This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History, by T. R. Fehrenbach

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A journalist rather than an academic, Fehrenbach (1925-2013) wrote larger-than-life history of a heroic bent. He is remembered for the bestselling Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans (1968), whose emphasis on gun-slinging white men now makes it politically incorrect. But he also wrote the sad and beautiful Comanches: The Destruction of a People (1974), which shows great admiration for Native Americans. This Kind of War originally appeared in 1963 with the subtitle of A Study in Unpreparedness and was republished in a new edition in 1994.

Although This Kind of War starts with a quotation from Sun Tzu, Fehrenbach adopts a Clausewitzian approach. He understands the Korean conflict not as a test of power but of wills, in particular, of American will. The Communists, he writes, doubted that the United States “had the will to react quickly and practically and without panic in a new situation.” They were wrong, but it cost ca. 37,000 American lives to prove it.

Fehrenbach’s framework is tragic. The United States was unprepared to fight a limited war halfway around the world and when it intervened it overreached before finally winning partial victory and painful wisdom. If there is almost poetry in the author’s understanding of Americans’ frustration over Korea there is also prophecy in his statement (in 1963) that they would face other frustrating conflicts all over the globe.

Although a history, This Kind of War has the vividness of a memoir. It is based largely on personal narratives of small-unit commanders. “This is very much a platoon leader’s book,” the author writes. He himself commanded U.S. army units in Korea at company and battalion as well at the platoon level.

Fehrenbach’s prose style takes no prisoners. Of Korea’s war-torn history he says, “the people of the Hermit Kingdom wished to be left in peace. The wish is hopeless, for Korea is a buffer state.” (p. 10) Of the North Korean People’s Army, he writes, “Hesitancy … was cured neatly, efficiently, and permanently by the application of a pistol to the back of the head.” (p. 5) He describes MacArthur’s ill-fated invasion of North Korea thus:

Because Washington permitted soldiers to make and to act on decisions that were beyond the purview of the military, because it forced them to bring purely military thinking into maters that remained in essence political—in short, because Washington still sometimes acted as if there could be a separation between war and politics, the United States, intoxicated with the heady taste of triumph, was heading for disaster. (p. 189)

Unfortunately, Washington still hasn’t learned the lesson.