The Korean War and Two Millennia of Warfare
By Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, USMC(Ret)
General Simmons presented this keynote address at the Society's 2000 annual meeting at the Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico, Virginia.
The announced theme for this year's meeting is "The Korean War and 400 years of Limited War."
However, if you have reviewed the upcoming schedule, I think you may agree with me that a better title might be "The Korean War and Two Millennia of Warfare."
Alfred the Great and Charlemagne lived some years before 1600. So did Joan of Arc. And Napoleon Bonaparte might not take kindly to having his wars classified as "limited."
There are probably late changes, but the schedule I have reviewed offers eight sessions and a total of forty-nine panels. Each of these panels offers front two to five papers. So the menu of offerings is very long and varied.
There is a great deal of Napoleon in the schedule. His individual wars can be regarded as limited in their objectives. Perhaps they can be better viewed as campaigns than as wars. I will defer to such experts present as Dennis Showalter on this. But were the Napoleonic wars in their totality limited wars or were they as close to total war as the times would then support? I believe the answer is obvious.
Choices of panels and subjects to audit will be difficult to make. And the best any of us can hope to do is to audit one-sixth--just one-sixth--of the presentations. This is unfortunate, but that is life. We have to make choices.
No two of us will leave this meeting with exactly the same recollection as to what has happened here. Meetings such as these create a microcosmic universe. We come together, we meet for several days, we interact.
Then at the end of the meeting we will go our separate ways. We will each take away his or her own perceptions of the event--the good things and the bad things, the important things and the trivial. Long after our memories of the exact nature of the papers we have heard has faded, we will remember the interactions that occurred at the personal level: old friendships reinforced, new acquaintances made, ideas exchanged.
We will all have been changed in some way by this meeting. In what way will you be changed? Will the change be large or small, minuscule or significant?
I am sure I don't know. We have all come here with a set of expectations, Will these expectations be met?
I know I come with the hope of arriving at a better understanding as to just what we mean by "limited war." And, indeed, is "limited war" a useful concept? If it is useful, what are its limitations as a concept?
The dichotomy of "limited war" and "total war" is only about fifty years old. But is it a dichotomy? Most of us would agree that warfare is a spectrum extending from a threat of the use of force at one end of the scale to nuclear obliteration at the other. But where do we draw the dividing line across this spectrum to separate "limited war" from "total war"? And how do we define these terms-"limited war" and "total war?
Has there ever been--even in the darkest days of World War Two--a completely "total war"? Does not "total war" now mean nuclear chaos? If not, how do we define it and how can it be total if some margin of force is left unused? Would it not be something less than absolute total war? Is not everything short of total use of available force a limited war? Is limited war something rationally decided by one or more of the belligerents? Or is it not more apt to be imposed by the limitations of the belligerents?
Pondering these questions leaves me with the hopeful conclusion that this meeting can be a useful and revealing examination of the Korean War as a limited war within the context of other military actions fought at other times and other places.
A generally accepted--or at least a working--definition of a limited war is a war that is limited in its objectives, limited as to its theater of operations, limited in resources invested, limited in the weaponry employed, and limited in duration.
How well does the Korean War meet this definition? Quite well, you might say, but don't be too quick in your judgment.
President Truman deliberately and emphatically set out to limit the military effort in Korea. He drew fences around the Korean peninsula. He limited the American forces employed. He limited the forces of South Korea by circumscribing their logistical support. It was the first war fought under the light blue banner of the United Nations, but actual UN participation was limited to token forces--token forces except perhaps for the British Commonwealth and the Turks who did invest substantial combat elements.
Truman even insisted that it was a police action and not a war. As best he could, he shielded the American public from the war, so much so that for a large part of that public a sort of indifference set in with respect to the war. And from that indifference came the labeling of Korea as the "Forgotten War."
That term--"Forgotten War"--was brilliant when it was first used, but it has now become a kind of cliche. And I would ask, "Forgotten by whom?"
Certainly not forgotten by those who fought in it. Certainly not forgotten by families who lost members in the war. And that is just from the American point of view.
Certainly it is not forgotten in either South or North Korea. Just as certainly, it was not a limited war--not as we have defined limited war--to either of the two Koreas. It was as much a total war as both sides could make it. It resulted in something close to chaos for both Koreas. It even trembled at the edge of nuclear war. And it is not a war that has ended. It has become a Fifty Years War. The continuing confrontation of the two Koreas is perhaps the greatest threat to world peace that we have today.
Certainly it was not a limited war for Red China. It was as close to total war as the limited strength of the new, revolutionary Chinese government could make it. From the Chinese point of view the Korean War was a great, heroic, and successful defense of East Asia against the Western, capitalist invader. And who are we to say that they are wrong in their perception?
In these matters, as in all historical matters, viewpoint and perception are all important. I searched the menu for this meeting for some other examples of contrasting viewpoints of war as limited or total. Close to the end of the conference there is a paper by Samuel Watson from West Point on the Second Seminole War as a limited war. The Seminole Wars were rather languid little wars in which the U.S. Marines had to give the U.S. Army a hand. But were they limited wars from the viewpoint of the Seminoles? If John Mahon were present I would ask him for his comment. Failing that, I would suggest that someone plunge into the Everglades with a tape recorder and check out Seminole tribal memories.
I wish we had at least one full panel on the American Indian wars--limited wars in the sense of force applied by the U.S. government, not so limited from the perspective and involvement of the Indian tribes, some of which were virtually obliterated, not so limited in their ultimate consequences, good and bad, with which we live today.
And I wish we had at least one full panel on what the late Byron Farwell liked to call "Queen Victoria's little wars." Indeed, I wish there were a panel or panels on any or all of the little wars fought by the European imperial powers outside of Europe itself in the 19th century. We don't seem to get to these very limited wars upon which empires were built and which were near total to those poor benighted heathen on the other side.
There is a paper by Geoffrey Wawro of Oakland University with a title that intrigues me: "Limited War: The Bismarck Model." I am anxious to learn if the Bismarck model is confined to Europe or if it also extends to imperial Germany's overseas ambitions.
And as a climax to 19th century Europe's imperial ambitions, there is a paper by Masahiro Yamamoto on the Boxer Rebellion, that grand crescendo by the Western imperial powers--including the Americans, the new boys in the club--against a supine imperial China, a little war beautifully timed to occur in the first year of the 20th century. But not so "little" in terms of its effects upon the Chinese.
As I worry over these terms limited war and total war, I begin to doubt their usefulness. Perhaps some of the other, older terms--general war, regional war, local war, small war, little war--should not be dropped from our lexicon too soon. Possibly regional war is a better descriptor than limited war for the Korean War. I'II just let that thought hang there for a moment.
This promises to be a great meeting. I have now belonged to what is now the Society for Military History for just about thirty years. When I first joined, the annual meeting of what was then the American Military Institute consisted of a luncheon at the Cosmos Club in northwest Washington. I remember that for me it was quite a thrill to attend a function at such a bastion of explorers and scholars as the Cosmos Club. Perhaps twenty persons would attend. We would have a distinguished luncheon speaker.
I remember one year it was General Jacob Devers. I was charmed by General Devers. In World War II he commanded the 6th Army Group, that army group that was employed in the south of France while the main show was going on in Normandy and Belgium. As I remember, he talked about the joys and tribulations of working with the French. To hear him speak was like reaching out and touching history.
Another speaker at one of those Cosmos Club luncheons, whom I remember vividly, was Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge of the German Navy. He commanded German Naval Forces West at the time of Normandy. A distinguished naval writer as well as a distinguished naval commander, he had written one of the volumes in Die Seekrieg, 1939-1945 and also had written Rommel und die Invasion. Admiral Ruge was another charming man. As I recall, he spoke to us of his personal experiences in German naval operations in the Baltic in both World Wars I and II.
There may be someone else here tonight, perhaps Phil Lundeberg, who remembers these luncheons and speakers somewhat differently.
As for the annual meeting itself, in those days it seldom lasted more than fifteen minutes. Quite often there was not a quorum of the Board of Trustees present, so no tiresome business was transacted. Our quarterly journal, Military Affairs, was something produced in far-off Kansas, almost solely through the energies of its editor, Robin Higham.
Then, as the Bicentennial of the American Revolution approached, a mood of expansionism seized the American Military Institute. Hesitant steps were taken to convert the annual meeting into a full-fledged historical symposium. One of the first, a one-day affair, was held at the Marine Corps Historical Center. The highpoint of that meeting was probably the reception given us by the Commandant of the Marine Corps at the Commandant's House.
We began to experiment with moving the meeting on alternate years away from Washington. At the meeting held at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, the rebellious group known as the Stockholm Eight broke away and formed the U.S. Commission for Military History. The commission continues today as a sort of unrecognized overseas arm of the Society for Military History.
Another memorable meeting was held in the venerable Chamberlain Hotel at Fortress Monroe in the spring of 1981 at the height of the Bicentennial observance. I would call that meeting our first true symposium, celebrating as it did our victory at nearby Yorktown.
Then came the transition period wherein the American Military Institute redefined itself as the Society for Military History. I remember there was a great debate as to whether it would be the Society of Military History or the Society for Military History. Along with the transformation of the institute into a society came the conversion of Military Affairs into The Journal of Military History and a geographical shift in our base of operations from Kansas to Lexington, Virginia.
Several veterans of those earlier times are here this evening. I am quite sure that they will correct me where my memories have gone astray.
Memories are selective. We remember what we want to remember. Collectively, this selective memory has a remarkable effect on what we consider to be military history. I have already mentioned viewpoint, perception, and perspective. I would like to explore these terms a little bit more.
I have already made a point that the perceptions of the Korean War held by the two Koreas, Communist China, and ourselves--to say nothing of other interested parties--vary greatly at the macro level. Was it an unwarranted invasion of South Korea by North Korea? Was it perhaps a civil war? Was it not a war by China against the West? I suppose it was all of these things and more.
At the micro level these perceptions fractionate even more widely. Consider yourselves. Each person in this room holds his own perception of the Korean War. This perception is formed and conditioned by many things, some innate and some external: national origin, race, family, gender, age, intellect, economic status, education, life experience, physical limitations--the list goes on and on. I won't even try to list all these things that form our own capabilities and limitations, our own attitudes and prejudices. Just agree with me, if you will, that the combination of all these things makes it impossible to practice truly objective history. There is no such thing as absolute, impartial, history. There is no such thing as absolute truth in history.
If you accept these melancholy conclusions, and I think you must, what is it that we as historians search for? What is it that we hope for? What is the purpose of it all?
But first, let us consider our methods.
There are some youngsters in the room, but most of those present have been at this game for a considerable period of time. I have some questions to ask you. I don't need a show of hands. I just want you to think.
Is there anyone in this room who is still practicing history in the same way as he did ten years ago? I don't think so. Digging a little deeper into your past: When did you acquire your first tape recorder? When did you first use a copying machine? When did you get your first computer? When did you enter the internet?
For five thousand years the vehicle for history has been the book. Will that continue? A hundred years from now will the book, printed on paper and bound, still be important except as an antiquarian artifact? I don't know that this will happen, but I find it a dreadful possibility. Does it make any difference in what way knowledge is collected, stored, analyzed, reproduced, and disseminated? Of course it makes a difference.
Computers and related technology have relieved us of the drudgery of many of the functions formerly performed by the human mind and hands. These superhuman capabilities of the computer continue to increase at an exponential rate. I find this scary.
Are the days of the historian, working as an individual, numbered? Will he pass from the scene in the same way that the family farmer, the small shopkeeper, the general practitioner, has already almost passed from the scene? I am inclined to say yes. What will we have then, at the end of this century or perhaps even earlier? Perhaps some form of historical consortium or conglomerate? In some fields, we are just about there already.
That's a gloomy thought, but let us continue to soldier on, clinging to the notion that the individual, whether he be doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, or historian, is still important. And as we continue our search for truth, let me add a word of caution. This is intended primarily for the younger members of the audience.
There is an enormous amount of information out there that we must manage and use. Inevitably, our prejudices and our own limitations will enter into our selection and use of available information. Presuming that we have formed our hypothesis, do we select and use only that information that supports our hypothesis? That is not a sophomoric question. Odds are that there will be more than one paper these next few days wherein the presenter clings to a hypothesis despite the evidence he himself has developed to the contrary.
I use the word "evidence" advisedly. Lawyers sometimes make good historians. Not only are they trained in expository writing, but they are trained in the rules of evidence. Just about any one of us will benefit by a little legal training in the rules of evidence. Just how credible is the information with which we are working? Would it stand up in a court of law? Did you ever stop to think of how much hearsay gets into history books?
In the histories I read I sometimes find the most incredible things-- "incredible" in the dictionary sense of being too extraordinary and improbable to be believed. Let us go back to the kind of questioning as to probability that a century ago Hans Delbruck taught historians to ask.
Historians must be skeptical. Not cynical, but skeptical.
In history we really have very few facts, perhaps no facts at all, just perceptions and opinions. I can think of no completely incontrovertible fact in history. Three-quarters of a century ago I learned that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America. I now know this is not a fact. It is painful to live without such verities. As best I know, a molecule of water still contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, but perhaps even this fact of physical science is open to challenge.
The first thing we must consider in challenging the evidence is the realization that virtually every record-everything we consider to be a historical record-is self-serving upon the part of the originator. The most dramatic demonstration of this, I believe, are the contents of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion which we all know and love to use. I can almost say that every record in that stupendous collection is self-serving with respect to its originator.
Most military historians--and you can decide if this applies to you--go beyond skepticism and on into cynicism when they use official military records and I don't necessarily blame them.
As an antidote to official history, military historians increasingly use oral history as a tool. Since World War II, oral history has grown respectable, thanks to Allan Nevins and others, even though it is grounded in journalistic techniques best exemplified by their use by the controversial S.L.A. Marshall. But if you are skeptical of the veracity of official records, be even more skeptical of oral history which is the most completely subjective of all sources.
S.L.A. Marshall enjoined historians to interview their subjects as soon after the event as possible and, in particular, endorsed group interviews, the idea being that one recollection played against another. Time smudges memory. Bear that in mind as we listen to some fifty-year-old memories of the Korean War, including my own, at this meeting.
I may never again have a pulpit such as this from which to preach and while I am preaching, let me add a word about accuracy. By "accuracy" I really mean two things. We can hope that the records or interviews that we are using are accurate in their reflection of the events that they have reported. I have already expressed my doubts as to this. But "accuracy" can also mean how accurately, how precisely, we use the information we have gained.
Accuracy is a necessary ingredient to truth, but it does not equate to truth. Truth is more elusive than that.
Let me conclude by saying that Truth is--and should be--the Holy Grail of the historian. We will never find it in a lifetime of searching, but it is worth the search. What we can hope to find is an understanding of what happened. And if we find this understanding, we can hope that we have the skills to transmit it to others. Our understanding may then pose momentarily as truth, but in the future--short-term or long-term future--it will be re-examined, re- defined, and revised in the perspective of the new times. And so at this meeting, we take the Korean War, a fifty-year-old event, and re-examine it. Will we find the truth? No, we won't. It will elude us. But, hopefully, we will all leave with a better understanding as to what happened.