Forget the Vietnam analogies. Korea's a better parallel.
By Robert Killebrew
Sunday, April 9, 2006; B03
Standing in the center of bustling Seoul last Thanksgiving, I found it hard to believe that 53 years ago the city was a pile of rubble, the ruined capital of a ruined country. The full scope of the Korean War is forgotten by many today, eclipsed by memories of Vietnam. But at this time of war and occupation in Iraq, South Korea's story is worth remembering as a case of American nation-building that worked.
To many in 1953, South Korea was an unlikely winner of the savage civil war that had ranged up and down the Korean peninsula for three years. More than a million South Koreans died, and the survivors were reduced to aimless crowds of refugees.
Among the wrenching photographs of the conflict, two have always stayed in my mind: The first is of bewildered families in traditional loose robes, their meager belongings on their backs, watching American tanks grind by in dusty columns. The second is of the Seoul train station, shattered and pockmarked by the fighting that raged over the city as it changed hands four times. Today the rebuilt station still stands downtown, dwarfed by towering glass and concrete skyscrapers in this prosperous city of about 10 million.
There are, of course, many dissimilarities between the Korea of 1953 and the Iraq of 2006; history repeats itself only in outline, not in detail. But the similarities are also striking. Both countries endured a long prewar period of oppression that retarded their political maturation -- Japanese occupation in one instance, homegrown tyranny in another. In neither case had the population ever known self-government. Both newly hatched governments had, and are having, to master new arts of politics, build an army and all the infrastructure of modern governance under fire and face protracted campaigns against implacable foes. There were those in the West in 1953 who doubted that Asians brought into the modern world only recently could master democracy and free-market economies. A half-century later, we hear echoes of this regarding Middle Eastern people.
Certainly South Korea's emergence wasn't easy; it wasn't until 1992 that a truly democratic government was voted in. Meanwhile, though, the country had become a modern state in every other sense, and its progress today would have been almost unimaginable to Westerners in 1953. Iraq, with its comparatively enormous advantages -- above all, its oil wealth -- may well make comparable or even better progress.
The essential ingredient, of course, has been American steadfastness. The role of the United States and its allies in the liberation and development of South Korea is a story so taken for granted that it is sometimes forgotten at home. More than 54,000 U.S. troops died in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and millions more have since served alongside South Korean soldiers guarding the icy demilitarized zone. Great Britain, France, Turkey and other allies served with us under a United Nations mandate during the war. An American military garrison remains in the heart of Seoul, where a bullet-scarred wall is preserved as a memory of the war. After three years of combat, allied and South Korean forces fought the Chinese and North Korean armies to a standstill and then faced a long and tense standoff. Billions of dollars were spent. Behind the armies, modern South Korea emerged.
Because Americans are famously impatient, we sometimes fail to give ourselves credit for the stick-to-itiveness that it takes to do great things. But in hindsight, all of our greatest accomplishments have taken more time than we realized at the start. American democracy took two centuries to reach universal suffrage. Defeating communism took decades and a number of wars -- including the one in Korea.
Even during our periodic political upheavals, when one pack of rascals is thrown out and another takes its place, the direction of American purpose in the past 50 years has been generally progressive. The Truman administration set itself the task of containing the Soviet Union; successive administrations followed the same line, though from time to time they all had differences of opinion on specific strategies. In the end, what has counted most has been consistency, not the lower-level disagreements and eruptions of the day.
In the case of the Korean War, which had its share of blunders, U.S. public opinion mirrored that on today's Iraq by supporting the war initially, drawing the line after three years of warfare but then supporting the protection of South Korea for 50 years, even to the extent of off-again, on-again fighting along the DMZ that occasionally took American lives.
The war in Iraq has certainly seen its share of blunders, too.
Though the fighting forces did all they were told to do, the American invasion was incompletely planned and incompetently directed. Just as in the Korean War, initial success was followed by unforeseen setbacks. But -- again, like Korea -- our tactics are changing. In that marvelously American way of learning from our mistakes, U.S. commanders are re-learning counterinsurgency skills that were second nature in the Vietnam War era. Expert advisers are fighting alongside their Iraqi allies. Although support from other parts of the U.S. government is not yet at the levels needed, it is growing. After three years, the U.S. strategy for Iraq is beginning to emerge, much as our final objectives in Korea emerged slowly, and only after Chinese intervention made the original aims impractical.
Both wars became, or have become, vital to American interests, bearing out the Duke of Wellington's comment that "great nations do not have small wars." Truman immediately saw the North Korean invasion of South Korea as a sinister attempt by Joseph Stalin to turn the West's flank, and the war was generally accepted as the price of containing communist expansion. Truman led a nation that, though war-weary, had been through the crucible of World War II and accepted presidential leadership beyond the water's edge. There was some grumbling about the compromise that stopped the fighting, but its terms permitted the rise of an independent and ultimately democratic Asian country that would be a vital ally of the United States.
In 2006, President Bush leads a much more skeptical, more networked nation that, though enraged by the events of 9/11, is less inclined to obey than in 1950. The administration's record of unifying the country and of justifying the war is questionable, to put it charitably, but lost in the dither over missing weapons of mass destruction and terrorist links is the recognition of the chance to midwife the birth of a reasonably democratic and secular nation embedded in the Middle East.
In fact, there is no other good option for the United States. An Iraq in anarchy would destabilize this vital region, put control of the world's oil supplies within reach of radical Islamists and possibly involve the United States in a wider war under less advantageous circumstances. Few would have thought in the summer of 1950, or even after the armistice in 1953, that American troops would still be on the Korean peninsula in 2006, and it is doubtful that any American president or presidential candidate would have campaigned on that plank in 1952 or 1956. Likewise, no candidate seeking national office will say, this year or next, that U.S. troops will be needed in some capacity to support the Iraqi government in 2010, 2020 or beyond. But that is likely the price that must be paid for Iraq to survive as a modern state.
Americans also famously want to see some return on investment, and our return for improving the lot of the Iraqi people will eventually be a more stable Middle East, rising in a decade or so out of the sink of the present self-destructive radicalism. A young Iraqi man may someday turn to an American visiting Baghdad and say, as a young Korean man in Seoul said to me, "When you get home and meet a veteran of the war here, tell them we remember what they did for us. We will never forget."
Robert Killebrew is a retired Army infantry colonel who writes and speaks frequently on defense and national security issues.