Friday, 24 August 2007

Forgotten Lessons

I've been reading about the Korean War recently. It seems obvious to the point of banality to point out, but the world has changed by a shocking extent in the fifty or so years since the war ended. Most noticeably, at that time Communism was seen as a perfidious evil, a threat to civilisation as we then knew it, to be resisted at all costs. The question in 1950 seemed not to be if a clash between the Soviet Union and the USA and its allies would occur, but when. Now Communism has been abandoned wholesale and its power to affect world events forever broken.

What's also noticeable is that the West's attitude to war and sacrifice has effectively U-turned. The USA lost 43,000 of its servicemen killed in the three years of war in Korea; Britain over 1,500. In Iraq the combined total for both nations approaches 4,000 after four years and is considered awfully high. Priorities have shifted, and now it seems that death in combat is something that is supposed to happen to people from other countries; never our own. When that myth is shattered we are shocked, as if combat deaths for British and Americans are tragedies rather than a natural and obvious consequence of war.

The Korean War also symbolises that old adage about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it; the Korean War has often been called 'the forgotten war' and so we should expect that in its case the adage will be doubly true. Indeed this is so: the US military stormed into Korea expecting to sort out the 'gook' problem in a matter of weeks and then return to a life of luxury in occupied Japan, but instead during the summer of 1950 it suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of a vastly underestimated enemy which would take great sacrifice to overcome. That sounds like a fifty-year-old replay of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath, and just goes to reinforce the truism that the GOP hawks made a catastrophic mistake in those rudely optimistic days following the fall of Saddam.

But it also shows that the current 'stop the war' and 'troops out now' brigade could be equally misguided. A lot of the criticisms at the time of the Korean War could be echoed today: America was backing a corrupt and incompetent government without the support of the people; by staying it was doing more harm than good; in its insistence on the 'War on Communism' it was on a hiding to nothing. Fifty years on and those arguments seem ridiculous, even mendacious; thanks to the USA, Britain, Turkey, France and all those others who contributed troops, South Korea is now a free, wealthy, democratic society where it could have been just an extension of Kim Jong Il's personal fief. If the doves had had their way, today fifty million more Koreans would be being starved and brutally repressed instead of living in comfort.

I'm not sure what I believe about Iraq any more, but what I am sure of is that the modern opponents to the ongoing occupation are rather too certain that what they are arguing is the right thing. Similar voices were certain too during the Korean War, and fifty years have proved them wrong. Nobody knows what fifty years will tell us about the occupation of Iraq, but the lesson of Korea tells us that it's often more important to 'stay the course' than to turn and run. Probably the whole thing should never have happened, but now that it has we still have to make the best of it.


mattiecore said...

I'm not sure if you've heard of it, but Tae Guk Gi is a fascinating film. It gives an interesting perspective on the Korean War.

And I don't really know what to think of Iraq anymore, either. I was pretty vehemently opposed to going in in the first place, but I agree that now that we've done so much already, we may as well stick it out. Pulling our troops out now could have definite adverse effects.

noisms said...

Yeah, I saw that in Japan under its Japanese title. South Korea is making some fantastic films at the moment. It's a pity they don't recieve much recognition in the West, although I think the Old Boy trilogy achieved some fame/notoriety.

I was vehemently opposed to the original invasion too...but now I'm not so sure. Regardless, if we left now, within ten years the Middle East would be in complete chaos.