Following the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War on 27 July 2013, John Hollands, author of bestselling novel THE DEAD, THE DYING AND THE DAMNED, recalls the Battle of the Hook, the closest war in which the world has ever come to using nuclear weapons and South Korea’s transformation
The 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War fell on 27 July,2013. As Michael Caine (a veteran of Korea), would have said: ‘Not many people know that!’
Universally, the Korean War is known as ‘The Forgotten War’. When the slaughter ceased way back in 1953, everyone sighed with relief and tried to banish it from their minds. It had been an untidy, horribly expensive war with no outright victory; everything was back to where it started, the first time the United States had failed to win a war conclusively, which was hardly a cause for celebration in such a powerful country.
Yet there are numerous reasons why the Korean War should never be forgotten. The sacrifice of those who gave their lives is an obvious starting point, but it runs a lot deeper than that. Indeed, there are reasons why Korea should be remembered above all wars that have taken place since 1945.
The American historian S.L.A. Marshall described it as ‘the century’s nastiest little war’. Why he considered it ‘little’ was (and still is) a mystery. A war that kills anything up to four million people can hardly be called ‘little’. The fact that the figure of four million remains so vague is proof in itself of a thoroughly nasty war. Most casualties (as is the way these days) were civilians with no record of how, why, or where they died. More often than not they were refugees during the winter of 1950/51 when they were shelled on both sides to get them off the so-called roads. Other refugees, with no other country or safe haven to flee to, were simply left to freeze to death on the roadside, the climatic conditions in Korea being horrendous, just as bad as anything seen on the Russian front in WWII or during the Russo/Finnish conflict in 1939.
To gauge the viciousness of the Korean War, approximately the same number of American troops died in three years of fighting as they did in ten years in Vietnam (58,000). In the three years of the Korean War, the old capital city, Seoul, changed hands no less than four times and ended up in 1953 looking like Dresden after it had been bombed. I have searched in vain for any other capital city changing hands four times in one war.
There are other facts about the Korean War even more startling.
It remains the biggest war since World War II. It is the only one which has involved all major world powers – in those days, Russia, the US, Britain and France, with the Chinese about to join them. The Russians are rarely mentioned in connection with the war, but they were the power and influence behind it all; and at the start of the war they introduced (much to the West’s alarm) the Mig fighter. Russian pilots flew these until they were able to hand over to North Koreans, a period of approximately three months. They were then content to watch from the sidelines.
The Korean War is the nearest the world has ever come to using nuclear weapons (I include atom bombs). Immediately the cry will go up, ‘Cuba!’, and that was indeed a close call; but it was always a matter of negotiation between Russia and America. In Korea, there was no question of negotiations between nations. America was the only nation with the Atom Bomb and they could have used it without fear of similar retaliation. Lots of American Generals and right-wing politicians (foremost, General Douglas MacArthur) wanted to do exactly that. It was only one man who had the power to stop them – President Harry Truman. And thank God he decided not to use them and sacked MacArthur — a monumental decision, which alone demands that the Korean War and Harry Truman should be forever remembered.
Perhaps the greatest reason for remembering the Korean War is because it set a precedent. It was the first occasion on which the Security Council of the UN sanctioned collective action by members against a country which had invaded another. If this sanction had been vetoed (Russia was doing a very stupid walk-out!), and had South Korean been overrun, it is doubtful if the United Nations would ever again have acted positively — a thing one can only speculate on, of course.
The Korean War was the first major test by the East of the West’s resolve to stand firm (unless one counts the Berlin Airlift). By standing firm, and making it clear that it was their intention to continue to do so, the West no doubt averted other similar attempts by the Soviet Bloc; nor should the scale on which the free world responded be forgotten – 17 countries in all. (No, not 16! One lonesome Pakistani officer served in Kure with the British Commonwealth Forces!)
I served with the British army in the Korean War, so I have special reason to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire. I was heavily involved in the Third Battle of the Hook, a hill on which more men died than any other hill in Korea. It was the last major battle of the war and is thought to have had influence on the Peace Talks, which were going on at the time. I lost many good friends and comrades on the Hook, so naturally I want to join their relatives and others in remembering and honouring them.
Yet whilst I was fighting in Korea I often questioned the wisdom of what we were doing. South Korea was governed by a thoroughly corrupt regime headed by an evil tyrant, Syngman Rhee; and the whole country was backward with a terrible reputation for cruelty, especially in the way of executions of political prisoners and their attitude towards prisoners-of-war, or suspect refugees. The rule of thumb was, ‘if in doubt, shoot them’.
Many British soldiers wrote back to MPs (Michael Foot was a favourite) demanding to know why they were being made to fight for such dreadful people. When I returned to the UK no one wanted to know anything about the Korean War. They’d read reports by journalists such as James Cameron, so they knew what had been going on. We had saved one awful lot from another awful lot: so what? We would have been better off minding our own business despite the principles and the crusading spirit shown by the United Nations.
Well, here’s the crux of the matter: the thing that made me change my mind. In the 1990s I helped the BBC make a documentary programme, during the course of which we visited South Korea and looked around the demilitarised zone, Seoul, and the British war cemetery at Pusan.
The difference I saw in South Korea was staggering. It had been transformed. I could not believe my eyes. It was a stable democracy: progressive, industrious and affluent. Above all, three other things: happy, free and eternally grateful.
I had been away for 30 years, yet in that time Korea had forged itself into one of the most respectful nations on earth. It justified everything for us veterans and now, every time we meet a Korean, they treat us as no one ever does: as real heroes. Call us vain if you like, but by God we really appreciate it!
Details of the dramatic actions and changes of attitude that went on in those post-war years are unknown to me, although obviously much depended on the wise use of American aid; yet no one could have hoped for a better end-result. So isn’t it time we devoted more study to why we went there, what we achieved with such great loss of live, and most of all how the Koreans, backed up by aid and investment, have managed to create such a fantastic success story?
For a change, let’s learn from history. Let’s analyse what happened and see if we can’t repeat the success in other places, instead of just bludgeoning into the next hopeless situation with little idea of what we are doing or hoping to achieve.
Finally, a personal note: my batman in Korea was a poet. Before he died of wounds sustained on The Hook he wrote these lines as a tribute to his comrades: