by Austin Bay
A month ago, a friend asked me what I'd like for my 50th birthday. After a moment's reflection, I said, thoughtfully: "How about the same thing my mother wanted on the day I was born. An end to the Korean War."
That wish was no glib wisecrack. Fifty years ago this week, my father, a WWII vet and reserve officer recalled to active duty, left Camp Chaffee, Ark., on emergency leave. He made it to Plainview, Texas, just after I was born. Within a month, he was in combat in Korea.
Dad fought in the Punch Bowl, a collapsed volcano where the Chinese and American armies slugged it out in a series of bitter attrition battles. He censored his own letters. He didn't tell Mom about the human wave assault that overran his bunker, with Chinese soldiers racing past him as he fired his pistol at fast shapes in the night.
For years, Dad's commentary on Korea amounted to little more than "I was always too damn cold."
The word "Korea" sounds cold. Associating the Korean War with bone-chill, however, goes beyond the coincidence of first syllables or Dad's clipped description.
Though that conflict kicked off in the summer of 1950, in the American collective memory, Korea is a winter war. Perhaps it's due to America's winter defeat at Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, with Marines fighting their way out of the trap at "Frozen Chosin."
The Korean War Memorial on the Mall in Washington certainly connects Korea and cold. Hunched in ponchos, wrapped against a biting wind, the memorial's wary infantry platoon conducts an eternal combat patrol where dismal sleet (or perhaps a chilling fog) is almost as dreadful an enemy as the waiting communist army.
Last March, when I took a group of sixth-graders out to look at the Korean War Memorial, I got the question, "Now what war is this, Mr. Bay?"
What war is this, indeed, I thought. Sandwiched between the triumph of World War II and the scarring debacle of Vietnam, Korea has made little mark (beyond the "MASH" TV show) on the pop culture consciousness of baby boom and subsequent generations.
Yet "the forgotten war" spawned one of the finest military histories penned by an American author, T.R. Fehrenbach's "This Kind of War."
Published in 1963 and reissued in 2000, Fehrenbach's history answers the sixth-grader's question: "This kind of war," Fehrenbach writes, "is dirty business first to last."
No, Korea wasn't the first post-World War II "war of integration and disintegration." That distinction arguably goes to China, where the fighting never stopped. But Korea was (is) America's first inconclusive war, a war without satisfaction. It was a war, Fehrenbach argues, that asked if "American leadership had the will to continue to fight for an orderly world. ... In the Korean War, Americans adopted a course not new to the world, but new to them. They accepted limitations on warfare, and accepted controlled violence as the means to an end."
This makes Korea America's first Vietnam, a first Kosovo and, in an odd way, a first Desert Storm.
Fifty-one years on, the Korean War remains unfinished, a lingering burden.
For five decades, the Korean front hasn't moved. South Korean and U.S. troops still occupy positions within a couple of miles of hills Dad's division held.
Below the DMZ, behind two more generations of American and Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers, South Korea has leveraged work ethic and education to produce wealth, and then used wealth to overcome autocracy and establish a modern democracy.
North Korea, however, continues a slow, perilous slide into starvation and Stalinist anarchy, as its hereditary communist dictator assembles long-range ballistic missiles.
The Korean War began with an explosive communist attack that raised the prospect of nuclear war. Now it looks as if it will end with a communist implosion, one that risks igniting a brief but terrible nuclear conflict in Asia.
Hence the caution that guides this strange twilight of an old war that isn't over.
Mom remembers Dad's departure for Korea like 50 years ago was yesterday. And of course she would -- given the fact of family separation and Dad's personal risk, it was a moment of both actual and potential sacrifice.
What's desperately sad is five decades on, North Korea's armed decay creates great contemporary strategic risks, which means the dirty business of "this kind of war" still continues.