The Parallels of War Begin to Emerge


The Korean War of 1950-53 offers some disturbing parallels to the conflict now unfolding in the Persian Gulf War.

Though the North Korean invasion of South Korea June 25, 1950, caught the Truman administration by surprise, it acted quickly and decisively. Citing the consequences of the Western democracies' failure to stop Hitler in the 1930s, and viewing North Korea's attack as the first real test of the post-World War II international order (specifically, of the United Nations' ability to meet aggression with collective military action), the administration immediately dispatched U.S. air power to the scene.

Within a few days, however, it became clear that the North Korean onslaught could be stopped only by a major U.S. ground force commitment, and by the war's end a total of nine U.S. Army and Marine Corps divisions had been committed to the conflict. (There are now eight Army and two Marine Corps divisions in Saudi Arabia.)

The Truman administration, moreover, did not ask Congress for a declaration of war; to mount what it termed a "police action" against North Korea, it sought instead U.N. authorization in the guise of several resolutions it steered through the Security Council. The resolutions empowered the U.S. and other willing U.N. members (a total of 15 countries contributed ground forces to South Korea's defense) to employ force against the invading North Korean army. The U.N. mandate was, however, limited to restoring the pre-war North Korean-South Korean border along the 38th Parallel; authorization to invade North Korea was not granted.

In July, 1950, the U.N.'s declared aim of restoring South Korea's territorial integrity seemed wildly ambitious. That country's small and untrained army was rapidly disintegrating, and outnumbered ground forces were being rapidly hustled southward into what subsequently became known as the Pusan Perimeter, a small coastal enclave with little room for maneuver except evacuation by sea.

Two months later, however, U.N. fortunes were dramatically reversed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's spectacular amphibious landing at lnchon, which threatened encirclement of North Korean forces in South Korea. Within weeks a battered North Korean army was in full flight back across the 38th Parallel, and by early October there appeared to be little standing in the way of a U.S. and allied rush all the way to the Chinese border along the Yalu River. (MacArthur dismissed the prospect of Chinese intervention, which he assured Truman could be crushed by U.S. air power alone.)

Unfortunately, lnchon's heady success lured the United States into a great strategic miscalculation. No longer content with the original U.N. mandate of simply recovering lost South Korean territory, the Truman administration vastly expanded its war aims. On October 7 it obtained a new U.N. resolution which in effect called for the conquest of North Korea and subsequent political reunification of the entire Korean peninsula under Western auspices.

The consequences of this ill-considered escalation of war aims are now history: massive Chinese intervention in late 1950; the ensuing rout of U.S. and allied forces along the Yalu, culminating in the longest retreat in American military history; two and one-half more years of war; and finally, in July 1953, an armistice based on the old pre-war border along the 38th Parallel.

Much of this seems eerily familiar today. Like the Truman administration responding to the North Korean attack, George Bush sees Desert Storm as a defining event for a new world order. Moreover, from the very beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis, there has been, as there was in the early months of the Korean War, an excessive confidence in air power's ability to provide a relatively quick and painless victory. The Bush administration's preference for U.N. resolutions, rather than a congressional declaration of war, to legitimize U.S. military action against Iraq, also parallels the Truman administration's diplomatic response to North Korea's aggression.

But by far the most unsettling of parallels with the Korean War is the Bush White House's inflation (albeit implicit so far) of U.S. war aims against Iraq. Kuwait's liberation has been and remains a legitimate political and military objective. After all, it was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August that sparked the present crisis, and removal of Iraqi forces from that country and restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government will re-establish the pre-war /^ political and territorial status quo.

The U.N. mandate so painstakingly engineered by the White House does not, however, encompass the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime. Nor does it authorize the reduction of Iraq itself to military and economic insignificance. It is a mandate for limited war, not a war of annihilation.

It is nevertheless becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration will not be satisfied with just a free Kuwait. The president, who has personalized the conflict as a contest between himself and the demonic Mr. Hussein, has publicly called for the dictator's overthrow and has promised post-Desert Storm war crimes trials for Iraq's leadership. This is not only tantamount to a demand for the regime's unconditional surrender; it also implies a willingness to cross this war's political equivalent of the 38th Parallel.

The scope and weight of the air campaign now being waged against targets in Iraq, including government ministries having little bearing on Baghdad's capacity to fight, also suggest an intrusion of war aims that far exceed the erasure of Iraq's conquest of Kuwait.

Certainly, a post-liberation of Kuwait invasion of Iraq aimed at bringing down Saddam Hussein would be fraught with peril. Leave aside the military pitfalls pregnant in such an enterprise. (In 1915, ill-equipped troops of the enfeebled Ottoman Empire wiped out a British force driving up the Tigris River valley to Baghdad. The British forces suffered 45,000 casualties.)

Also leave aside such obvious practical questions such as how long a military campaign inside Iraq might last, what it would cost in additional American blood and treasure, and how conquered Iraqi territory would be administered and by whom.

At the very least an invasion of Iraq would inflame anti-American opinion throughout the Arab would, and prompt the departure of politically critical Arab allies from the present anti-Iraq coalition. In so doing, it would reduce the conflict to a largely U.S.-Arab war and also lend credence to lingering Islamic suspicions of American territorial designs in the gulf region.

A U.S. invasion of Iraq also would court strategic disaster in the long run. Do we really want to create a military and political vacuum in Iraq? Would not our previous gulf nemesis, Iran, be the principal beneficiary of such a vacuum? Have we learned nothing from our own military courtship of Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran War and subsequent political appeasement of Saddam Hussein until the very eve of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait?

President Bush has promised the American people that Desert Storm will not be another Vietnam, and there is no reason to believe it will be. But by slouching toward an escalation of U.S. war aims in the Persian Gulf beyond the U.N.'s mandate, and perhaps beyond the U.S. military's capacity to deliver (at least at an acceptable cost), the White House has invited the prospect of another Korea.

Jeffrey Record writes on military affairs for The Sun.

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