This essay is a chapter in 'This Kind of War' by T.R. Fehrenbach. A history of the Korean War, written in 1963, it is a study of what happens when a nation neglects the basics of war fighting.
Buy a copy. It's good. Not just for the topic material but because Fehrenbach can write.
'Proud Legions' is chapter 25, but works as a stand-alone essay. Spend a few minutes reading this - it will not be wasted time.
I found this stashed on my hard drive. The file save date was two years ago, and contained typographic errors. There is no way I'd have the patience to type this in - I obtained it from somewhere, but have no idea where.
T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War
We was rotten 'fore we started – we was never disciplined;
We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed.
Yes, every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teachin' – an' we paid!
- Rudyard Kipling, "That Day"
During the first months of American intervention in Korea, reports from the front burst upon an America and world stunned beyond belief. Day after day, the forces of the admitted first power of the earth reeled backward under the blows of the army of a nation of nine million largely illiterate peasants, the product of the kind of culture advanced nations once overawed with gunboats. Then, after fleeting victory, Americans fell back once more before an army of equally illiterate, lightly armed Chinese.
The people of Asia had changed, true. The day of the gunboat and a few Marines would never return. But that was not the whole story. The people of the West had changed, too. They forgot that the West had dominated not only by arms, but by superior force of will.
During the summer of 1950, and later, Asians would watch. Some, friends of the West, would even smile. And none of them would ever forget.
News reports in 1950 talked of vast numbers, overwhelming hordes of fanatic North Koreans, hundreds of monstrous tanks, against which the thin United States forces could not stand. In these reports there was truth, but not the whole truth.
The American units were outnumbered. They were outgunned. They were given an impossible task at the outset.
But they were also outfought.
In July 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded pushbutton warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians who had never suffered the misery and ignominy of basic training blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen?
In this unconsciously plaintive cry lies buried a great deal of the truth why the United States was almost defeated.
Nothing had happened to pushbutton warfare; its emergence was at hand. Horrible weapons that could destroy every city on earth were at hand – at too many hands. But pushbutton warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon, hopefully, will never be an end of national policy.
Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life – but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.
The object of warfare is to dominate a portion of the earth, with its peoples, for causes either just or unjust. It is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad.
Pushbutton war has its place. There is another kind of conflict – crusade, jihad, holy war, call it what you choose. It has been loosed before, with attendant horror but indecisive results. In the past, there were never means enough to exterminate all the unholy, whether Christian, Moslem, Protestant, Papist, or Communist. If jihad is preached again, undoubtedly the modern age will do much better.
Americans, denying from moral grounds that war can ever be a part of politics, inevitably tend to think in terms of holy war – against militarism, against fascism, against bolshevism. In the postwar age, uneasy, disliking and fearing the unholiness of Communism, they have prepared for jihad. If their leaders blow the trumpet, or if their homeland is attacked, their millions are agreed to be better dead than Red. Any kind of war short of jihad was, is, and will be unpopular with the people. Because such wars are fought with legions, and American, even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions. They do not like to serve in them, nor even to allow them to be what they must.
For legions have no ideological or spiritual home in the liberal society. The liberal society has no use or need for legions – as its prophets have long proclaimed.
Except that in this world are tigers.
The men of the Inmun Gun and the CCF were peasant boys, tough, inured to hunger and hardship. One- third of them had been in battle and knew what battle meant. They had been indoctrinated in Communism, but no high percentage of them were fanatic. Most of them, after all, were conscripts, and unskilled. They were not half so good soldiers as the bronzed men who followed Rommel in the desert, or the veterans who slashed down toward Bastogne.
They were well armed, but their weapons were no better than those of the United States design, if as good. But the American soldier of 1950, though the same breed of man, was not half so good as the battalions that had absorbed Rommel's bloody lessons, or stood like steel in the Ardennes.
The weapons his nation had were not in his hands, and those that were were old and worn.
Since the end of World War II ground weapons had been developed, but none had been procured. There were plenty of the old arms around, and it has always been a Yankee habit to make do. The Army was told to make do.
In 1950 its vehicles in many cases would not run. Radiators were clogged, engines gone. When ordered to Korea, some units towed their transport down to the LST's, because there was no other way to get it to the boat. Tires and tubes had a few miles left in them, and were kept – until they came apart on Korean roads. In Japan, where divisions were supposedly guarding our former enemies, most of the small arms had been reported combat unserviceable. Rifle barrels were worn smooth. Mortar mounts were broken, and there were no longer any spare barrels for machine guns.
Radios were short, and those that were available would not work.
Ammunition, except small arms, was "hava-no."
These things had been reported. The Senate knew them; the people heard them. But usually the Army was told, "Next year."
Even a rich society cannot afford nuclear bombs, supercarriers, foreign aid, five million new cars a years, long-range bombers, the highest standard of living in the world, and a million new rifles.
Admittedly, somewhere you have to cut and choose.
But guns are hardware, and man, not hardware, is the ultimate weapon. In 1950 there were not enough men, either – less than 600,000 to carry worldwide responsibilities, including recruiting; for service in the ranks has never been on the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's preferred list of occupations. And in these 600,000 men themselves trouble lay.
There was a reason.
Before 1939 the United States Army was small, but it was professional. Its tiny officers corps was parochial, but true. Its members devoted their time to the study of war, caring little what went on in the larger society around them. They were centurions, and the society around them not their concern.
When so ordered, they went to war. Spreading themselves thinner still, they commanded and trained civilians who heeded the trumpet's call. The civilians did the fighting, of course – but they did it the Army's way.
In 1861 millions of volunteers donned blue or gray. Millions of words have been written on American valor, but few books dwell on the fact that of the sixty important battles, fifty-five were commanded on both sides by West Pointers, and on one side in the remaining five.
In 1917 four million men were mustered in. Few of them liked it, but again they did things the way professionals wanted them done.
The volunteers came and went, and the Army changed not at all.
But since the Civil War, the Army had neither the esteem nor the favor of public or government. Liberal opinion, whether business-liberal or labor-liberal, dominated the United States after the destruction of the South, and the illiberal Army grew constantly more alienated from its own society.
In a truly liberal society, centurions have no place. For centurions, when they put on the soldier, do not retain the citizen. They are never citizens to begin with.
There was and is no danger of military domination of the nation. The Constitution gave Congress the power of life or death over the military, and they have always accepted the fact. The danger has been the other way around – the liberal society, in its heart, wants not only domination of the military, but acquiescence of the military toward the liberal view of life.
Domination and control society should have. The record of military rule, from the burnished and lazy Praetorians to the juntas of Latin America, to the attempted fiasco of the Legion Etrangere, are pages of history singularly foul in odor.
But acquiescence society may not have, if it wants an army worth a damn. By the very nature of its mission, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society's purpose is to live; the military's is to stand ready, if need be, to die.
Soldiers are rarely fit to rule – but they must be fit to fight.
The military is in essence a tool, to be used by its society. If its society is good, it may hope to be used honorably, even if badly. If its society is criminal, it may be, like the Wehrmacht, unleashed upon a helpless world.
But when the Wehrmacht dashed against the world, it was brought to ruin, not by a throng of amateurs, but by well-motivated, well-generaled Allied troops, who had learned their military lessons.
Some men, of kind intention, are always dubious because the generals of the Wehrmacht and the men of West Point and V.M.I. and Leavenworth read the same books, sometimes hold the same view of life.
Why not? German plumbers, American plumbers, use the same manuals, and look into the same kind of water.
In 1861, and 1917, the Army acted upon the civilian, changing him. But in 1945 something new happened. Suddenly, without precedent, perhaps because of changes in the emerging managerial society, professional soldiers of high rank had become genuinely popular with the public. In 1861, and in 1917, the public gave the generals small credit, talked instead of the gallant militia. Suddenly, at the end of World War II, society embraced the generals. And here it ruined them.
They had lived their lives in semibitter alienation from their own culture (What's the matter, Colonel; can't you male it on the outside?) but now they were sought after, offered jobs in business, government, on college campuses.
Humanly, the generals liked the acclaim. Humanly, they wanted it to continue. And when, as usual after all our wars, there came a great civilian clamor to change all the things in the army the civilians hadn't liked, humanly, the generals could not find it in their hearts to tell the public to go to hell.
It was perfectly understandable that large numbers of men who served didn't like the service. There was no reason why they should. They served only because there had been a dirty job that had to be done. Admittedly, the service was not perfect; no human institution having power over men can ever be. But many of the abuses the civilians complained about had come not from true professional but from men with quickie diplomas, whose brass was much more apt to go to their heads than to those of men who had waited twenty years for leaves and eagles. In 1945, somehow confusing the plumbers with the men who pulled the chain, the public demanded that the Army be changed to conform with decent, liberal society.
The generals could have told them to go to hell and made it stick. A few heads would have rolled, a few stars would have been lost. But without acquiescence Congress could no more emasculate the Army than it could alter the nature of the State Department. It could have abolished it, or weakened it even more than it did – but it could not have changed its nature. But the generals could not have retained their new popularity by antagonizing the public, and suddenly popularity was very important to them. Men such as Doolittle, Eisenhower, and Marshall rationalized, America, with postwar duties around the world, would need a bigger peacetime Army than ever before. Therefore, it needed to be popular with the people. And it should be made pleasant, so that more men would enlist. And since Congress wouldn't do much about upping pay, every man should have a chance to become a sergeant, instead of one in twenty. But, democratically, sergeants would not draw much more pay than privates.
And since some officers and noncoms had abused their powers, rather than make sure officers and noncoms were better than ever, it would be simpler and more expedient – and popular – to reduce those powers. Since Americans were by nature egalitarian, the Army had better go that route too. Other professional people, such as doctors and clergymen, had special privileges – but officers, after all, had no place in liberal society, and had better be cut down to size.
The Doolittle Board of 1945-1946 met, listened to less than half a hundred complaints, and made its recommendations. The so-called "caste system" of the Army was modified. Captains, by fiat, suddenly ceased to be gods, and sergeants, the hard-bitten backbone of any army, were told to try to be just some of the boys. Junior officers had a great deal of their power to discipline taken away from them. They could no longer inflict any real punishment, short of formal court-martial, nor could they easily reduce ineffective N.C.O.'s. Understandably, their own powers shaky, they cut the ground completely away from under their N.C.O.'s.
A sergeant, by shouting at some sensitive yardbird, could get his captain into a lot of trouble. For the real effect of the Doolittle recommendations was psychological. Officers had not been made wholly powerless – but they felt that they had been slapped in the teeth. The officer corps, by 1946 again wholly professional, did not know how to live with the newer code.
One important thing was forgotten by the citizenry: by 1946 all the intellectual and sensitive types had said goodbye to the Army – they hoped for good. The new men coming in now were the kind of men who join armies the world over, blank-faced, unmolded – and they needed shaping. They got it; but it wasn't the kind of shaping they needed.
Now an N.C.O. greeted new arrivals with a smile. Where once he would have told them they made him sick to his stomach, didn't look tough enough to make a go of his outfit, he now led them meekly to his company commander. And this clean-cut young man, who once would have sat remote at the right hand of God in his orderly room, issuing orders that crackled like thunder, now smiled too. "Welcome aboard gentlemen. I am your company commander; I'm here to help you. I'll try to make your stay both pleasant and profitable."
This was all very democratic and pleasant – but it is the nature of young men to get away with anything they can, and soon these young men found they could get away with plenty.
A soldier could tell a sergeant to blow it. In the old Army he might have been bashed, and found immediately what the rules were going to be. In the Canadian Army – which oddly enough no American liberals have found fascistic or bestial – he would have been marched in front of his company commander, had his pay reduced, perhaps even been confined for thirty days, with no damaging mark on his record. He would have learned, instantly, that orders are to be obeyed.
But in the new American Army, the sergeant reported such a case to his C.O. But the C.O. couldn't do anything drastic or educational to the man; for any real action, he had to pass the case up higher. And nobody wanted to court-martial the man, to put a permanent damaging mark on his record. The most likely outcome was for the man to be chided for being rude, and requested to do better in the future.
Some privates, behind their smirks, liked it fine.
Pretty soon, the sergeants, realizing the score, started to fraternize with the men. Perhaps, through popularity, they could get something done. The junior officers, with no sergeants to knock heads, decided that the better part of valor was never to give an unpopular order.
The new legions carried the old names, displayed the old, proud colors, with their gallant battle streamers. The regimental mottoes still said things like "Can Do." In their neat, fitted uniforms and new shiny boots – there was money for these – the troops looked good. Their appearance made the generals smile.
What they lacked couldn't be seen, not until the guns sounded.
There is much to military training that seems childish, stultifying, and even brutal. But one essential part of breaking men into military life is the removal of misfits – and in the service a man is a misfit who cannot obey orders, any orders, and who cannot stand immense and searing mental and physical pressure.
For his own sake and for that of those around him, a man must be prepared for the awful, shrieking moment of truth when he realizes he is all alone on a hill ten thousand miles from home, and that he may be killed in the next second.
The young men of America, from whatever strata, are raised in a permissive society. The increasing alienation of their education from the harsher realities of life makes their reorientation, once enlisted, doubly important.
Prior to 1950, they got no reorientation. They put on the uniform, but continued to get by, doing things rather more or less. They had no time for sergeants.
As discipline deteriorated, the generals themselves were hardly affected. They still had their position, their pomp and ceremonies. Surrounded by professionals of the old school, largely field rank, they still thought their rod was iron, for seemingly, their own orders were obeyed.
But ground battle is a series of platoon actions. No longer can a field commander stand on a hill, like Lee or Grant, and oversee his formations. Orders in combat – the orders that kill men or get them killed, are not given by generals, or even by majors. They are given by lieutenants and sergeants, and sometimes by PFC's.
When a sergeant gives a soldier an order in battle, it must have the same weight as that of a four-star general.
Such orders cannot be given by men who are some of the boys. Men willingly take orders to die only from those they are trained to regard as superior beings.
It was not until the summer of 1950, when the legions went forth, that the generals realized what they had agreed to, and what they had wrought.
The Old Army, outcast and alien and remote from the warm bosom of society, officer and man alike, ordered into Korea, would have gone without questioning. It would have died without counting. As on Bataan, it would not have listened for the angel's trumpet or the clarion call. It would have heard the hard sound of its own bugles, and hard-bitten, cynical, wise in bitter ways, it would have kept its eyes on its sergeants.
It would have died. It would have retreated, or surrendered, only in the last extremity. In the enemy prison camps, exhausted, sick, it would have spat upon its captors, despising them to the last. It would have died, but it might have held.
One aftermath of the Korean War has been the passionate attempt in some military quarters to prove the softness and decadence of American society as a whole, because in the first six months of that war there were wholesale failures. It has been a pervasive and persuasive argument, and it has raised its own counterargument, equally passionate.
The trouble is, different men live by different myths.
There are men who would have a society pointed wholly to fighting and resistance to Communism, and this would be a very different society from the one Americans now enjoy. It might succeed on the battlefield, but its other failures can be predicted.
But the infantry battlefield also cannot be remade to the order of the prevailing mid-century opinion of American sociologists.
The recommendations of the so-called Doolittle Board of 1945-1946, which destroyed so much of the will – if not the actual power – of the military traditionalists, and left them bitter, and confused as to how to act, was based on experience in World War II. In that war, as in all others, millions of civilians were fitted arbitrarily into a military pattern already centuries old. It had once fitted Western society; it now coincided with American customs and thinking no longer.
What the Doolittle Board tried to do, in small measure, was to bring the professional Army back into the new society. What it could not do, in 1946, was to gauge the future.
By 1947 the United States Army had returned, in large measure, to the pattern it had known prior to 1939. The new teenagers who now joined it were much the same stripe of men who had joined in the old days. They were not intellectuals, they were not completely fired with patriotism, or motivated by the draft; nor was an aroused public, eager to win a war, breathing down their necks.
A great many of them signed up for three squares and a sack.
Over several thousand years of history, man has found a way to make soldiers out of this kind of man, as he comes, basically unformed, to the colors. It is a way with great stresses and great strains. It cannot be said it is wholly good. Regimentation is not good, completely, for any man.
But no successful army has been able to avoid it. It is an unpleasant necessity, seemingly likely to go on forever, as long as men fight in fields and mud.
One thing should be made clear.
The Army could have fought World War III, just as it could have fought World War II, under the new rules. During 1941-1945 the average age of the United States soldier was in the late twenties, and the ranks were seasoned with maturity from every rank of life, as well as intelligence.
In World War III, or any war with national emotional support, this would have again been true. Soldiers would have brought their motivation with them, firmed by understanding and maturity. The Army could have fought World War III in 1950, but it could not fight Korea. As a case in point, take the experiences of one platoon sergeant in Fort Lewis, Washington. During the big war he had held sway over a platoon of seventy-two enlisted men. The platoon was his to run; the officers rarely came around the barracks.
The platoon sergeant was reasonable man, in charge of reasonable men, who knew why they were in the Army. Their average age was thirty-two; one-fourth of them, roughly, were college trained. Almost all of them were skilled, in one trade or another.
This kind of man cannot be made to dig a six-by-six hole to bury a carelessly dropped cigarette, nor double-timed around the PX on Sunday morning.
The platoon sergeant relieved a multiple-striped young idiot – as he termed the man – who tried just this. The platoon, as platoons can, ruined the former sergeant.
The new platoon sergeant told his men the barracks needed cleaning, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, he could get a few men off detail to clean the common areas, such as the latrine, and there need be no GI parties.
The platoon cooperated. There were no GI parties, no extra details. A few men went off the track, now and then; the older men of the platoon handled them quietly, without bothering the platoon sergeant.
This was discipline. Ideally, it should well up out of the men, not be imposed upon them.
The platoon prospered. It won the battalion plaque for best barracks so often it was allowed to keep the plaque in perpetuity.
Even after VJ-Day, every man fell out for reveille, promptly, because the platoon sergeant explained to them this was the way the game was played. And the platoon was proud of itself; every man knew it was a good outfit, just a little better than the next.
Then, one by one, the men went home, as the war ended.
The platoon sergeant now was promoted to first sergeant, six stripes, an enlisted god who walked. He got a new company of several platoons, all filled with the new, callow faces entering the Army to be trained. The war was over, and every man coming in knew it.
The first sergeant, wise now in the ways of handling men, as he thought, carefully explained to the newcomers that the barracks must be cleaned, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, there would be no GI parties, and there would be passes.
On Saturday the barracks were dirty.
The sergeant, who thought that men needed only to understand what was required to obey, carefully explained what he wanted. Friday, with a great deal of hollering, shouting, and horseplay, the new men cleaned the barracks.
On Saturday, the barracks were still dirty, and the captain made a few pointed remarks to the sergeant. The sergeant got everyone together, and told them how it was going to be. These men on the mops, these men on the brooms, these men with the lye soap. No hollering or sloshing of water or horseplay – just clean the goddam barracks.
It took most of Friday night, and the men had to stay in the latrines to clean their rifles, but they cleaned the barracks. A few of them got out of hand, but there were no older hands who could – or would – hold them in check. The sergeant handled each of these himself.
The platoon prospered, but it wasn't easy, particularly on the sergeant. Gradually, he came to realize that seventeen- and eighteen- year-olds, mostly from the disadvantaged areas of society, had no feeling of responsibility to the Army or to the Republic for which it stood. They were not self-disciplined, and they tended to resent authority, even more than the college men and skilled artisans he had commanded before. Probably some had resented their parents; definitely most resented the sergeant, even as most of them, back in their hometowns, had instinctively resented the police.
There is no getting around the fact that cops and sergeants spoil your fun.
The platoon prospered, as a sort of jail, until someone wrote to his congressman. After that the captain spoke to the sergeant, telling him that it was peacetime and that perhaps the real purpose of an Army was not to learn to use the bayonet, but to engage in athletics and take Wednesday afternoons off.
The sergeant, now a confused young man with six stripes who walked, left the Army, and graduated from college. If the Army was going to hell, it was a lot more pleasant to watch it go to hell from the Officer's Club than from the Orderly Room.
A decade after Korea, the military traditionalists still grind their teeth. The sociologists still keep a wary eye on them. Both still try to use the Korean battleground, and its dreary POW camps, to further their own particular myths of human behavior.
Probably, both are wrong.
The military have the preponderance of fact with them as far as Korea was concerned. Korea was the kind of war that since the dawn of history was fought by professionals, by legions. It was fought by men who soon knew they had small support or sympathy at home, who could read in the papers statements by prominent men that they should be withdrawn. It was fought by men whom the Army – at its own peril – had given neither training nor indoctrination, nor the hardness and bitter pride men must have to fight a war in which they do not in their hearts believe.
The Army needed legions, but society didn't want them. It wanted citizen-soldiers.
But the sociologists are right – absolutely right – in demanding that the centurion view of life not be imposed upon America. In a holy, patriotic war – like that fought by the French in 1793, or as a general war against Communism will be – America can get a lot more mileage out of citizen-soldiers than it can from legions.
No one has suggested that perhaps there should be two sets of rules, one for the professional Army, which may have to fight in far places, without the declaration of war, and without intrinsic belief in the value of its dying, for reasons of policy, chessmen on the checkerboard of diplomacy; and one for the high-minded, enthusiastic, and idealistic young men who come aboard only when the ship is sinking.
The other answer is to give up Korea-type wars, and to surrender great-power status, and a resultant hope of order – our own decent order – in the world. But America is rich and fat and very, very noticeable in this world. It is a forlorn hope that we should be left alone.
In the first six months America suffered a near debacle because her Regular Army fighting men were the stuff of legions, but they had not been made into legionaries.
America was not more soft or more decadent than it had been twenty years earlier. It was confused, badly, on its attitudes toward war. It was still bringing up its youth to think there were no tigers, and it was still reluctant to forge them guns to shoot tigers.
Many of America's youth, in the Army, faced horror badly because they had never been told they would have to face horror, or that horror is very normal in our unsane world. It had not been ground into them that they would have to obey their officers, even if the orders got them killed.
It has been a long, long time since American citizens have been able to take down the musket from the mantelpiece and go tiger hunting. But they still cling to the belief that they can do so, and do it well, without training.
This is the error that leads some men to cry out that Americans are decadent.
If Americans in 1950 were decadent, so were the rabble who streamed miserably into Valley Forge, where von Steuben made soldiers out of them. If American society had no will to defend itself, neither did it in 1861, at First Manassas, or later at Shiloh, when whole regiments of Americans turned tail and ran.
The men who lay warm and happy in their blankets at Kasserine, as the panzers rolled toward them in the dawn, were decadent, by this reasoning.
The problem is not that Americans are soft but that they simply will not face what war is all about until they have had their teeth kicked in. They will not face the fact that the military professionals, while some have ideas about society in general that are distorted and must be watched, still know better than anyone else how a war is won. Free society cannot be oriented toward the battlefield – Sparta knew that trap – but some adjustments must be made, as the squabbling Athenians learned to their sorrow.
The sociologists and psychologists of Vienna had no answer to the Nazi bayonets, when they crashed against their doors. The soldiers of the democratic world did.
More than once, as at Valley Forge, after Bull Run, and Kasserine, the world has seen an American army rise from its own ashes, reorient itself, grow hard and bitter, knowledgeable and disciplined and tough. In 1951, after six months of being battered, the Eighth Army in Korea rose from its own ashes of despair. No man who was there still believes Americans in the main are decadent, just as no man who saw Lieutenant General Matt Ridgway in operation doubts the sometime greatness of men.
He who supposes all men to be brave at all times…does not realize that the courage of troops must be reborn daily, that nothing is so changeable that the true skill of a general consists of knowing how to guarantee it by his positions, dispositions, and those traits of genius that characterize great captains. – From the French of Maurice de Saxe, "Reveries on the Art of War".
When Lieutenant General Ridgway left Tokyo to assume command of the Eighth Army on 26 December 1950, he asked MacArthur in parting, "General, if I get over there and find the situation warrants it, do I have your permission to attack?"
MacArthur's aged face cracked wide in a grin.
"Do whatever you think best, Matt. The Eighth Army is yours."
These were, as Ridgway said later, the sort of orders to put heart in a soldier. And Ridgway's own first task was to put heart in the Eighth Army.
Matt Ridgway came to Korea convinced that the United States Army could beat any Asiatic horde that lived to its knees. He quickly found that on this subject he was a majority of one.
The Eighth Army was not only pulling south; it had no great desire to meet the Chinese. Contact over much of the front was broken. There was almost no patrolling.
When Ridgway asked where the Chinese were, and in what strength, he was shown a vague goose egg on the map to the north of Eighth Army in which was inscribed the figure 174,000. More than this no one knew, and no one was making concerted efforts to find out. The Eighth Army had had its fill of Chinese-hunting in the north.
But if the Eighth Army expected General Matt Ridgway to be satisfied with that, they had another think coming.
Ridgway began to hammer away. At first, realizing the problem, he talked of simple things: aggressive patrolling, maintaining contact at all costs, supply, and firepower. He talked of the most basic thing of all, leadership. He was as blunt or as gentle as the situation called for.
He told his senior commanders the simple truth that America's power and prestige were at stake out here, and whether they believed in this war or not, they were going to have to fight it. He would help provide the tools, but they would have to provide their own guts. If the American Armed Forces could not beat the hordes of Red China in the field, then it made no difference how many new autos Detroit could produce.
Everywhere Matt Ridgway went, however, he found the same question in men's minds: What the hell are we doing in this godforsaken place?
If men had been told, Destroy the evil of Bolshevism, they might have understood. But they did not understand why the line must be held or why the Taehan Minkuk – that miserable, stinking, undemocratic country – must be protected.
The question itself never concerned Matt Ridgway. At the age of fifty-six, more than thirty years a centurion, to him the answer was simple. The loyalty he gave, and expected, precluded the slightest questioning of orders. This he said:
The real issues are whether the power of Western Civilization, as God has permitted it to flower in our own beloved lands, shall defy and defeat Communism; whether the rule of men who shoot their prisoners, enslave their citizens, and deride the dignity of man, shall displace the rule of those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred; whether we are to survive with God's hand to guide and lead us, or to perish in the dead existence of a Godless world.
Under General Ridgway's hammering, the Eighth Army took the offensive within thirty days. After 25 January it never really again lost the initiative. At Chipyong-ni, the battle that presaged what was to come all spring, it was the Chinese who melted away into the snow-draped hills, leaving their dead behind.
Under a new, firm hand, and with the taste of Chinese blood, the Eight Army found itself. Ridgway made legions.
The ranks were salted now with veterans, men wounded and returned to duty, and were led by men like Ridgway, Captain Munoz, and Lieutenant Long, who had been through the drill before, who had been from the Naktong to the Yalu, and had learned, as Americans had always had to learn, how to fight this new-old war.
They had learned the Chinese could be cunning, but also stupid. Failing to meet quick success, he could not change his plan. Often he continued an operation long after it had turned into disaster, wasting thousands of his troops. Lacking air cover, artillery, and armor, his hordes of riflemen could be—and were—slaughtered, as the Eighth Army learned to roll with the punches and to strike back hard.
Again and again, with the prodigal use of men, he could crack the U.N. line at a given point. But the men at the point had learned to hold, inflicting terrible losses, and even if the line gave, the Chinese could not exploit, while U.N. reinforcements, mechanized, rushed to deploy in front of them and to their flanks.
In the terrain of South Korea, battle was more open, and in open battle no amount of savage cunning could substitute for firepower. The Chinese could not even apply superior combat power to the 135-mile line. The truth, that a backward nation can never put as many well-armed men into the field and support them as can even a small- sized industrial country, became apparent. Chinese replacements, even with Russian aid, were often ill equipped and ill trained.
The press still reported human seas and overwhelming hordes, but except where they massed for a breakthrough, the Chinese remained apart and in moderate numbers on the line. Front-line soldiers began to joke: "Say, Joe, how many hordes are there in a Chink platoon?" Or, "We were attacked by two hordes last night. We killed both of them."
But the Chinese retained the will to fight.
The drive northward was not easy.
As many years earlier, when the cavalry fighting on the Plains had developed leaders such as Miles, Crook, and Ranald Mackenzie, men who rode hard, made cold camps, threw away their sabers, and moved without bugle calls, putting aside all the things they had learned in the War Between the States—but who had driven the Indians without surcease, hammering them across the snows and mountains until their women sickened and their infants died and they lost their heart for war, so the Army developed men who learned to fight in Asia.
Soldiers learned to travel light, but with full canteen and bandoleer, and to climb the endless hills. They learned to hold fast when the enemy flowed at them, because it was the safest thing to do. They learned to displace in good order when they had to. They learned to listen and obey. They learned all the things Americans have always learned from Appomattox to Berlin.
Above all, they learned to kill.
On the frontier, there is rarely gallantry or glamour to wars, whether they are against red Indians or Red Chinese. There is only killing.
Men of a tank battalion set spikes on the forward sponsons of their tanks, and to these affixed Chinese skulls. This battalion had come back from Kuni-ri, and the display matched their mood. They were ordered to remove the skulls, but the mood remained.
In Medic James Mount's company, there was a platoon sergeant named "Gypsy" Martin. Martin carried a full canteen and bandoleer, but he also wore a bandanna and earring, and he had tiny bells on his boots. Gypsy Martin hated Chinese; he hated gooks, and he didn't care who knew it.
In anything but war, Martin was the kind of man who is useless.
In combat, as the 24th Division drove north, men could hear Gypsy yell his hatred, as they heard his M-1 bark death. When Gypsy yelled, his men went forward; he was worth a dozen rational, decent men in those bloody valleys. His men followed him, to the death.
When Gypsy Martin finally bought it, they found him lying among a dozen "gooks," his rifle empty, its stock broken. Other than in battle, Sergeant Martin was no good. To Jim Mount's knowledge, he got no medals, for medals depend more on who writes for them than what was done.
It made Jim Mount think.
The values composing civilization and the values required to protect it are normally at war. Civilization values sophistication, but in an armed force sophistication is a millstone.
The Athenian commanders before Salamis, it is reported, talked of art and of the Acropolis, in sight of the Persian fleet. Beside their own campfires, the Greek hoplites chewed garlic and joked about girls.
Without its tough spearmen, Hellenic culture would have had nothing to give the world. It would not have lasted long enough. When Greek culture became so sophisticated that its common men would no longer fight to the death, as at Thermopylae, but became devious and clever, a horde of Roman farm boys overran them.
The time came when the descendants of Macedonians who had slaughtered Asians till they could no longer lift their arms went pale and sick at the sight of the havoc wrought by the Roman gladius Hispanicus as it carved its way toward Hellas.
The Eighth Army, put to the fire and blooded, rose from its own ashes in a killing mood. They went north, and as they went they destroyed Chinese and what was left of the towns and cities of Korea. They did not grow sick at the sight of blood.
By 7 March they stood on the Han. They went through Seoul, and reduced it block by block. When they were finished, the massive railway station had no roof, and thousands of buildings were pocked by tank fire. Of Seoul's original more than a million souls, less than two hundred thousand still lived in the ruins. In many of the lesser cities of Korea, built of wood and wattle, only the foundation, and the vault, of the old Japanese bank remained.
The people of Chosun, not Americans or Chinese, continued to lose the war.
At the end of March the Eighth Army was across the parallel.
General Ridgway wrote, "The American flag never flew over a prouder, tougher, more spirited and more competent fighting force than was Eighth Army as it drove north…"
Ridgway had no great interest in real estate. He did not strike for cities and towns, but to kill Chinese. The Eighth Army killed them, by the thousands, as its infantry drove them from the hills and as its air caught them fleeing in the valleys.
By April 1951, the Eighth Army had again proved Erwin Rommel's assertion that American troops knew less but learned faster than any fighting men he had opposed. The Chinese seemed not to learn at all, as they repeated Chipyong-ni again and again.
Americans had learned, and learned well. The tragedy of American arms, however, is that having an imperfect sense of history Americans sometimes forget as quickly as they learn.