Along with everything else about the Korean War, the 406 men of Task Force Smith are little remembered now. They are not bathed in the reverential glow of a Pearl Harbor. They have no influential organizations to remind their country that they, too, once stood like Horatius at the bridge. They are merely 406 human pieces of the multitude of forgotten pieces that make up the Forgotten War.
Task Force Smith was a motley collection of scared young men from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, thrown hastily into the breach a few days after the Communist North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Ill-prepared, under-trained, pulled from comfortable occupation duty in Japan, they were the first American forces flung into the onrushing North Korean tide. They got swamped.
Do not expect great, national patriotic observances of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Do not expect an outpouring of stories and interviews in the press. Do not expect extensive television coverage. The war's aging veterans do not expect it. They have grown used to not expecting.
Do not expect, either, a burst of books such as greeted the 50th anniversary of nearly every historic turning of the Second World War. The Korean War has long been a non-starter as far as publishers are concerned. But the Free Press, fortunately, has had the grace and wisdom to bring out Stanley Weintraub's MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero.
MacArthur's War is an extended slam at General of the Army Douglas MacArthur by a highly respected historian who has a string of books to his credit (including several on war-related subjects) and who is himself a Korean War veteran. Weintraub does not come up with anything new, but marshals the existing evidence in the case against MacArthur in a more extended and focused manner than anyone has done before the case being that MacArthur took a war that was his to win and, through his megalomania and overweening sense of destiny and self-importance, turned it into a military and political quagmire.
The author does not deny MacArthur's great accomplishments. His proconsulship over United States-occupied Japan had been good for the country. When war came to Korea and he was given authority to act, he acted swiftly. His decision to make an amphibious landing at Inchon three months into the war, perceived by all his military advisers as madness, turned out to be a masterstroke.
But beyond that, oh my. The list of blunders seems endless: MacArthur's decision to commit troops piecemeal, against all military rules. Likewise his decision to divide the command in Korea between two forces, Eighth Army and X Corps. His "running the war by remote control from Japan." His insubordination to civilian and military authorities, to whom he routinely lied or failed to tell the whole truth. His continual overstepping of restrictions on pursuing the war in North Korea.
Worst of all was MacArthur's stance toward Taiwan (then known as Formosa) and Communist China. MacArthur was fixated on the twin topics of unleashing Chiang Kai-shek's troops on Taiwan to fight in Korea, and on expanding the war into China.
Another historian, Bevin Alexander, has said there were two wars in Korea: one against the North Koreans, which the U.N. forces won, and one against the Chinese, who poured into Korea to protect their threatened homeland, which they did not win. MacArthur wouldn't settle for limited victory, and, Weintraub writes, "almost every day saw another attempt by MacArthur to sabotage efforts to bargain for a compromise end to the war."
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty manner before a fall, Scripture says. And how. MacArthur's insubordination grew so outrageous that in April 1951 President Harry Truman sacked him. After a brief, giddy period during which his devoted followers hailed him as a demigod (or higher), MacArthur, in a phrase from his own famous speech, faded away.
As have the veterans of the war he bungled. Weintraub believes the war was worth fighting and that it reached its minimal objectives, and has no sympathy with "apologists and revisionists in the West" who buy North Korea's version of events. He laments the fact that Korea's missing in action have been forgotten (unlike the far fewer MIAs of Vietnam) along with their more fortunate comrades who marched out of the war and into anonymity. Attention must be paid.
Roger K. Miller, a Wisconsin freelance writer, is writing a novel based on the life of a U.S. Army rifleman from Pennsylvania who died in a POW camp in North Korea.