Their War for Korea

Their War for KoreaTheir War for Korea: American, Asian, and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945-1953. By Allan R. Millet. Washington: Brassey's, 2002. 311 pages. $25.95

Allan R. Millett, a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel and history professor at Ohio State University, will be well known to many readers of Parameters. The author of a history of the Marine Corps and other historical and biographical works, he has collaborated with Williamson Murray in a series of detailed studies of military effectiveness and on a history of World War II. In recent years, he has focused on the Korean War, producing a number of valuable monographs on various aspects of the war and establishing an extensive network of colleagues and informants, including many Korean War veterans. It has long been expected that he will produce a comprehensive history of the war. Their War for Korea is not that comprehensive history, but a collection of personal reminiscences by those who fought in or were directly affected by the war. Millett provides commentary on each of these individual accounts, putting them in the larger context of the war. His goal is "to find [the] meaning of the Korean War through the experiences of individuals and small groups of people."

As the title suggests, Millett sees the period from 25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953 as only "the most violent phase" of a war that began much earlier and has not yet concluded. In a preface explaining his own background as a historian of the Korean War and setting the stage for the 46 vignettes that make up the book, Millett points out that the first three names on the South Korean memorial to those slain in the war are those of National Police who died in September 1945. But Millett argues that the beginning of the Korean War can be traced back even further, at least to the 1920s, when two separate and competing groups of Korean nationalists began struggling against the Japanese occupation of the peninsula and toward two very different conceptions of Korea's future. Both were firmly rooted in the long and rich Korean cultural tradition. One group, based on Marxism-Leninism, would eventually lead the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. The other, a heterogeneous group of Western-influenced modernizers, land owners, entrepreneurs, traditionalists, and a few who had accommodated themselves to the Japanese, would become the leadership of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. The division was intensified when the Soviet Union and the United States occupied North and South Korea in 1945. The Cold War has ended, but the north-south confrontation continues on the peninsula. As Millett demonstrates in one chapter focused on the truce talks and another entitled "The War Goes On for Some Koreans," the 1953 Korean Armistice terminated the conflict, but it did not resolve the underlying issues that caused the war.

Most of the stories in Their War for Korea, however, deal with the 1950-1953 "violent phase" of the war. Millett's approach is personal and informal. He recounts his meetings with the book's subjects and then presents their own accounts. In these pages, the reader will meet generals and foot soldiers, guerrilla fighters and pilots (American, North Korean, and Russian), statesmen and spies, refugees and war criminals, war profiteers and self-sacrificing heroes. Based as it is primarily on interviews with people known personally to Millett, the book's coverage is inevitably unbalanced. More than half of the stories are those of US veterans, 12 concern ROK soldiers and civilians, and six involve non-US United Nations Command (UNC) allies (from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United Kingdom). Only four chapters focus on the North Koreans, two on the Chinese, and one on the Russian pilots who flew combat missions over North Korea. Most of these accounts are based on Millett's personal interviews, but a few, including the chapters on General Peng Dehuai (commander of the Communist Chinese People's Volunteers Army [CPVA] in Korea), on the North Korean and CPVA soldiers, and on the Russian pilots, are based on memoirs and other sources. In the course of presenting these personal stories, Millett adds a substantial amount of historical information on almost every facet of the war. In addition to his long preface, he also provides a summary of the war, a guide to further reading, useful statistical information, a chronology, a glossary that includes many but not all of the acronyms, abbreviations, and non-English words that appear in the text, and a comprehensive index. The book has no maps, however, so those not familiar with Korean geography may find the frequent references to geographical locations puzzling.

Millett is a reliable guide and there are very few typographical or other errors in the book, although the chronology does contain one puzzling and misleading entry: "July 1844: treaty establishing commercial relations between Kingdom of Korea and United States signed." In fact, the treaty signed in 1844 was with China and, although there was some talk in the US Congress of attempting to negotiate a treaty with Korea in the same year, no action was taken and a US-Korea treaty was not signed until 1882. Millett also occasionally uses, without explanation, terms not found in the glossary. When he writes that a man who fought during the war as a teenage guerrilla "recalls his lost youth with considerable han," even a reader unfamiliar with the Korean language and culture might guess that Millett is describing a sense of regret, sadness, and anger. But that same reader may be mystified when told that a certain general felt like an outsider because he had married a kisaeng (an upscale woman entertainer).

These are not major problems. Those already familiar with Korean history and culture and with the Korean War will find this book to be a rich and fascinating feast, filled with intriguing sidelights on well-known personalities and events. Those without previous background on the war, although they may initially find its episodic character and the wealth of unfamiliar detail to be a challenge, will also be rewarded and enlightened.

Allan Millett succeeds in presenting the tragedy and complexity of the Korean War and powerfully demonstrates that for those who participated, and especially for Koreans, Their War for Korea was "total, uncompromising, and bitter. It brought unimaginable suffering to all the Korean people, which continues fifty years later."

Reviewed by Colonel Donald W. Boose, Jr., USA Ret., who teaches in the US Army War College Department of Distance Education. While on active duty he served with the Military Armistice Commission in Korea, and as Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Policy, US Forces, Japan.