Archive | April, 2010

Thoughts of War

26 Apr

If North Korea was going to strike a blow against its neighbor, there might be no better time than now.  Kim Jong Il is in failing health and what would be a better symbol than to attack on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War?  The sinking of the Cheonan might have been a test by North Korea of both the South Korean military’s preparedness as well as the martial inclinations of the South Koreans.   I, for one, will be glad that I will be out of the country on June 25, the sixtieth anniversary day.  Thinking about all of Seoul fleeing south as artillery, bombs, and perhaps (no, probably) chemical weapons crash down into this urban conglomeration is a chilling thought.  Many older Koreans remember the war; I’m sure that repeating it again, with even more disastrous consequences, is something that they hope never happens.

A war in Korea would seem to most like a terrible distraction from our current military efforts abroad, a conflict we cannot afford in terms of both blood and treasure.  Why is our military here? many ask.  The Koreans are not poor peasants any more, they are a successful, prosperous nation.  Can’t they protect themselves?

I think that to look at Korea is a good way to measure our current efforts other places in the world.  America’s role in Korea has not been one of calculated strategy or politics, nor stemmed from an shared past or affinity in ideas.  It has resembled more of making the best of a bad situation from the very beginning.  Our occupation and protection of Korea was our first major experience in facing a limited war with few recourses for a solution.  Certainly the Indian Wars, the Moro Rebellion, and forays by the Marines into Central America during the 1910-1920s were examples of limited wars, but none had the same sort of dire implications for the international order like the Korean crisis did.

Many who looked at Korea back then could have pointed to the negative aspects of the country to justify abandoning it, much in the same way that many advocate abandoning Afghanistan now.  Korea was poor, rural, perhaps even feudal.  It had no great inclination toward commerce or industry; its mindset was traditional and Confucian.  The Hermit Kingdom was happy to do things as it saw fit, without regard for others expectations.  A noble attribute indeed, but one which did little to convince others of its worthiness to deserve an investment of precious lives, resources, and political capital.

Yet if one looks at Korea today, it is easy to see the positive attributes that Koreans possess that made the country successful: an immense capacity for hard work, beyond the comprehension of most Westerners; a focus on success within the framework of society instead of reorganizing everything through violent revolution; an obligation to one’s family, friends, and, to a lesser extent, nation, in one’s efforts to succeed; an appreciation of material progress, something strange for a Buddhist land.  These attributes seem obvious now but perhaps were discounted as irrelevant sixty years ago.

The conundrums of Afghanistan are similar to Korea.  Not that the countries are similar in many ways.  Korea is small and dense, with fertile land and a sea on three sides, while Afghanistan is much larger and disconnected, with a much more varied and harsh environment.   Koreans shares a culture, language, and race with virtually no exceptions, while Afghanis are a much larger patchwork.  Korean culture emphasizes devotion to society, authority, and one’s place in serving them; Afghanistan is much more independent and tribal in its loyalties.  The two are hardly comparable.  But the point is that our experience in Afghanistan may be understood within the context of our own in Korea.  We entered neither by choice and found ourselves questioning our intentions and strategy.  Just as we are confounded by corrupt Afghani officials, so too was the U.S. Army dismayed at Korean police who executed dissidents during the war.  And just as the Taliban flee to safety in Pakistani tribal areas, so too did North Korean and Chinese units retreat beyond the Yalu to rest and refit.  Korea was an ugly war with little glory and a hardly acceptable end, and the same might be said for Afghanistan.  Yet we know from Korea that some good may come of it all.

This is not to say that we will succeed in Afghanistan, nor that we will fail.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of how we understand what limited information we possess.  Just as we could not have expected that certain aspects of Korea would have turned into strengths rather than weaknesses, to say that Afghanistan is doomed because of such-and-such a trait is to expect too much of our own foresight.

Yet if there is one thing that we should apply to Afghanistan from our experience in Korea, it is that if a troubled, torn country is to have any hope of becoming a peaceful, successful participant in the world, it must be guarded for an extended period of time and require a long investment of national will and resources.  America is still in Korea and, although its land forces are dwarfed in numbers by the North Korean army, its naval, air, and even nuclear power provides a serious deterrent to those north of the DMZ.  To leave would mean disaster for Korea.  The last time we thought it was safe and left, in 1948, we found ourselves returning two years later to repulse an invasion at great cost to both soldiers and civilians alike.  But leaving is precisely what we are doing in Afghanistan.  President Obama has said that we are leaving Afghanistan beginning in 2011.  We will create conditions suitable for our withdrawal and then never return.

But we do not get to choose the situation.  We do not choose history, it chooses us.  Just as we could not avoid being drawn into a conflict in Korea without compromising our own national security, dependent on the strategy of containment, we cannot expect that we will remain out of Afghanistan so long as there is a threat from Islamic extremism.  Korea was a pawn in the hands of greater powers, for better or worse, just as Afghanistan is enmeshed between Iran and Pakistan.  If we leave Afghanistan, we will go back, only when the situation gets bloody and desperate.  This is not to say that staying in Afghanistan is a good thing or will even accomplish a successful end.  But we must understand that simply leaving for good is not an option.

Korea is a strange place to me and I confess to not understanding and judging it harshly many times.  But when I look past the idiosyncrasies to the heart of the people, I see something worth protecting.  They are hard workers, patriots, entrepreneurs, and family people, imbued with a positive attitude about their own future.  That is what we should be asking ourselves about Afghanistan.  Are Afghanis worth protecting?  Can they be good people and contribute something worthwhile to this world?  If so, then I think we all know what we must do.