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Same Army, Different War

By Robert M. Citino
10/6/2010 • Fire for Effect

Last time out we talked about MG William F. Dean, who by most accounts was a World War II hero and a Korean War goat.  Like the U.S. Army he served so faithfully, he had apparently gone from bad-ass to just plain bad somewhere between 1945 and 1950.

Historians like a character arc as much as any writer, and this one has been irresistible.  It has been customary for scholars to dwell on the army’s fall from grace, to compare the military virtues of 1945 to the lack of same in 1950.  There has been no lack of voices over the years blaming it on the soldier themselves, calling the younger generation that fought in Korea softer and more resistant to discipline than the greatest generation that won World War II.  Exhibit A for that accusatory strain of historiography has to be T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War, a very readable book that has been enormously influential within U.S. army circles in the years since it appeared in 1963.  Here is Fehrenbach at his most sternly disapproving, discussing the enlisted men of the ill-fated Task Force Smith:

[They] carried Regular Army serial numbers, but they were the new breed of American regular, who, not liking the service, had insisted, with public support, that the Army be made as much like civilian life as possible.  Discipline galled them, and their congressmen had seen to it that it did not become too onerous.  They had grown fat.

It’s a plausible point, certainly, but before we get carried away, let’s remember the wit and wisdom of that great American Keith Jackson:

“Whoa, Nelly.”

A softer generation?  Pampered?  Undisciplined?  If so, then what happened to the United States was one of the fastest falls in human history.  It had been all of five years since the end of World War II.  Had the rot really set in that quickly?  If it even possible?

Where we err, I think, in comparing World War II to Korea is how selectively we choose our moments.  Sure, comparing 1950 to 1945 makes the U.S. Army in Korea look sick.  But why should we do that?  Isn’t it more accurate to compare 1950 to 1942, when the Japanese were overrunning the Philippines and a lot of other places, or 1943, when the big, new U.S. Army was having some serious teething problems in Tunisia?  Task Force Smith, as a military disaster, was no better or worse than the opening of the Axis offensive at the Kasserine Pass (I’m thinking of Sidi Bou Zid, where a concentric German attack smashed the better part of the 168th US Infantry Regiment).

Let’s be honest:  the opening phase of the Korean War, from Osan down to Bill Dean’s ordeal at Taejon, was actually a fairly typical start for the U.S. military.  The Battle of Long Island in 1776, the early fighting in 1812, Bull Run, Kasserine:  well, let’s just say it’s not a pretty list.  It almost always took the U.S. Army a while to get started.  America is a big country, after all, and took time to gather its strength and deploy the big battalions.  When it did, however, its enemies usually wound up regretting it. 

You want historical irony?  Following Korea, the U.S. military would get better at its opening acts, a lot better.  The early fighting at Ia Drang in Vietnam, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991, Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively:  all featured a U.S. military that had come to play from the outset.  And yet, who can say that any of these wars had a completely satisfactory political outcome?

The army that fought in Korea was the same army that won World War II. 

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12 Responses to Same Army, Different War

  1. Andrew says:

    It’s too easy to jump on someone or something when the going gets tough. A reverse bandwagon, if you will.

    I think expectations plays a lot in how things wind up being: high expectations breeds complacency, which kills, while low expectations of a long, drawn-out fight hypes up the men and they fight beyond individual capabilities and start achieving spectacular results.

    This last instance I think we can definitely see with the opening of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Only after we were there beyond the few weeks it took to rout the Iraqi army and were in the process of “winning” the civilians over did an insurgency rise up and start making life difficult to say the least for American forces.

    Great blog as always!

  2. Mike H. says:

    In order to more fairly assess the US Armed Forces in Korea in 1950, I think that the bugetary cutbacks implemented by the gentleman holding what was a new position in the Cabinet: Secretary of Defense. Prior to that, we had a War Department. The SecDef was the Hon. Louis Johnson, who, throughout 1948-50, had boasted “cutting away the fat from the Defense budget”. History will show,he cut away the fat, the meat, and scraped the bone. There was less than a complete brigade of Marines available, and the US Army available was sorely lacking in training (no funds available). Most of the Navy had been mothballed, and the new USAF was reliant solely on the new Atomic Bomb. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this debacle would be the olsd axiom: The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.

  3. Andrew says:

    Mike, I think you’re on to something there. You can’t fight well if you haven’t prepared well, and prepared accurately. I think in WWII physically the American forces were ready, but psychologically I think they went in more than a little naive.

    When you’re naive and under-prepared, events like Korea can happen. You could have all the WWII heroes as leaders as you like, but if they don’t have the same caliber of men to fight under their command, nothing good can happen other than a lot of wasted lives and a return to the successful, but expensive blueprint of past wars.

  4. Bill Nance says:

    I think Mike is on to something, but remember, the “caliber” of men was the same. Americans didn’t suddenly become more cowardly or less capable. What happened is that for five years, the US forces in Japan had not trained to standard or held the discipline required for combat formations. Even the best and most experienced soldiers (private to general) can get lazy and lose skills if they are not trained.

    Additionally, fighting as a cohesive unit requires a long period of collective training, something missing in the Eighth Army in the period 45-50. Think what it would look like asking the Saints to sit out this entire season, not practicing besides the occasional individual drills, then asking them to play in the super bowl.

    Thus, I don’t blame American society or the soldiers for the failures of 1950 (at least mostly), but rather the commanders who allowed their units to deteriorate in collective training and skill.

  5. Rob Citino says:

    Good comments, everyone. Actually, I think you’re ALL correct. But I’d broaden it. It seems to me that the real lesson of TF Smith is this: it was the moment in which two graphs intersected–one being the drawdown of US military forces and the other the expanded mission requirements of the Truman Doctrine. Perhaps, as budgets declined and missions increased, it was bound to happen sooner or later. And when things like this DO happen, it is usually the common soldier who pays the price.

  6. Mike H. says:

    My Point exactly, Rob. The Failure of US Forces in June 1950, had far less to do with American military competence and far more to do with the civilian leadership. And remember the sign on Harry Truman’s desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”
    I believe he probably had this sort of thing in mind. Harry was an honorable man.

  7. Bill Nance says:

    Well, let’s be careful about blaming it ALL on the civilian leadership. Commanders get paid to keep their units trained and disciplined. While they might not have been serving under the best conditions, there is much that they could have done to mitigate the impending disaster. Again, I’m not exonerating the civilian leadership, just suggesting that the Army made some of its own bed too.

  8. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Mike. Bill, I agree: there is human agency along with context. In the early nuclear age, the Army was being treated as a kind of stepchild, and frankly the army (and the Marines, as Mike H points out in an earlier post) were wondering just what their future was. They could/should have been better prepared than they were, but 60 years later, what actually happened in Korea seems rather–unsurprising.

  9. KoMerican says:

    Let’s face it American Soldiers were not soft and it was not the Civilian Government’s fault for the poor performance of the US Army in Korea. The poor performance of US Forces is due to US Army leadership from MacArthur down. The German General Staff proved that armies can improve under extreme restrictions when properly motivated. Poor intelligence from “Yes Men” on staff, and poor training of Soldiers by leaders in the US Army led to the poor performance in 1950. I hate blaming MacArthur for problems well below 4/5 Star general level, but the “American Emporer of Japan” was not focused on the Korean War and did not allow a commander to put proper attention to the problem until GEN Ridgeway show up in the Far East.

  10. B Soto says:

    All of you have identified the serious problems with the US Army at the beginning of the Korean War. It all falls back to the main problem, bad leadership, both Civilian and Military. It reminds me of the phrase I heard when I was a Cadet at the beginning of my Army career. “There are no bad units only bad leaders.”

  11. Bob Harbula says:

    Hey guys;

    I read your comments and hope to clarify some of them. I was a machinegun squad leader with the 1st. Marine Division and fought in 5 campaigns from Inchon 9/15/50 to the Hwachon Reservoir 6/15/1951.
    We had little or no training for what we faced in Korea. No seawall amphibious training for the landing at Inchon, no house to house training for Seoul and no coldweather mountain training for the -30% weather at the Chosin Reservoir.
    What we did have was leadership and esprit de corps. Another plus was our combat tactics against the Chinese that was much different than the Army’s. Our perimeters were always tied in tight. We were very hard to dissect or penitrate and we always had a floating force to block any breaches. Until Ridgway took over the Army was always in this type of trouble and found themselves surrounded and dissected. This caused there bugout fever.
    MacArthur was the main problem. He knew the North Korean’s had the T-34 tanks and that the 2.36 inch rocket launcher wouldn’t stop it. Why he didn’t insist on the 3.5 inch being delivered immediately is strange. Remember at this point in time he was the commanding officer on the frontlines of Democracy in the Far-East during a heated cold war.

  12. william r. delzell says:

    Why should we have fought at all in that quagmire on the Korean Peninsula?

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