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Book Review: Their War for Korea
American, Asian, and European combatants and civilians, 1945-1953
Reviewed by Dr. Balázs Szalontai
10/6/2003



War stories are not necessarily soldier stories. Allan R. Millett, a professor of military history at Ohio State University, demonstrates this sentiment in an impressive work on the Korean War. Anxious to show as many aspects of the events as possible, he interviewed an amazing variety of people who had returned alive from Korea's killing fields and also commemorated many others who had not. Although most of his interviewees were soldiers, he also paid attention to American and Korean noncombatants and civilians, such as physicians, businessmen, peasants, and a Presbyterian pastor. He renders palpable how profoundly the Korean War and its political antecedents intruded into the lives of countless people who were by no means born fighters and how often an individual's fate was influenced by unforeseeable and accidental events.

Millett's book is truly panoramic. Although the author concentrates on the UN forces, he devotes several chapters to the description of the other side as well. His comments on the Chinese troops are remarkably objective and respectful. He is more biased against the North Koreans, but he does state that the military skills of certain KPA units "were probably equal to any army in Asia (including the U.S. 8th Army) and comparable to the best of the Imperial Japanese Army at its peak" (p. 42). His chapters on America's "forgotten allies," such as the Dutch, the Belgians, and the Thais, meet a long-felt need, and the reminiscences of James T. Laney and Robert Shackleton (a Counter Intelligence Corps agent and an U.S. advisor to the South Korean Constabulary, respectively) are particularly valuable for readers interested in getting an insight into the nature of early U.S.-South Korean relations.

Their War for Korea tells us a lot about the paradoxes of life and death. Sometimes the enemy is one's own army. An American pilot, forced by his Chinese captors to make a false confession, returns home only to face accusations and insinuations. Peng Dehuai, having survived the battles he fought with the Guomindang, the Japanese, and the Americans, is tortured to death by the henchmen of the same party that he served for over three decades. Sometimes one's death stands in striking contrast with his life: a young man who never wanted to be a soldier braves the enemy alone and kills dozens of North Koreans in order to cover the retreat of his unit. The careers and personalities depicted by Millett are extremely colorful and varied, ranging from the fairly typical to the highly unusual.

On the other hand, the political views of the interviewees are quite similar to each other. That is, certain ideas and perspectives are made conspicuous by their absence. For instance, none of the Koreans interviewed by Millett mentions any U.S.-South Korean conflicts. The author also did not speak with any South Koreans who had opposed Syngman Rhee's dictatorship in 1948-53, although the history of, say, the Cheju uprising (Millett prefers the term "rebellion") attracts increasing attention in the ROK (see, among others, the novels and short stories of Hyon Kil-on and Hyon Ki-yong), and the author himself rightly emphasizes the continuity between the pre-1950 political clashes and the war. The book makes no reference to Rhee's prewar plans to invade North Korea and tends to regard the repressive measures taken by his regime merely as reactions to Communist subversion.

Millett seems to be less familiar with the North Korean regime than with the PLA. For example, he gives credence to Kim Il-sung's incredible accusations against Pak Hon-yong (p. 7). He also depicts Sol Chong-sik, the North Korean interpreter at Panmunjom (a graduate from Columbia University who fell victim to Kim Il-sung's anti-SKWP purge), as "a turncoat Seoul high school teacher who was later executed for poor performance" (p. 260). Concentrating exclusively on the Communist nature of the North Korean dictatorship, he overlooks Kim Il-sung's fanatical nationalism and thus makes the South Korean leadership appear as the sole representative of Korean nationalism.

Apart from a few persons like Richard F. Underwood and William H. Shaw, the Americans and Europeans depicted in this book were not attached to Korea before the outbreak of the war. Since the cultural differences between Korea and their homes must have been significant enough, it would have been particularly interesting to ask them about their early impressions in Korea, yet in many soldier stories the specifically Korean human environment is hardly visible. They speak much less about the country and its people than about battles and cold. Still, any reader interested in the history of the Korean War will find Millett's book both colorful and informative, a valuable work on America's "forgotten war."

Dr. Balázs Szalontai is a contributor to Korea WebWeekly from Central European University.

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