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:
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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