Somewhere that military history is constantly in the news—or at least in the newspapers—is in the obituaries of old soldiers. With the generation who comprised the generals and colonels from World War II now almost completely gone, it is the officers from later conflicts who tend to feature now. In the London Times last week, the death notice of Colonel John Cormack, a mining expert who won the Military Cross in the King’s Royal Irish Hussars in the Korean War, reminds us that that conflict never formally ended with a peace treaty, but only sputtered out with an armistice.
Colonel Cormack’s sappers cleared North Korean mines in daylight through the Fall of 1951, and laid others elsewhere on the front. When brigade headquarters complained about the lack of pinpoint accuracy of some of his records, he reminded them that the mines had been laid by his men “in the presence of the enemy,” whereupon the nitpicking ceased.
Korea has been in the news a good deal lately, indeed more than at any time since 2006, which was the last time that North Korea successfully lulled the West into thinking that it might become dovish over its extensive nuclear weapons program, only to discover that in fact it was no more than wishful on our behalf. Since the Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang in February 2018, the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un has made a series of diplomatic démarches that may—or more likely may not—have something serious behind them. A visit to the South by Kim; extravagant promises; hand-holding for the cameras; the bringing of North Korean clocks forward half an hour to synchronize with the South: so far everything has been symbolic, although much more substantially the date and time of a meeting between Kim and President Trump has been agreed (albeit not yet announced).
The United States has protected South Korea for the 65 years since the armistice that ended the Korean War and allowed Colonel Cormack and his brave daylight sappers to come home. Today some 28,500 American troops guard the anti-missile defense system along the Demilitarized Zone that lies between the country that started that futile, costly, and tragic war, and their victims in the south. It is the longest period of sentry duties in history, essential to preserving the South’s liberty and independence, and one that is often ignored (or even resented) by anti-American sentiment in Europe and elsewhere.
If President Trump somehow manages to persuade Kim Jong-un genuinely to disarm North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it will be easily the greatest diplomatic breakthrough of the 21st century, and the courage of men like John Cormack will finally have been vindicated.
Andrew Roberts is an honorary senior scholar at and has a PhD from Caius College, Cambridge. He is a Visiting Professor at the War Studies Department of King’s College, London, and the Lehrman Distinguished Fellow at the New York Historical Society. His thirteen books include Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999), which won the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award; Masters and Commanders (2010), which won the Emery Reves Prize; and The Storm of War (2012), which won the British Army Military Book of the Year Award. His latest book, Napoleon: A Life (Penguin), appeared in October 2014 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a director of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, where he is presently chairman of the judging panel for its Military Book of the Year Prize. His website is at www.andrew-roberts.net.