March 26, 2014
William Goldman’s fantasy tale The Princess Bride made famous the saying “never get involved in a land war in Asia” (it was purportedly advice General Douglas MacArthur gave to President John F. Kennedy regarding Vietnam). But historically the costs of a land war in Europe have been even more horrifying, which is why it’s important to comprehend the various psychological processes that have been driving us toward World War G.
One force is the general tendency of triumphalist powers to press onward until they’ve backed their rivals into a corner. It’s hard for winners to declare victory and go home. It’s more fun to keep the game going, even if the conceivable gains are rapidly diminishing.
In domestic politics, for instance, the National Rifle Administration followed up its heroic 1990s triumphs defending basic Second Amendment rights with a series of extravagant legislative initiatives in part intended to provoke a liberal backlash to keep the NRA relevant.
Similarly, the gay-rights movement, fearing the boredom of victory, has extended its demands for domestic privilege to ever-tinier minorities such as individuals who demand public approval for having their genitals mutilated (World War T). Internationally, homosexual activists such as Masha Gessen, the US government’s former head of propaganda in Russia, and Jamie Kirchick have gone looking to pick a fight with Russia (World War G).
Thus we’ve seen emerge a bizarre alliance of homosexual radicals, banksters, media figures, and old Cold Warriors united by the impulse to bait the ominous Russian bear. For example, the Obama Administration’s ambassador to Russia from 2011 to 2014, Michael A. McFaul, wrote in The New York Times over the weekend in “Confronting Putin’s Russia”:
This new era crept up on us, because we did not fully win the Cold War.
Actually, in 1989-1991 we did win the Cold War, as fully as I, at least, could ever have dreamed: East Berlin, Prague, Warsaw…but Donetsk?
But America’s remarkable triumph in the Cold War wasn’t, apparently, good enough.
Among the more vivid examples of pushing too hard in foreign affairs are the events of 1950, a year in which experienced men who had been tested in the great trials of the 1940s made almost uniformly catastrophic strategic choices. Almost every major decision maker in the Korean conflict had emerged from the previous decade a winner. Yet despite their successful track records”or perhaps because of them”most pressed their luck too far on that divided peninsula, refusing to settle for half a loaf. The result was a drawn-out war that killed more than a million people over three years”without moving the border at all.
The Korean War is largely forgotten today (it had something to do with M*A*S*H, right?), but it was terrifying at the time. It was preceded by a long series of mutual border provocations between communist North Korea, ruled by the sinister Kim Il-sung, and American-backed South Korea, run by the aged and autocratic Syngman Rhee.
Stalin, who was feeling his oats because in 1949 he had acquired both an atomic bomb and a giant ally in Red China, gave Kim Il-sung backing to invade the South. North Korea’s surprise attack on June 25, 1950 routed the corrupt South Korean army.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson had not include South Korea in his public list of countries America would defend, but in the crisis it was decided that South Korea was too important as Japan’s buffer state to allow it to be inundated by communism. In July, American troops began arriving from Japan but were driven back to a small Pusan Perimeter in the southeast of the peninsula.
On September 15, General MacArthur struck behind enemy lines with a masterful amphibious landing at Inchon. He retook South Korea’s capital of Seoul ten days later. The North Korean army was eviscerated. The road to the Yalu River, the border with China in the north, appeared open.
Red China’s number-two man Zhou Enlai repeatedly warned that the continued existence of a North Korean buffer state was a Chinese national necessity for which the huge People’s Liberation Army would fight. But President Harry Truman and Defense Secretary George C. Marshall secretly gave MacArthur permission to cross the border into North Korea. On October 1, 1950 MacArthur set off to conquer North Korea. A week later, the US-controlled UN called for “a unified, independent and democratic government” for all Korea.
In response, on October 19, 1950 hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened Chinese troops began crossing the Yalu. Their original plan was to fight only South Korean forces, but they soon stumbled into American troops. The lightly armed but tactically expert PLA forces drove the Americans, such as my friend sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, then a teenaged artillery officer, into a nightmarish retreat.
Mao Zedong, elated by his victories over the Americans, gave the order for China to conquer South Korea as well.