Korea, I Just Met a War Named Korea

I’ll add one last thought related to Memorial Day, and that’s to say that things could be a lot worse for the US in Iraq right now. I couldn’t believe how quickly after the US invaded Iraq that the Vietnam comparison started popping up. It only took three weeks for Baghdad to fall, but faster than Grover Cleveland can snarf down a deep-fried bacon chimichanga, liberal commentators were dusting off buzzwords like “quagmire.” Then, before you knew it, the conservatives responded and the same exact arguments, with the word Iraq inserted where Vietnam used to be. The 2004 election was even more explicit, a la Swift Boast Veterans for Truth, medal and ribbon tossing, and National Guard memos. The problem is, though, that most of these Vietnam analogies don’t work, and the dialogues that followed seemed little more than an excuse for a generation to relive it salad days of counter-cultures and Creedence.

But if you want to compare wars, it’s worth taking a look at the Korean War in relation to today. The two conflicts share a surprising amount in common, and not just that lots of people died. Both wars had sham coalitions. The Allies in the Korean War managed to secure a U.N. mandate (the Soviets, in a rare moment of non-Ivan Drago shoe pounding drama, were not participating on the Security Council), while Bush did not. But the military force of either coalition was/is comprised almost completely of Americans, with the obedient British sending the only other troops to speak of, and were/are entirely under the control of US generals. Also, the mission of both operations (neither received a congressional declaration of war) changed, either explicitly or otherwise, during the conflict. First, the UN goal was stop the North Korean invasion, then to unify Korea (with free elections), and then later to just preserve South Korea. Bush’s originally stated goal in Iraq was to “disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger” and/or invoking language of Congressional authorization of force “to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” If you’re as confused as I am, that’s OK, choose whichever one seems appropriate. In the end, the “Free [Iraq’s] people” mission became the only mission that we seem to be pursuing, though the official 9/11 reference was nicely placed too.

Obviously, there are huge differences in the conflicts as well, but let’s just pause a moment and be glad that Iraq has not become a problem of Korean proportions. Let’s look at the numbers where they hurt, American soldiers killed. In Korea, the total tally was 33,629 Americans killed over the 3 years and 1 month of war. In Iraq so far, America has suffered 1,631 soldiers killed over 2 years and 2 months, and that’s with fairly comparable troop levels, though now US levels are about half of what our deployment levels were in Korea.

Perhaps more telling is the trend that we’ve seen in America’s willingness to protect and defend. In 1951, US Eighth Army Commander General Van Fleet noted in response to gripes about the war’s costs that “the US must expend fire and steel, not men” in order to be acceptable to US voters. Today, that tradeoff has reached a level in which almost no casualties are acceptable, though high costs are accepted. I don’t know if this is good or bad. One the one hand, it seems clear that most people don’t think Iraqi democracy (or Korean democracy) is worth American deaths. On the other, I wonder if any principle will rise to that standard again.

The kicker in Korea is that after all the costs were incurred, democracy was hardly preserved. After the war, South Korean President Rhee won a (suspiciously unopposed) fourth term in 1960, only to be toppled in a military coup shortly after, replaced by a South Korean general. By then, the U.S. was distracted enough by Vietnam that nobody really paid attention. Oh, and we still have about 22,000 US troops protecting the South Korean border today – we’ve never left.


Blogger Tristan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Friday, June 03, 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home