A kaleidoscopic view of Korea’s brutal war

Book details military, political, sociological and ongoing global impact of a ‘forgotten war’

A pair of bound hands and a breathing hole in the snow at Yangji, Korea, on January 27th, 1951 reveal the presence of the body of a Korean civilian shot and left to die by retreating communists during the Korean War. Photograph: AP Photo/Max Desfor

A pair of bound hands and a breathing hole in the snow at Yangji, Korea, on January 27th, 1951 reveal the presence of the body of a Korean civilian shot and left to die by retreating communists during the Korean War. Photograph: AP Photo/Max Desfor

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 06:00


Book Title:
Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea


Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Profile Books

Guideline Price:

Sheila Miyoshi Jager, an associate professor and director of the East Asian Studied Program at Oberlin, Ohio, provides us with a fresh look at the Korean War. Where other historians have given us dry military or political accounts of the war, Jager provides a more kaleidoscopic view. Unfortunately, the dazzling, complex array of images that result are of appalling human suffering – principally among civilians.

One of her previous books, Ruptured Histories: War, Memory and the Post-Cold War in Asia , deals with the disruption and fragmentation of our collective memory of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Her current offering extends and amplifies that theme, exploring in great detail, the military, political, sociological and ongoing global impact of the Korean War. In doing so, she resuscitates the memory of this so-called “forgotten war” and reinvigorates our understanding of its particular global impact and relevance for 21st-century Asia.

Jager opens her account by describing the tragic irony faced by the Korean people in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender in 1945. Gen Douglas MacArthur’s policy of “enlightened” occupation within Japan contrasted sharply with the cynical treatment of the Korean people after “liberation” by the Allies from 35 years of savage Japanese occupation. While the thoroughly defeated Japanese were treated as “newly liberated friends of America”, the Koreans were subject to a four-power allied occupation. And worse still, the Allies – under American direction – retained thousands of Japanese governors, police and military chiefs to oversee the Korean people. Needless to say, the Koreans did not feel “liberated”.

Jager’s book charts the manner in which Korea rapidly became a fulcrum around which Sino-Soviet, Soviet-American and Sino-American relations developed through the early years of the Cold War. Tensions within Korea, fomented by Mao and Stalin in equal measure, created an opportunity for North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, a former captain in the Soviet military, to seek to invade south Korea and thus unify the country.

Jager chronicles the various meetings between the ambitious Kim Il Sung, a paranoid Stalin and a wily Chairman Mao – each, in his own way, anxious to become the new face of “dynamic, aggressive communism”. As all three parties danced around the precise formula for an invasion of South Korea, they greatly underestimated President Truman’s resolve to meet communist expansion in Asia and elsewhere, “head on”.

After weeks and months and years of provocative rhetoric, North Korean military manoeuvres and low-level skirmishes, Kim finally launched his attack into South Korea on June 25th, 1950. US reaction was swift. By June 27th, Truman had a UN Security Council resolution in place to respond to the invasion. By June 30th, the US 24th Infantry Division and the US 8th Army were committed to the Korean Peninsula. The rest, as they say, is military history.

Brothers at War does the military history part of the story in some detail. Fans of military history will be enthralled by the detailed character descriptions of military leaders such as Kim Il Sung, GenMacArthur and Gen Ridgeway given by Jager. As an historian, Jager was given unrestricted access to the US Army War College oral histories of the war given contemporaneously by US personnel serving under their generals in Korea. From this, we get a full and florid account of the various military commanders’ idiosyncrasies, petty jealousies and rivalries, many of which cost thousands of lives on the battlefield.

Jager also had unprecedented access to the oral histories given by ordinary Koreans to South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this way, we get to hear of the suffering of ordinary Koreans, men, women and children, who were the primary victims of the set-piece battles of the Korean war.

Through both archives, the reader also learns of the unusually prominent role played by Irish soldiers in these actions. In addition to Irish soldiers – serving in the US and British armies in Korea – there is also mention in the book of several Irish and Irish-American priests who tried to prevent atrocities on all sides in the war. Many Catholic priests and nuns were tortured and executed out of hand for raising these issues with the North Koreans in particular. The oral histories are at their most powerful when they outline the suffering of the civilian population in the war. In one harrowing passage, US troops describe a two-year-old girl sobbing uncontrollably next to her dead mother at the side of the road as thousands of refugees stream past – unwilling or unable to pick up the tiny girl. Her cries only subside when she freezes to death at the side of the road next to her mother.

Other testimonies, such as those given by British soldiers in the Northumberland Fusiliers and Royal Ulster Rifles, describe their disgust at seeing the mass execution of young Korean boys and girls, by both sides. One soldier said, “I did not care to see the kiddies getting shot”.

The targeting of the civilian population in this way is acknowledged in Jager’s book by one US officer who states, “We now accept civilian destruction as an object of war, not a consequence”. This concept of total war became the blueprint for US actions in Vietnam.

One of the surprising elements to emerge from Jager’s book – especially for Irish audiences – is the manner in which president John F Kennedy militarised America and vigorously pursued the sequel to Korea and the war in Vietnam. According to Jager’s book, Vietnam was to all intents and purposes a proxy war fought between JFK and Mao which costs the lives of countless hundreds of thousands. Fans of JFK might argue that the wars in Vietnam and Korea marked the “high water mark” of Communist aggression in Asia and were therefore unavoidable conflicts.

Jager’s book is published at an interesting juncture in realignment of power within the Asia Pacific region. The US has shifted its attention once more to the Pacific region. It has built permanent bases in Australia and is reinforcing the South Korean military. The tri-polar power game for Asia’s resources which began in 1945 is in full swing once more. In this instance, the Russians, the Chinese and the US are once again focussed on North Korea’s dynastic and catastrophic leadership. As the US courts its powerful Asian allies, Japan and Australia, old foes and allies may yet face each other again in a new 21st-century alignment in the struggle for Asia’s priceless resources.

Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish Times security analyst. He is a retired army officer with experience in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. He is the author of Blood, Sweat and Tears , a memoir of military service, murder and mayhem in Lebanon. His second book, Teacher, Soldier, Spy came out last October.