Korea and the Theory of Limited War

Korea and the Theory of Limited War

Korea and the Theory of Limited War

Korea and the Theory of Limited War

Excerpt

The language of military strategy seems very abstract when compared to televised images of napalm-struck villages in flames and wounded men whose life's blood spurts away from shrapnel- severed arteries. Nonetheless, the abstract language is necessary. Without it, neither the Korean War of 1950-1953 nor the present war in Vietnam nor any other war is comprehensible.

We are all aware of the rapid development of modern weaponry; we all have some notion of the implications of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads. But the current revolution in military thought is less widely understood. While experts in the Pentagon or the RAND corporation now discuss a broad spectrum of carefully calculated responses to crises, most Americans continue to think in terms of one end of the spectrum -- total war. Too many Americans continue to imagine conflicts clearly won by the victorious and humbly acknowledged by the vanquished. Meanwhile, the strategists have gone back to the eighteenth century for the study of limited war, and to the early nineteenth century for the concepts of the military thinker Karl von Clausewitz. Theorists of limited war assume -- to simplify a good deal -- that military action is always in response to some political need and that the political implications of military action must always be considered.

Disagreement about the validity of the theory of limited war, and about its application in the Korean War, brought the United States to the most severe crisis in civil-military relations in its entire history. It was over the limitation of the war that President Truman and General MacArthur came to disagree so violently that the former felt impelled to charge the latter with insubordination and to relieve him from his command. In the political turmoil that ensued, supporters of General MacArthur condemned President Truman in language usually reserved for men convicted of treason. No one who was alive then mistook the seriousness of the controversy. What has only recently begun to emerge, however, is the significance of the tumultuous partisan struggle.

The readings which follow are an attempt to clarify the significance of the Korean War as a case-study in civilmilitary relations and in limited warfare. The readings are divided into three main sections. The first is a series of basic documents supplemented with editorial notes to provide continuity. The documents and the notes together are a skeleton history of the Korean War from its inception until the conclusion of the Congressional investigation that followed MacArthur's dismissal. Studying these documents and notes, one can encounter the questions that troubled the original participants. What were the capabilities and intentions of the North Koreans, and what could the U.N. forces do to carry out their mission? What exactly was that mission? Would the Chinese enter the war and, if they did, were the soldiers of MacArthur's command ready for them? How far should a field commander be allowed to go in . . .

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