated into a direct confrontation between the US and China. Its scale should be underlined in a further respect. The US dropped 635,000 tons of bombs (and 32,557 tons of napalm) on North Korea, surpassing the 500,000 tons dropped throughout the Pacific theatre in the Second World War.

The South Koreans have produced some rather good movies about the conflict, notably Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood (2004). Perhaps the reason the war figures much less in Western consciousness is that it happened before TV became a worldwide phenomenon. 

Yet the war has enormous interest. It shows how the early vacillations of Truman's foreign policy continued after containment had been promulgated, notably Dean Acheson's omission of Korea from his January 1950 defence perimeter speech, which encouraged Kim Il Sung, Stalin and Mao to chance their arm in what they imagined would be a limited war to unify the peninsula while distracting the US from Europe. The US troops MacArthur rushed from Japan to Korea reflected badly on him. Colonel John "Iron Mike" Michaelis, a US regimental commander, commented sourly: "They'd been nursed and coddled, told to drive safely, to buy War Bonds, to give to the Red Cross, to avoid VD, to write home to mother — when someone ought to have been telling them how to clear a machine-gun when it jams." 

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Taeho Paik
September 9th, 2010
7:09 AM
I'd like to thank Michael Burleigh for reminding the Britons about the Korean War, at once a civil war and a global one. Unfortunately the war continues in the guise of peace but it's only a prolonged cease-fire. The Korean people who for more than a century, have been pawns of conflicts not of their making, deserve a peaceful reunification but it won't happen unless the whole world comprehends the anomaly and its causes.

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