It was, of course, much more than that. It was America's first limited war in support of policy. There was no odor of crusade about it. Except for the brief, shining moment in the euphoria following the stunning success of the amphibious end run at Inchon, the men of the Truman Administration never lost sight of the policy goal as they had defined it.
That was the first crucial lesson learned in the bloody wastelands of Korea. In a limited war fought in support of a clearly defined policy, the aim of the war, the better state of peace, is the attainment of the policy goal. In the case of Korea the policy was containment. The better state of peace was showing the Communist Bloc it could not violate that policy without meeting firm, prolonged and fierce resistance.
The second lesson from the Korean War has been mentioned many times by the Geek in previous posts. The minimum definition of victory in a limited war in support of policy is "not-losing." In Korea it was not necessary--or, as events proved, possible--to achieve an absolute victory including the surrender of the North and the reunification of Korea under the South. At the opposite extreme, the military defeat of the US brokered "UN" coalition would have destroyed the policy of containment and fatally undercut the diplomatic credibility of the US.
As a result, the US discovered the "third option," that of "not-losing." De facto that became the definition of victory in Iraq with results that might not be entirely satisfying to the neocons and others who were behind the war at the giddy-up, but have been quite satisfactory to the Iraqis and overall, to the US position globally.
There is yet another lesson which must be taken from the Korean paradigm. It is a lesson which is immediately applicable with respect to our current diplomatic imbroglios with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. It is also quite applicable along with the first two "lessons-learned" in the war underway in Afghanistan.
But, first, take a look at the advice of a master realist.
A diplomat's words must have no relation to actions--otherwise what sort of diplomacy is it? Words are one thing, actions another. Good words are a concealment of bad deeds. Sincere diplomacy is no more possible than dry water or steel wood.So said Joseph Stalin. Admittedly "Uncle Joe" was a man of many unpleasant habits. But, no person ever accused him of not having an accurate, cynical and above all, realistic understanding of the games nations played.
Americans and others, particularly Western Europeans of the post-World War II era, may not rush to agree with Stalin's view. However, there are many others in the world who do--even if they have never read the Collected Thoughts of the Great Teacher.
The US ran into the practical implications of Stalin's approach to diplomacy during the two years of negotiations which ultimately resulted in the cease-fire ending active combat in Korea (sort of, maybe, at least some of the time.) We found out the hard way that negotiations were the continuation of combat by other means. We also learned the hard way that without the pressure of combat--even bloody contests of King of the Hill waged on meaningless terrain features which gained at least transient fame such as Pork Chop Hill, Bloody Nose, Heartbreak Ridge--the war ending negotiations went nowhere--slowly.
Seemingly driven by some sort of institutional amnesia, the US relearned the same principles of Diplomacy According To Uncle Joe during the seemingly endless Paris Peace Talks. It's instructive to recall that more men died after the talks started than did before the diplomats started flapping their gums.
The interlocutors sitting across from the Americans at Panmunjom and Paris were Communists. That ideological label is far less important than the underlying reality. They and the governments they represented were True Believers.
True Belief is the critical fact. The power of the Belief is far more important than its ideological structure. True Belief describes a worldview, an existential stance. True Belief leaves no room for the nuances of compromise which constitutes the essential core of non-Stalinesque diplomacy--the sincere diplomacy which the Master of the Kremlin believed did not--could not--exist.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry speaking in South Korea the other day allowed that it "appeared that the more we talked, the more intransigent the North Koreans became." He is right on the appearance. The appearance is the reality.
The reason? You ask.
The Men of the Hermit Kingdom of the North are not simply fossils of the Stalin era, they are True Believers in the right and destiny of North Korea to dominate the peninsula by whatsoever means might be necessary. To them as to their progenitors during the Korean War, talking is the extension of combat by other means. As the US found out on the killing hills of Korea, any sign of weakness, no matter how transitory, gives aid and comfort to the True Believers of the other side.
Iran is not communist. But, the Iranian regime is comprised of True Believers. The Belief is not simply nor solely in Shia Islam, even though that may be the larger part. The rest of the Belief is in Iranian nationhood and with it a presumed natural Iranian right to hegemony over the Persian Gulf and Northwest Asian region.
To achieve that end, the possession of nuclear weapons is not simply desirable, it is necessary. To pursue the goal of hegemony, to acquire the nuclear threat, requires that "good words hide bad actions." Considering that Islam, particularly the Islam of Shia, approves of lying in protection of the Believers and the Belief, the Stalin Formulation has great applicability.
Susan Rice, our new ambassador to the UN, said yesterday on NPR that the US "might" directly engage the Iranians in order to dissuade them from pursuing nuclear weapons. There is no inherent harm in that. Provided, and this is a major provision, the US recognises the lessons of the Korean War negotiations as a model. And, provided that we acknowledge the saliency for Tehran of the Stalin approach to diplomacy.
The Islamists of Pakistan who, along with their supporters and sympathizers in the government and military, are also True Believers. They also mix Islam with nationalism and the ambitions of hegemony which this mix so facilely propels. Our relations with Pakistan on a practical level are going to be conducted under the shadow of Stalin, in the orbit of his understanding of diplomacy.
With the Pakistanis as with the North Koreans and the Iranians, diplomacy in any form is always combat without bloodshed. Any slackening, any compromise, any hesitation, any uncertainty as to our policy goals and our definitions of success will be taken by the other side as an indication of weakening will and lost ability. Any metaphorical hill left without both strong defense and instant counterattack will be seen as defeat for us and victory for the other side.
There is one final critical lesson to be derived from the Korean War which is all too easily overlooked. During the course of the war the Chinese Army became progressively more capable, progressively better by all objective measurements. The myriads of lives lost by members of the Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) did not buy Beijing a military victory.
The CCF hectatombs bought China something far more important. Far more long lasting. It bought the Beijing regime international authority and internal self-confidence. Ultimately these were so strong and so durable that they were not erased by the monumental errors of Beijing--the Great Leap Forward, the Famine and the Cultural Revolution to mention a few. The dead bodies littering the landscape clothed in quilted uniforms and tennis shoes made the Peoples Republic of China what it is today. A Great Power.
Wars tend to improve the fighting capacities of those who fight them. This is particularly true of fighters who have no tours of duty, no guaranteed end of tour, no date of return to a faraway country. This implies what has already been observed in Afghanistan--and Pakistan. Under pressure, Taliban and other jihadists have gotten better.
The same has been observed in 2006 in Lebanon with the fighters of Hezbollah.
The experience of the CCF in Korea meshes with what we have seen in more recent wars. The lesson is simple but hard to put into practice. Win, lose or (as in Korea) draw, the major beneficiaries of the war may well be the enemy. And, the enemy may never change his nature no matter how much his tactics might alter.
Had the planners and executors of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq taken a good, hard look at the "Forgotten War," it is highly probable that our approach and methods would have been far different. Far less likely to carry the negative effects extant today and extending into the future.
Now the challenge before the Obama Administration is either to study history or try--perhaps with awful consequences--to relearn the truth of the Stalin Formulation. It may not be nice, it certainly isn't pleasant, but the reality is that for our major diplomatic opponents today and in the near-term, diplomacy is unarmed combat.