The Korean War Was More Brutal Than We Remember

Gregory Peck in the film Pork Chop Hill. Public domain.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs…
— Bob Dylan, Masters of War

I was seven when the movie Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck was released. I probably saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies a year or two later. At the time, it seemed like a pretty good war movie. It was intense, had characters you could root for, and had heroes. I was too you, though to catch the real message of the film, that men are being asked to put their lives on the line for a meaningless objective.

There’s a sense in which the Korean War is something of a forgotten war. The objectives in World War II seemed clear. The Axis powers had to be stopped. The Korean war was a different kind of war, the beginning of a series of conflicts that had fuzzier rationales.

A column of the U.S. 1st Marine Division move through Chinese lines, Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Public domain.

At the end of World War II my father enlisted in the army and was sent first to the Philippines and then Korea. This was before the Korean conflict escalated to what it became several years later.

As I’ve been reading Don’t Know Much About History the past ten days or so, I just finished Ken Davis’s section on the Korean War. Last year I learned from Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s The Cold War’s Killing Fields that Korea was not some innocent escapade. Civilians suffered terribly in that conflict. It’s hard to believe that we almost used atomic bombs in that war. In an interview published posthumously General Douglas MacArthur recommended dropping between 30 and 50 atomic bombs on targets across Manchuria. One shudders to consider the implications of this.

While pulling together some research for this blog post I came across another blog post that tied to my thoughts here. The title of this November 15, 2019 story by Darien Cavanaugh is The Korean War Was So Brutal That America’s Most Hardened Soldiers Were Shaken.

U.S. howitzer division near Kum River. Public domain.

Cavanaugh wrote, “On a per-capita basis, the Korean War was one of the deadliest wars in modern history, especially for the civilian population of North Korea. The scale of the devastation shocked and disgusted the American military personnel who witnessed it, including some who had fought in the most horrific battles of World War II.”

It was Chamberlin’s book that brought my attention to what Cavanaugh went on to say.

“Several factors contributed to the high casualty ratios. The Korean Peninsula is densely populated. Rapidly shifting front lines often left civilians trapped in combat zones. Both sides committed numerous massacres and carried out mass executions of political prisoners. Modern aircraft carried out a vast bombing campaign, dropping massive loads of napalm along with standard bombs.” (emphasis mine)

The U.S. dropped 20% more bombs on North Korea than were dropped in the Pacific during the entire World War II. In addition we dropped over 32,000 tons of napalm, which has to be one of the most inhuman weapons ever conceived by humans.

B-29 Superfortress Bomber. over KoreaPublic domain.

By the war’s end North Korea lost ten percent of its population, chiefly due to this scorched earth bombing campaign.

But the worst of this conflict was what Paul Thomas Chamberlin draws attention to in his book, which is a devastating indictment of our post WWII behavior in the various theaters beginning with Korea. This is what we never heard about before, that we openly massacred civilians. Writes Cavanaugh:

It wasn’t until 1999 that the United States acknowledged-after a lengthy investigation by the Associated Press-that a 1950 letter from U.S. Ambassador John J. Muccio authorized commanders in the field to adopt a policy of openly massacring civilians.

It’s a sad indictment, especially since we claimed to be rescuing the rest of the world from the “real” bad guys.

Related Links

Interview with Paul Thomas Chamberlin , author of The Cold War’s Killing Fields
Our Military Industrial Complex

Photo of Gregory Peck, source: imdb.com
All other photos on page: GoodFreePhotos.com
If you’re a blogger looking for Free Historical Photos, here is a website you may wish to consider bookmarking:

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store