Theme: “Dangers of the 21st Century”
Recently the mass media have decided to start commemorating the Korean War. Whenever the subject is mentioned we are told what an ‘obscure’ conflict it was. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may be that due to neglect by the mass media and the entertainment industry it is a conflict poorly remembered by current generations, but it was never obscure. At the time it happened the Korean War was an enormous international crisis which nearly ended in nuclear war against China. There are good reasons why some wish to forget this most enormous, desperate and bloody struggle and its lessons, for there are grave warnings for the present with regards to the pursuit of foreign policy through military power.
Much has been written on the causes of this conflict and the guilt of one or other parties in its outbreak. While it is clear that politicians both in the pro-western south and communist north dreamed of uniting the whole nation under their own respective regimes, the nearly successful military campaign to drive US forces from the peninsula would have required long and massive preparations by the communist north. There must have been prolonged premeditation of the communist attack on the south.
Of more interest to me are the lessons of the dangers of such conflicts. In particular how recklessness in the pursuit of foreign policy goals can lead to disaster. Following the rout of US forces in southern Korea and their bottling up within the crowded confines of the ‘Pusan Perimeter’, MacArthur’s bold amphibious landing at Inchon left the communists facing being cut off in the rear from their supplies and land lines of communications. The resulting wave of victories for US forces under the United Nations banner led naturally in the mind of a general like MacArthur to the goal of ‘liberating’ the whole Korean nation by rolling communism back to the border with China at the Yalu river.
It was the failure to heed the signs that China regarded having powerful US military forces on its border with Korea as a threat to its national security which led to this reckless gamble in marching to the Yalu. It was a gamble which did not pay off. This gross miscalculation lead to a massive intervention by Chinese forces which simply swamped the UN forces, driving them back towards he thirty eighth parallel. The result was massive blood bath after massive blood bath. The human cost to both sides seems unconscionable today.
What most people are unaware of is just how close the US came to a large scale nuclear attack on China in the spring of 1953. As the UN forces fell back they eventually managed to stabilise a defensive line across the peninsula. The Chinese attack was blunted, and major changes in the positions of opposing forces ceased to occur. The fact is that if the Chinese government had decided to use its full strength to drive US and allied forces off the Korean peninsula the US was fully ready to launch a massive nuclear attack, initially against Chinese air force bases in Manchuria. It was only the decision of the Chinese to cut their losses, and settle for an indefinite partition of the Korean nation that prevented a nuclear war. A further miscalculation by either party at that moment could have led to disaster.
Fearing that MacArthur was too insubordinate and unreliable to be left in charge of a nuclear arsenal, he was removed from his command and replaced by a more ‘obedient’ or reliable general, Matthew Ridgeway. Later MacArthur gave his own view of how to solve the Korean military problem. A string of atom bombs should be detonated from one coast of the Korean peninsula to the other. This would create an impassable zone of radioactive death which would ‘forever’ exclude the communists from at least part of Korea.
What would the condition of the Korean people be today if MacArthur had carried out his brilliant plan? Generations poisoned by nuclear fall out, babies born mutated and deformed, soil, water and air contaminated for centuries with toxic and radioactive elements. What such a plan reveals is that in the mind of a general like MacArthur the Korean conflict was always just a power struggle between the US and ‘Communism’. It was just a test of wills and determination of the great powers. The wellbeing of the Korean people, ostensibly the main reason for the commitment of such massive expense by the US nation, was not in fact a concern to the military officer in charge of operations.
What is there to learn of significance to the near future? Since the end of the ‘Cold War’ the increasing readiness of NATO powers to resort to the use of military force in the pursuit of their foreign policy goals means there are serious dangers lurking ahead of us. The use of military force by ‘responsible’, ‘legitimate’ world powers, once decried as a last resort in the event of a life and death struggle against communism, has been rehabilitated. Once again as in times of old, military force has become just another tool to get what you want in the world. The grave dangers that always accompany its use have been forgotten by a young, inexperienced generation of politicians.
For example since the final conquest of Iraq in 2003, a number of powerful actors on both sides of the Atlantic have toyed with the idea of going to war with Iran. If NATO were ever to resort in the case of Iran to the actions it took against Iraq in 2003, the consequences could be graver than is commonly recognised.
The military strength of Iran is often exaggerated for a variety of political reasons, not least by the Iranian government itself. An invasion of Iran of the sort we saw in Iraq, would no doubt be successful within little more than a month. The danger comes not from Iran’s ability to fight back but from the reactions of other more powerful countries.
An occupation of Iran by NATO powers would mean the ability to project military power throughout the Caspian basin, a region which has already seen friction and competition over energy resources. Military power projection across the Caspian Sea means power projection deep inside Russia’s vulnerable south. An invasion of Iran by NATO would be a most serious threat to Russian national security. If you invade Iran you are also invading Russia.
For these reasons any approach of conflict between NATO powers and Iran has a high risk of triggering Russian intervention in support of Iran, or even a counter-invasion to seize the northern parts of Iran and deny NATO military access to the Caspian Sea.
Beyond this, if Russia did decide to intervene in Iran, China would have to make a choice; either to keep out of the conflict or to throw in its lot with Russia. Two moderately strong powers feeling threatened by a stronger power than either of them, may unite to achieve a balance of power with the common superior enemy. China’s decision may well depend on how threatened it feels by the new found enthusiasm for the use of military power by NATO countries. This, itself will be a product of US military and foreign policy in the Western Pacific, a policy which at the moment I would describe as “poking China with a stick”.