History may not repeat itself, as Mark Twain famously noted, but sometimes it rhymes.
Nervous eyes are now on China and North Korea. And this is where the rhyming comes in. We’ve been here before:
Almost seven decades ago, the UN – Canada included – got embroiled in a war on the Korean peninsula against a peanut little tyranny … something that started out as small and containable; but somehow musroomed into a furious firestorm that became a far bloodier mess than Vietnam 15 years later.
American-led UN forces fought to protect South Korea against an invasion from the North, and then from the Chinese. But initially our troops were almost pushed into the sea.
No one had taken the North Korean army seriously. And everyone underestimated China’s determination not to let North Korea go under.
Two main factors seem to account for the near-debacle: A) Bad intelligence about what the Chinese were likely to do; and B) Unforgivable over-confidence of what we were able to do.
General Douglas MacArthur was the brilliant and insufferably arrogant supreme commander of all UN forces. “There is no substitute for victory,” was his mantra.
At Inchon he masterminded a stunning counter-attack that stopped the North Koreans cold, and then pushed on up to the border with China. He ignored Intelligence that Chinese forces were beginning to appear. This, despite hints the Chinese were dropping via Indian diplomats that they at some point would react with a fury if they felt they were about to be invaded.
And in the hubris department: No one in the American high command believed the Chinese and North Koreans could field highly-motivated, tough combat troops seasoned by years of fighting the Japanese. MacArthur was replaced, and UN forces held on and fought the war to a tie, preserving an independent South Korea. But it was very close.
This is where history’s rhymes start to kick in. It would be foolish today to let our contempt for North Korea’s clown-like leader morph into misplaced contempt for the toughness of his army.
And it would be unwise not to anticipate China’s violent response if North Korea was de-stabilized, or attacked.
This is no time for the impusive new Trump team in Washington with a reputation for not thinking things through, to rashly launch some new military initiative in Asia. In the past, this has ended badly, when no one asked: “Now what?” This requires reflection and calculation, not rashness.
General MacArthur’s arrogance ruined his career. He was eventually fired by President Truman. But he was ironically a thoughful warrior, with a deep sense of history.
After Korea, in his twilight years, the old soldier warned Lyndon Johnson about Viet Nam: “Anyone who gets involved in a land war in Asia should have his head examined.”
General, your nation needs you now.