Last Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general with a legendary appetite for military history, ticked off a list of book recommendations to a crowd of U.S. Army leaders and supporters—titles that might help them understand command, strategy and the ways war is evolving. But he kept coming back to one book in particular: T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War, a 54-year-old history of the Korean War that’s much better known in military than civilian quarters.
Fehrenbach, Mattis explained during his address to the Association of the United States Army’s Exposition on Building Readiness, reminds us of two essential truths about war: its “primitive, atavistic, and unrelenting nature” and the “absolutely fundamental” importance of boots on the ground, even in an age of drone attacks and cyberwarfare. “You may fly over a nation forever, you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life. But if you desire to defend it, if you desire to protect it, if you desire to keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground the way the Roman legions did: by putting your young men in the mud,” Mattis said, quoting Fehrenbach. “I would only modify it today by saying, ‘by putting your young men and women in the mud.’”
These citations were preludes to Mattis’s final punch. The last question he took from the audience finally addressed the concern on everyone’s mind: As Trump and Kim Jong Un exchange dire nuclear threats, “what can the U.S. military do to lessen the likelihood of conflict on the Korean Peninsula?”
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“There’s a reason I recommended T.R. Fehrenbach’s book,” Mattis replied, “that we all pull it out and read it one more time.”
This Kind of War is a comprehensive, sequential, but frankly subjective account of America’s “forgotten war” in Korea, told in a bluff style laced with bold aphorisms and narrative brio that recalls H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill and other popular historians of an even earlier era. Fehrenbach, who’s best known to civilian readers for his many chronicles of his native Texas, eschewed footnotes and bibliography, though he seemed to dive deeply into the archives. He recounted and analyzed the torturous diplomatic twists and strategic turns of a war that cost more than 3 million lives, 36,574 of them American (plus thousands more missing) and most of them civilian, and left the combatants facing off across nearly the same border where they started off. Interspersed with this high-level narrative are gritty, close-grained accounts of the grim ordeals, heroic sacrifices and, sometimes, tragic blunders of individual soldiers, from privates to generals.
Fehrenbach proudly credited “the greater portion” of his account to “the personal narratives of men who served in Korea” whom he interviewed and may have served with himself. (He never mentions his own experience, and only the jacket reveals that he commanded platoon-, company-, and battalion-level units in Korea and retired as a colonel.) “Portions may be more hearsay than history,” he acknowledged. “Men who did not lead troops in Korea may disagree with them—but they are in no position to contradict.”
That approach tends to leave scholars unimpressed. One, Steven Hugh Lee of the University of British Columbia, complained in Pacific Affairs about Fehrenbach’s “rather simplistic understanding of Asian societies” and concluded that his book’s “main contribution to scholarship lies in the way it reflects American cold war assumptions about Korea in the 1940s and ’50s.”
This Kind of War is indeed a book of its time, in language, in outlook and in its mistaken predictions. It repeatedly refers to “Puerto Ricans” as a separate national group, along with Americans, Brits, Turks and others in the United Nations force in Korea. It generalizes blithely about the “Orientals”: “Koreans were a disorganized and submissive people, almost without political education … the Irish of the Orient, changeable, mercurial” and degraded after 35 years of Japanese repression. The final ceasefire doomed the peasant south “to continued existence as a rump state, permanently incapable of supporting itself economically.” That incapacity proved only temporary; today’s South Korea is a rambunctious, distinctly unsubmissive democracy and an industrial power with a per capita GDP between Italy’s and Brunei’s.
All this doesn’t compromise the battlefield cred Fehrenbach brought to his subject, which helps explain This Kind of War’s appeal to soldiers born long after the Korean War ended—nor does it gainsay the two lessons, timeless but particularly apt in Korea, that Mattis draws from his book. The first is to set aside Obama-era hopes for antiseptic drone wars fought from a distance. “A ‘modern’ infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future,” Fehrenbach wrote, “but it must also be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised for instant obedience, and prepared to die in the mud.” The campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and so many campaigns before it have shown that aerial bombing only gets you so far; grubby, chaotic ground fighting, street by street and hilltop to hilltop, must finish the job. Against a foe as deeply dug in as the North Korean regime, that would be an epic effort, but Mattis, like Fehrenbach, seems to see no alternative. Political leaders may roar about delivering fire and fury without worrying about what those entail, but soldiers must still slog through toil and terror, as they have for thousands of years. “While technology may change, we really face nothing new under the sun,” Mattis told the Army Association, “and we oftentimes come up with good ideas in old books and reading history.”
The other lesson Mattis draws is as simple as the Boy Scout motto but easily forgotten after each postwar drawdown and, as in Iraq in 2003, before each Pyrrhic victory: Be prepared.
Fehrenbach deplored the steep decline in U.S. military readiness after victory was celebrated in the First and Second World Wars, and the softness and indulgence of the post-1945 “liberal” army. He skewered the policymakers who withdrew U.S. troops from the new Republic of Korea in 1949 and left it exposed to attack from the north with little training, outdated weaponry, and no tanks, combat aircraft, or spare parts, even as one declared, “The South Koreans have the best damn army outside the United States!” American policymakers underestimated their adversaries just as they overestimated their own defenses. Even advisers and diplomats on the ground had no idea of “the kind of tough, doctrinaire, disciplined armies [being built] by the Communists from Vietnam to Manchuria.”
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“This was no change from the past,” wrote Fehrenbach, recalling how, in early December 1941, U.S. officials were helpless to process, much less act on, the intelligence they received that Japan had dispatched the carrier task forces that would attack Pearl Harbor. “The various intelligence agencies poured a vast amount of information into Washington,” but it lacked the conceptual capacity to “even estimate what the potential aggressor was thinking or might do.” That seems a painfully apt description of the run-up to al Qaeda’s attacks in September 2001 as well.
“The American people,” Fehrenbach concluded, “have always coupled a certain belligerence—no American likes being pushed around—with a complete unwillingness to prepare for combat.” Mattis, in his speech, traced this pattern back further, to 1810, when no one imagined battling the mighty Royal Navy, and 1910 when Americans “would never have forecast they’d be wearing gas masks with airplanes dropping bombs, and charging machine guns and barbed wire” in Europe six years later. (He could have also traced it back to Bull Run in 1861 and the new republic’s abjuring of a standing army in 1789.)
Other U.S. leaders have taken the same message from the book. One is Alaska’s Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant colonel who served in Afghanistan and is given to citing Fehrenbach in Military Affairs Committee hearings. At a confirmation hearing on Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, Sullivan used a shorthand metric to gauge Spencer’s views on military training, something Sullivan thought the previous administration had dangerously neglected. “Have you read the book This Kind of War by T. R. Fehrenbach?” he asked. “I’ve not,” Spencer replied. “I have an extra copy I’d love for you to take a look at,” said Sullivan. “It’s all about the Korean War and our lack of training and our lack of readiness and what it did to the men and women in the Marines and the Army who had to go fight.”
Fehrenbach refrained from counterfactual what-ifs. He does not speculate as to whether a better-prepared America would have deterred North Korea from attacking the South, in 1950, or persuaded the Soviets to rein them in. But his description of that attack as a war of opportunity suggests such an inference. At the same time, he recognized how difficult it would have been, and always will be, to persuade a war-weary public and cost-cutting Congress of the necessity of peacetime preparation.
Mattis, by contrast, places more faith in public opinion, but sees it thwarted by the ways Congress fobs off difficult budgetary decisions. As he told his audience on Monday, “Even as our competitive edge over our foes and adversaries decreases due to budgetary confusion in this town and the budget caps, I am among the majority in this country that believes our nation can afford survival. And I want the Congress back in the driver’s seat of budget decisions, not in the spectator’s seat of automatic cuts.”
Mattis declared his hopes for the current “diplomatically led, economic-sanction-buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off this path.” using diplomatic efforts combined with two consecutive unanimous votes for stronger sanctions by the UN Security Council, bringing together fractious nations “like France and Russia, China, the United States.” But, if those efforts don’t work, he continued, the U.S. army has to be ready to fight. “What does the future hold? Neither you nor I can say. So there’s one thing the U.S. Army can do, and that is, you have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ, if needed.”
How those options are employed depends on the quality of leadership, however. On that score, Fehrenbach offered what’s still an eerily apposite warning: “The great test placed upon the United States was not whether it had the power to devastate [its nuclear adversary, then the Soviet Union]—this it had—but whether the American leadership had the will to continue to fight for an orderly world rather than to succumb to hysterical violence.”