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Thursday, September 11, 2014

This Kind Of War

For months, T.R. Fehrenbach's "classic Korean War history" This Kind of War has been gathering dust and the odd crumb and broken piece of jewelry at the opposite end of my kitchen table.  Today, I decided to distract myself from my smartphone for a bit (10 AM: How many have read my last blogpost? 10:05 AM: How many have read it NOW?) by diving in.

Setting aside the periodic racist term or description (the book was published in 1963, but the short form of "Japanese"--common to veterans of World War II--is used, and, for example, the North Korean infantrymen which poured over the parallel early in the morning of 25 June 1950 are said to have been "hordes of shrieking small men in yellow-brown shirts" (p. 9), an image which, while vivid, wouldn't pass mustard--er, muster--in today's politically-sensitive publishing world), I see some commonalities between the South Korean situations in 1905 and at midcentury last, and the Ukrainian situation today.

In both later cases, the United States had long promised aid to the invaded country, but was far too nervous about sending an aggressive signal to the Russians to add teeth to the once-subjugated but now newborn democracy.  In the first, the wavering last king of the Joseon/Chosun dynasty was brushed aside, and his terrified cabinet forced to accede to Japanese control of the peninsula prior to the arrival of a ship-borne Korean plea for help in Washington (T. Roosevelt had agreed that Japan had "significant interests" on the then-poor peninsula in the Portsmouth Treaty with Russia, so whether we would have honored this is in question), and then, some 45 years later, the South Korean army was bolstered by little more than "attaboy" remarks from the resident American representatives of the State Department, not actual materiel (as heaven forbid they have the weapons to attack the North!).  Ukraine is similarly bereft, being assured of our good offices in its behalf in thanks for giving up its nuclear weapons stockpile in the immediate post-Soviet era.  Now, it, too, discovers that American words are gossamer, as its eastern provinces are chewed away, bit by bit, by the awakening bear to the north.  The American public, its government and media are too enthralled by the admittedly horrifying spectacle of an "unstoppable" Islamic wannabe caliphate with its crucifixions, beheadings, and so forth, to pay attention to what is happening on the other side of the Black Sea.

To "degrade and destroy ISIS" is certainly a laudable goal, but is it feasible?  I wonder that few people that I heard or have read about have cited Samuel Huntington's much-poo-pooed Clash of Civilizations as a framework for understanding what the United States faces in its Middle East foreign policy.  As evil as that Iraqi-Syrian cancer is, how can we treat it without recognizing that historically, we come from an entirely different cultural mindset, and that a few air sorties and even "boots on the ground" are not going to solve the underlying problems?  On the other hand, we CAN do something about Ukraine.  The very lack of international drama which has accompanied the incremental devouring of what was and can be a blossoming democratic state is appalling.  There are thousands of refugees who were leading normal, ordinary lives with work and apartments and children in school who have now been forced to flee westward to Kiev and beyond.  There are reports of religious groups, both Muslim and Christian, being persecuted and even killed in Moscow-oriented areas (in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea), but because these are quietly done (Katyn Forest-style--quiet disappearances are the mark of the "civilized" state), rather than loudly trumpeted (internet jihad is so gauche), they have not drawn American attention.

I love Russia--its language is beautiful, its people are great, its culture is inspiring.  Its leadership, however, has been decidedly mixed, and its current government has made no great secret of its ambitions.  Why are we ignoring these?  Ukraine should not be obliterated by the power-hungry; it should not remain a place forever "on the border", but be "homeland" (the two disputed etymologies of the name).  What I saw on my two visits to Odessa and Kiev and their suburbs showed a country that was full of hope's seedlings, just as its calendar months take their names from the blooms and fruit of the season.  Why should these be lost?  Why are we "advising" in a sandstorm and turning away from the green fields that are being sown with explosives from the east?  Are we excited by and only capable of well-meaning rhetoric and not real action, or only when active to bloody ourselves without end, like someone punching a rock?

I suspect as I read more of Fehrenbach I will be further frustrated with our national inability to learn good lessons from past errors.  I am sure I will find faults in his short-term assessments, but it will be fascinating to at last have some understanding of what took place north and south of Seoul 65 years ago, and left us Americans with little cultural memory save an exceptionally hideous set of sculptures on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

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