THE MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS

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Well, here we go again.

This was a front-page story the other day in The New York Times, which is impressive all by itself, but there was also a subhead that said, "A special report," even more impressive, and the story carried not one but two bylines, those of Michael R. Gordon and David E. Sanger, maybe the most impressive thing of all.

The story was datelined Washington and its two-column headline read: "North Korea's Huge Military Spurs New Strategy in South."

And I thought to myself, uh oh.

I guess we all know that the North Koreans are sort of nuts and they're playing around with nuclear weapons and they have a fellow named Kim Il Sung who's been the house tyrant since before the Korean War began in 1950 so he's been in the league for some time and is known as "The Great Leader" and he hates everyone who isn't a North Korean. And Kim has a son called Kim Jong II who looks kind of plump and jolly and he is known as "The Beloved Leader" and he is probably nuts too.

I mean, right here, we are talking Colonel Gadhafi-nuts and Saddam Hussein-nuts which means they are also somewhat dangerous and can do things that damage people.

But the other thing about the North Koreans is that, unlike Saddam and the Colonel, they have a real army of good soldiers and 1.2 million men in their army which makes it, after the Chinese and the Russkies and ourselves, the fourth largest army in the world. And I am not talking Iraqis here; I am talking real soldiers.

The story in the Times went on and on about how scary the North Koreans are with 8,400 artillery pieces and 2,400 multiple rocket launchers within 60 miles of the border and a two-to-one advantage in men and tunnels under the demilitarized zone and stuff like that.

But what frightens me more than this catalog of weaponry is a couple of lines in the Gordon-Sanger report. They said because of what's going on over there, American commanders have gone ahead "to revise their approach in the event of a North Korean attack on the South. Rather than simply driving the North's troops from South Korea, the new plan calls for a fierce counteroffensive intended to seize the North's capital, Pyongyang, and try to topple the government of Kim Il Sung," who is, you'll remember, "The Great Leader."

Why should such positive, constructive strategy unsettle anyone? Because of the casual, complacent assumption that once we get rolling, the handful of American and the half-million or so South Koreans under arms, why there'll be nothing to it. You know, how that "fierce counteroffensive" is just going to knock hell out of them, take their capital and overthrow their government. Boy, talk about smug!

Just prior to the 1950 invasion of the South by the North (also directed by Kim Il Sung!), American military brains were peddling the same sort of confident claptrap and that turned into a three-year war we damned near lost.

I don't know how the heavy thinkers at the Pentagon evaluate our main allies over there, the gallant South Korean army, but to guys who fought in Korea 1950 to 1953 the South Korean army, with a few notable exceptions, was a large joke.

Please do not ask me to explain why this is, since both North and South Koreans are literally one people, divided by an artificial political line. But the North Koreans are terrific soldiers and the South Koreans aren't. And the last time Americans were in a shooting war over there, that's how it was. Just ask. Whether you talk to American soldiers or Marines, you'll get much the same response. When it came to soldiering, the South Koreans made excellent farmers.

The Times report went on to detail our master strategy:

"The plan also embodies the new Army doctrine, which emphasizes aggressive counteroffensives instead of static defenses. Under the five-phase plan (I am always dubious about five-phase plans, I might warn you), the American and South Korean force would try to slow Pyongyang's ground assault north of Seoul, buy time while reinforcements pour in, and then repulse the invaders ..."

What are these people smoking down there? There are 35,000 Americans in Korea, some of them first-line troops, others, I assume, guys getting their shoes shined. And there are 655,000 South Korean soldiers. And we've got three Air Force squadrons and no naval presence and no Marines nearer than Okinawa. Where do these reinforcements pour in from?

I give the North Koreans about four days before they take Seoul.

Unless, of course, we start nuking people. Which I don't think we really want to do.

Of course things have changed since 1950. The Russians are otherwise diverted; the Chinese probably wouldn't come in this time. But the North Koreans have twice as many soldiers and I have little faith in the South's soldiers and here we are, in the Times, talking about how, "American and South Korean forces would cross into North Korea after beating back the North's forces and occupy Pyongyang."

Said "a senior American officer," and doesn't this windbag sound like Colonel Blimp? "It would be unconscionable if there was not some penalty for starting a war. The aggressor should not be able to get off scot-free in the sense of loss of territory."

This all assumes we and our gallant South Korean allies can stop the North Koreans. Which we couldn't do in the early days of June 1950. And 40 years after I still don't think the South Koreans, most of them, can fight worth a damn.

A memorable, and certainly tragic, example of why I say this happened in November of 1950 when the Chinese army smashed through us and the South Koreans. A Turkish brigade, just arrived, was thrown into the fight in desperation. After a few hours the Turks announced it had slaughtered the hordes of attacking Chinese.

There were great hurrahs! Until we learned it was fleeing South Koreans who'd thrown away their weapons that the ferocious Turks had mowed down.

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