Forgotten War

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Every editor i know has briskly astringent advice on how to handle any article: “Cut it in half, and it’ll be fine.” But this advice is just that—advice, which of course means that it is only given to somebody else. It’s always harder to jettison material from one’s own story. But cutting J. Robert Moskin’s account of the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in this issue was more than usually difficult. For instance, here’s something that went away. Early on the morning of December 11, 1950, Chinese troops ambushed a Marine column creeping down the black, frozen spine of Korea south of Chinhung-ni. Several drivers died at once, and their trucks started to burn. In the fighting that followed, Marine Pfc. Marvin L. Wasson somehow hooked up with Lt. Col. John U. D. Page of the U.S. Army and drove off 20 Chinese. A grenade wounded Wasson and gunfire killed Page; Wasson got first aid and returned to the fight, firing off three rounds from a 75mm. recoilless rifle that destroyed a Chinese strongpoint. Then he left his gun to help push trucks of exploding ammunition off the road. Page got the Medal of Honor; Wasson, the Navy Cross.

Every American war offers instances of heroism by people whose names are not part of the national memory, but Page and Wasson were part of a war that itself seems somehow dim—“the forgotten war,” as it is sometimes called even by those who fought it. “Korea gave us a brief shelf of history books, no great war novel or film, not a single memorable song, a wonderful combat journal by Martin Russ called ‘The Last Parallel,’” wrote James Brady in his fine 1990 memoir of his Korean service, The Coldest War . “And it gave us ‘M•A•S•H.’”

Korea lies in the shadow between the twin prominences of World War II (which Brady and his buddies, locked in struggles as bitter as any it had offered, nonetheless knew as the Big War) and Vietnam. In many ways, it looked forward to the latter contest: American soldiers and equipment mired in Asia, engaged not quite in a real war but in a “conflict,” or, as the Korea-born phrase had it, a “police action.” When in 1953 Gen. Mark Clark signed the treaty that ended it, he said, “I return with feelings of misgivings from my third war—I was the first American commander to put his signature to a paper ending a war when we did not win it.” He might have drawn some comfort thinking of the negotiators who had extricated America from the War of 1812 or, for that matter, of Robert E. Lee, but it is not hard to understand his dismay, writing his name there in the waning light of the Big War.

Clark might also have liked hearing what one victor of that most decisive of conflicts had to say. Asked that same year by a reporter about his views “on the present stalemate in Korea,” Winston Churchill replied, “Better a stalemate than a checkmate.”

That amazing, perpetually backward-looking figure who could from time to time see forward with world-saving clarity had, in his aside, economically articulated the strategy that would eventually prevail in the Cold War.

And now that the Cold War is over, perhaps its great inaugural battle is beginning to be better remembered. St. Martin’s Press has just reissued The Coldest War to accompany the publication of The Marines of Autumn , Brady’s somber and engrossing new novel about the retreat from Chosin. Korean War veterans have their own monument now in Washington, D.C. (although Stanley Weintraub, the veteran who wrote the anniversary essay on the war’s outbreak that ran in our last May/June issue, finds the soldiers in it a bit too luxuriously equipped), and even the two Koreas themselves have recently captured the world’s interest by warming toward each other for the first time in decades.

Of course, some never “forgot” the war at all. Among them is David Douglas Duncan, who is generally acknowledged to have taken the best pictures ever of Americans in combat. Fifty years ago he and his camera joined the Marines during their freezing Iliad, and it is his pictures that crowded Private First Class Wasson and Lieutenant Colonel Page out of Robert Moskin’s narrative.

Slogging south one December day, Duncan came upon the exhausted trooper on the opposite page, prodding at the frozen contents of a can of beans. The incessant wind dropped for a moment, and Duncan broke the silence to ask a question: “If I were God, what would you want for Christmas?” The Marine lifted his eyes and said: “Give me Tomorrow.”

Duncan never asked the man his name, but in a sense he gave all his subjects tomorrow.