This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History

  • Published

This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History by T. R. Fehrenbach. Potomac Books, 2008, 484 pp. 

How does one review a book first published almost 60 years ago and whose author has been deceased for almost 10? Such is the quandary posed by T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War, originally published in 1963 and most recently reissued in 2008. Fortunately, the enduring quality of its prose and prescient lessons on war and society are as applicable today as they were at the time of its initial publication.

Originally issued with the subtitle “A Study in Unpreparedness,” the reissued version is now subtitled, “The Classic Korean War History.” This subtle change affords the first opportunity for a critique. Though the book could rightfully be called “classic,” it is not a historical text in the traditional sense, written more as a personal narrative than a scholarly study. We know this because Fehrenbach called his own work “more hearsay than history” and characterized his writing as “political science fiction.” The reissued version contains a new forward by General Gordon Sullivan, extensive battlefield maps, and a multitude of photographs, but it does not include any citations, notes, or bibliographical information prevalent in historical texts.

Theodore Reed “T. R.” Fehrenbach Jr. was a native Texan whose most popular work was the bestseller Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans. For 30 years, he published a weekly column in the San Antonio Express-News, as well as contributed to a score of magazines and periodicals. A talented wunderkind, he entered Princeton University at 16 and was on schedule to complete his degree in three years but left to serve in World War II. He was also a veteran of the Korean War, and though he does not share his first-hand experiences of the war in his book, his experiences assuredly informed the prose.

Fehrenbach’s intense narrative is told from the perspective of the soldier. It was why John McCain called it “perhaps the best book ever written on the Korean War,” and why former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “there’s a reason I recommend that we all pull it out and read it one more time.” Colin Powell described the “awful beauty” of the book in its depictions of the consequences of command decisions on those obligated to carry them out. Fehrenbach’s battlefield descriptions are sans pariel, and his portrayals of individual and unit bravery provide an accurate account of what it was like to fight on the Korean peninsula. At more than 450 pages, there is plenty of such descriptions—the battle of Taejon, Kunu-ri, Changjin Reservoir, and Chipyong-ni, as well as an excellent analysis of the Koje-do prison camp—but Fehrenbach is an engaging writer who moves fastidiously between subjects. The book is organized chronologically into three parts with 40 digestible chapters.

The narrative follows the North Korean invasion in June 1950 and the entry of United Nations forces led by the United States soon thereafter. The unpreparedness of the US military was manifest during the next two months, as the Americans were soundly defeated and pushed to a small defensive line known as the Pusan perimeter. Though the lessons were bitter and bloody, the American military learned, and, along with General Douglas MacArthur’s daring amphibious landing at Inchon in September, the tide of the war turned. Through a potent cocktail of hubris, ignorance, and miscommunication, MacArthur pledged to march to the Yalu River on the Chinese border and have the American troops home by Christmas. The Chinese entry into the conflict that October disabused MacArthur of this notion, and he was relieved of his command in April. The two sides—the war was now ostensibly between the Chinese and the Americans, not North and South Korea—fought a series of bloody and indecisive battles until June 1951 when the war stalemated near its original starting point, the 38th parallel. But the war did not end. For two years, the sides fought indiscriminately and inconclusively, before the newly elected Eisenhower administration negotiated a cease-fire that signaled a de facto end of the war. The war never officially started and never officially ended, an unresolved condition that remains to this day.

When Fehrenbach moves away from the battlefield and offers his perspective on the geopolitical and sociological issues surrounding the war, the prose remains lively but less authoritative. His sarcasm-laden editorials are often insightful and always entertaining but not consistently objective or relevant. If Fehrenbach could answer, one suspects he would agree; he was not interested in the diplomatic maneuvering of the superpowers or in the implications of the Cold War but in the grunt defending a lonely hill. But there is a reason aside from the battlefield descriptions that the work has endured. It is in the unresolved question central to the book’s telos: namely, how does the United States produce a military that is continuously on guard and prepared to fight in faraway places? The Korean War was not the popular, righteous war—a “crusade” in Fehrenbach’s words—that World War II was but a necessary war, one for which both American society and the US military was woefully ill-prepared. Soldiers, Fehrenbach writes, “fight from discipline and training,” while citizens support the war from “motivation and ideals.” All these components were missing when Soviet-supplied North Korean troops invaded South Korea. The Truman administration categorized the effort as a “police action” and decided to engage in the fight without enthusiasm, a condition that confused the American troops who were raised on the belief that wars were fought against evil forces such as Nazism and totalitarianism, not esoteric concepts like “containment” and “balance of power.” The war helped bring down the Truman administration, not for its actions in Korea but for its lack of coherent explanation.

Fehrenbach’s work is an important treatise on limited war, but, as he rightfully points out, it was limited in everything but the casualties. Published on the eve of American ground forces being sent to Vietnam, the lessons learned were not transferred to the next American commitment in Asia. One officer opined, “We went into Korea with a rotten army, and came out with a fine one; we went into Vietnam with a great army and finished with a terrible one.”

Aside from an oft-quoted passage—“you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground”¾Fehrenbach largely ignores the contributions of the nascent US Air Force. Thankfully, there are recent additions to the history of American airpower in Korea by Michael Napier and Thomas Cleaver, as well as more dated texts by Robert Futrell and Conrad Crane.

Important single-volume histories of the Korean War have been written by, among others, David Halberstam, Callum MacDonald, Michael Hickey, and Max Hastings. But Fehrenbach’s tome endures not just for its depictions of the uncommon valor by the otherwise ordinary American soldier, but also for its penetrating questions on the relationship between a free society and its military and the appropriate use of force as a tool of American foreign policy. The “forgotten war” left more than 100,000 American soldiers wounded and nearly 40,000 dead, in addition to as many as 3 million civilian casualties. As attested by Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the book also left unanswered the central question of when and how the American military should be deployed. Fehrenbach would put it more viscerally: for what cause should American military men and women be asked to die?

Daniel R. Hart

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."