Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Korean War - Max Hastings - book review

"The Korean War", written by Max Hastings, was originally published in 1987.  Having read this book about four years ago, I recently went back to it.

I won't fall into the trap of describing it as "the forgotten war".  That said, if you ask people, even those who consider themselves reasonably well informed, the finer details and the precise chronology might be somewhat hazy.

This is just the sort of history book which I relish.  It feels comprehensive and authoritative, but does not outstay its welcome and, whilst satisfying curiosity, induces a thirst for more knowledge on a range of topics.

There is a good outlining of the background to the conflict. The failings of the South Korean government, the shaky unity in the south, the ill-preparedness of the US and its allies. Throughout the work a picture is created of post-war exhaustion, and of the world adjusting to new circumstances and new alliances. It may surprise some people how stretched the military resources of the US were, early in the war at least. Everybody's inventory was depleted, and forces had to be scraped together and improvised in a short timescale.

The unflattering portrayal of the South Korean regime of that period is a reminder of how many times the West has found it necessary to prop up distasteful administrations in pursuing what it perceives to be noble ends. Hastings does assert that the nature of the North Korean regime justified Western intervention, though.

"The Korean War" is written in a lively  but forthright style. Whether the reader agrees with the author's opinions or not, his arguments are generally well reasoned and supported by evidence. A strength of Max Hastings is his knowledge in both political and military spheres. This gives the book some real depth and authority, and his views and interpretations carry some weight.

As the story unfolds, numerous "case studies" are given, detailing the experiences and recollections of servicemen and civilians. These passages serve as a window on how things were on the ground, as well as hinting at some of the prevailing social and political attitudes in the early Fifties. This "personal" dimension assists in enhancing understanding, as well as instilling some variety, when set against the analysis of grand strategy, Cold War politics and military tactics.

A recurring theme here is the lack of knowledge and reliable intelligence possessed by the West about North Korean intentions, and of attitudes in Moscow and Peking. Also, the differing interpretations between the Americans and the British about the extent of Soviet involvement or control are illuminating, and perhaps reflect the contrast in intensity between the anti-Communist crusades on the two sides of the Atlantic.

This work contains some pretty hard-hitting stuff about the unrest among commanders, and the tensions and military "culture clashes" between the UN countries. The role of Douglas MacArthur is naturally a major topic, especially in the first half of the book. The author spends considerable space explaining why and how the mercurial general made his position untenable.

Whole chapters are devoted to the role of air-power in the war, and to the question of prisoners-of-war. The section which deals with the POW camps on both sides is very powerful and illuminating, and in places disturbing.

I must admit that I found the political and "social" questions more interesting than the discussions of military intricacies. I see this as a tribute to the quality of the book, and a barometer of my own attitudes...

Hastings's summing-up at the end of the book is well-argued, based as it is on an assessment of the geo-political fall-out and the reflections of those who were involved. I was also impressed by the author's capacity to blend a humane approach with a cool appraisal of political realities. It seems that military and political lessons were not learned as fully as they should have been.

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