The Korean War began a half-century ago with the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Although the military actions on the Asian peninsula transfixed Americans at the time and for the three years of the shooting war, many have perhaps forgotten some of the characteristics of the war that need to be remembered.
First among these forgotten aspects is the brutality of the war itself. When the North Korean Peoples Army moved south on June 25, 1950, it met little effective opposition from the ill-equipped Republic of Korea Army. As the first American troops arrived to stem the tide of the Communist advance, the Soviet-supplied North Korean army swept them aside as well.
The foe from the North was ruthless in its onslaught, and corpses of prisoners, summarily murdered, became a familiar yet gruesome discovery. Operational and intelligence summaries reported instances of the North Koreans driving civilian villagers before their attacks or mingling with refugees to infiltrate rear areas. The U.S. soldiers sometimes had a bitter choice: to fire on civilians or to be overrun by North Korean forces following or intermingled with the refugees.
This aspect of the war -- the U.S. Army firing on civilians out of wartime necessity -- was well-enough known to inspire the plot of a feature film, ''One Minute to Zero,'' in which Robert Mitchum played an American officer who is assigned to evacuate noncombatants but ends up having to order the bombing of refugees.
Forgetting the brutality of the war has caused the incident at No Gun-ri -- where it seems fairly clear that American forces fired on civilians, although the circumstances and numbers of casualties are still disputed -- to be seen without the nuance it deserves from the media and from the American public.
Although American soldiers were the first non-Koreans to arrive on the battlefield, the United Nations quickly took up the issue and, before the year was out, forces from a number of countries in Europe and Asia were fighting under the U.N. colors.
These forces -- from more than a dozen member states -- are largely forgotten outside the countries themselves. But they gave the effort a legitimacy and a credibility that remain immeasurable. World opinion, in spite of the best efforts of the Communist-bloc propaganda apparatus, remained solidly on the side of the United Nations throughout the war.
Contemporary hopes that the effort would become a model for peacemaking remained stillborn for decades. But, with the end of the Cold War, U.N. peacekeeping efforts have re-emerged haltingly in disputed areas of the world. In this anniversary year, successful -- and, even more important, unsuccessful -- features of the U.N. campaign in Korea deserve study from policy-makers.
Finally, the issues over which the war was waged remain, from a moral and ethical standpoint, solidly on the side of the U.N. Command. During the first months of the war, the issue was whether a weak state would be allowed to disappear because of the aspirations of its more powerful neighbor. But, by the time peace negotiations began, that issue had been decided: Forces of the adversaries were roughly arrayed along the lines where the war had started.
Negotiators at the peace talks in Panmunjom had a new and intractable issue called repatriation. If POWs were allowed to choose their postwar fate -- voluntary repatriation -- the Communist bloc faced worldwide humiliation, an unacceptable outcome. Thus began what may be viewed as the least rewarding yet most ethically and morally justifiable two years of war in recent history -- when soldiers fought and died for the principle that their vanquished foes would not be returned to a fate they had escaped, that of living under totalitarian domination.
The things Americans have forgotten about ''The Forgotten War'' can still provide invaluable insights for the citizen and the policy-maker of today.
(Retired Army Col. Hamburger, a visiting professor at the National Defense University and former history professor at West Point, led a helicopter platoon in Vietnam and also served in Korea.)
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