Mattis suggests that troops read sobering Korean War history
By Michael M. Barrick
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – When U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently advised soldiers to read, “This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness” by T. H. Fehrenbach, I immediately walked over to a book shelf and grabbed my copy of it. It is just one of many books I own and have read about the Korean War, but I knew instantly why Mattis recommended it to the troops. Fehrenbach’s book is the ultimate After Action Review (AAR) of the Korean War.
The diplomatic, political and military failures are mercilessly explored. So are the successes. However, based on other remarks that Mattis made at Ft. Bragg, I believe he was warning the troops to study about the dangers of unpreparedness.
I am particularly interested in the Korean War because my uncle died there on 12 July 1950, six years before I was born. However, to people who knew him, such as my dad and grandmother, he remained very much alive in their memories. So, his life narrative was an integral part of our family history.
His name was George M. Barrick Jr. I have written about him before, here. He was among “ … the majority (that) had fought and died” (Fehrenbach, p. 87) in the early days of July, 1950. His death, recorded in detail by a surviving companion, was horrid. Fehrenbach’s version is sanitized; “And on the retaken ground Jensen found six American soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head” (p. 87). In short, it was routine for POWs, especially officers, to be executed by the North Koreans.
In Korea, Americans had to fight, not a popular, righteous war, but to send men to die on a bloody checkerboard, with hard heads and without exalted motivations, in the hope of preserving the kind of world order Americans desired.” – T. R. Fehrenbach
With Mattis doing his duty – preparing soldiers for war with North Korea as diplomatic options dwindle – his advice is good for all Americans: pick up a copy of Fehrenbach’s book. Be prepared though. He pulls no punches. On p. 84, in summarizing the slaughter of American troops after their arrival in South Korea around 1 July, he writes, “What happened to them might have happened to any American in the summer of 1950. For they represented exactly the kind of pampered, undisciplined, egalitarian army their society had long desired and at last achieved.”
Ouch. Yet, he continues, “They had been raised to believe the world was without tigers, then sent to face those tigers with a stick. On their society must fall the blame.”
This last assertion by Fehrenbach is severe. Yet, he wrote this book just 10 years after the cease-fire was signed at Panmunjom on 27 July 1953. In that three years, more than 50,000 U.S. troops and millions of Koreans died. Since then, millions more have died in North Korea at the hands of its Communist leaders, people just as ruthless as the ones that shot my uncle in the back of the head after he had surrendered.
Fehrenbach and others also point out that the Truman administration had sent signals to North Korea, as well as Russia and China, that the United States would not go to war over Korea. In short, everyone miscalculated.
So, let’s just consider one more section from Fehrenbach’s book about those miscalculations. “In the first terrible, shattering days of July 1950, casualties among officers of high rank in the United States Army were greater in proportion to those of any fighting since the Civil War. They had to be. There were few operable radios with the regiments in Korea, and almost no communication from command posts down to the front positions.” He continues, “If commanders wanted to know what was happening, or make their orders known, they had to be on the ground” (p. 85).
He added, “The high-priced help was expendable, true. They too were paid to die. But it was no way to run a war” (p. 85).
No, it was not. And despite many heroic actions, including the delaying action in which my uncle was killed, we accomplished no diplomatic objectives through the military action. The 38th parallel was the demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea the day the war started and was roughly so three years later, when the cease-fire was signed.
Writing in July, 1962 in the book’s Preface, Fehrenbach asserted, “In Korea, Americans had to fight, not a popular, righteous war, but to send men to die on a bloody checkerboard, with hard heads and without exalted motivations, in the hope of preserving the kind of world order Americans desired.”
He added, “Tragically, they were not ready, either in body or spirit.”
It is no wonder Mattis wants his troops to read Fehrenbach’s history. It is full of sobering words for our nation and our leaders. Are we, as a people, committed to sending more troops to fight and die on distant hills in Asia? For too long, we have asked too few to sacrifice too much. That is symptomatic of a nation “not ready, either in body or spirit.”
Mattis has issued a wake-up call about the existential threat caused by unpreparedness – of mind, body and spirit. How shall we respond?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017