‘This Kind of War’ Is a Haunting Account of Soldiers in Korea
The classic history challenges us to consider the wars we fight — and how
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
This post was sponsored by Open Road Media.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army numbering some 200,000 soldiers and tanks began annihilating much of the South Korean army. Days later, ill-equipped and poorly trained U.S. troops met the enemy, retreated and were shot down as they fled.
The United States would save South Korea the way it knew how — drawing the North Koreans into a linear battle along the Pusan Perimeter wedged in the southeastern corner of the peninsula. A counteroffensive, taken too far by the intoxication of victory, would provoke a Chinese intervention which inflicted the worst American battlefield defeat in the 20th century. A stalemate inconclusively halted the fighting in 1953.
The ill-preparedness of the American military, and how it adapted to avoid a greater calamity, is central to This Kind of War, the classic 1963 account of the Korean War by author and historian T.R. Fehrenbach. It’s available as an eBook through Open Road Media.
I would strongly recommend it — and it remains widely read within the U.S. military in the 21st century. There are good reasons for that, but to understand the book requires first discussing the author.
This Kind of War is not so much a work of strict history, as it is journalism about soldiers and written by the oldest kind of old-school Texan (I can recognize the character, having been born in the state). Except he was an old-school Texan who also had a classical worldview and operatic method of storytelling influenced by Edward Gibbon.
It is not a dry, day-to-day study of the war. Far from it.
Fehrenbach, who died at the age of 88 in 2013, was also a damn good writer, and his book Lone Star — a brutal, blood-and-guts history of Texas — still holds a legendary status in the state.
“Fehrenbach is much less interested in what people said — their stated ideals — than in what they actually did,” Saul Elbein wrote in the Texas Observer. “He is skeptical about the importance of countries, treaties, government.”
This Kind of War contains awkward, dated racial language that may unsettle readers. He explains the lower likelihood that a Turkish soldier would die of starvation in a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp as owing to his physical hardihood and “barbarian’s pride in himself and his people.”
Describing a U.S. Army bayonet charge on a North Korean-held crest, Fehrenbach writes that “sturdy small brown men shrieked and died.”
Fehrenbach’s legacy is … difficult. There’s more than a whiff of ethnocentrism involved. But he doesn’t depict anyone as morally superior or inferior. He calls out American hypocrisies just as well. U.S. troops are perfectly willing to level a village than risk their own troops to save it, which unsettles British and French observers. These moral questions do not bother the Americans.
“An American commander, faced with taking the Louvre from a defending enemy,” he writes, “unquestionably would blow it apart or burn it down without hesitation if such would save the life of one of his men.”
The war is what it is, and it’s a tragedy.
In September 1950, Capt. Frank Munoz and the men of G Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment assaulted the town of Yongsan.
In the reeking smoke and confusion of house-to-house combat, Munoz’s boys quickly ran into a new kind of trouble. Firing into burning houses, they moved along the sides of the streets, now and then tossing hand grenades into likely nooks. Occasionally, they stepped across Korean corpses.
In three instances, the “corpses” rose and shot one of Munoz’s men in the back. Another man, picking up a hand grenade lying beside a dead enemy soldier, blew himself up. The real corpses were booby-trapped.
“Make sure the stiffs are dead!” Frank Munoz ordered.
George Company may have wasted a little ammunition, but now each “corpse” was thoroughly riddled as George passed by.
Ahead of the squads rumbled the 90mm-gun tanks of the 72nd Tank Battalion. Halting now and again to fire, the tanks blew apart whole houses. Bit by bit, Yongsan was being removed from the face of the earth, a fate which, tragically would befall almost every town and city within Korea during the coming months.
The close-in view of infantry combat is one reason the book remains popular with military officers. Fehrenbach hammers home the idea that basic soldiering matters most when you take young Americans, raised in relative comfort, and move them into a situation where an enemy can put them in grave danger in a matter of seconds.
But This Kind of War asks Americans to grapple with what kind of military they want — and what do they want it to do.
Fehrenbach argues: Accept the fact that the public will not accept limited wars of choice and an army of citizen-soldiers at the same time. An army of drafted soldiers will not believe in the war, and thus make poor soldiers.
In July, 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded pushbutton warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen?
Infantry combat did not go away.
But give Americans a crusade — as in World War II — and they will sign up in droves and fight like Hell. But the Korean War, the first American war of the nuclear age, was fought to maintain the stability of the U.S.-led regional order in the Pacific.
A moral crusade to defeat communism would have guaranteed a “pushbutton” nuclear exchange the commentator seemed to hope for — and would have destroyed civilization in the process.
However, a professional military with soldiers indoctrinated to obey orders will fight for limited wars … to a greater degree than citizen-soldiers. Special Forces troops fighting today in Syria and Iraq will not break as American citizen-soldiers did in 1950. Thus, a civilian-military divide — where soldiers and civilians have difficulty understanding each other — naturally developed.
To close the divide would require changing the military into something else, making it less fit for the wars we do fight. Or we could not fight them at all, with the attendant consequences to the U.S.-led world order. Or we could fight them anyways, and stand a greater chance of defeat.