In Korea, the fog of war was our ignorance
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In Korea, the fog of war was our ignorance

Australians in the 1950s were complacent, prejudiced and blind about Asia.

In terms of brutal, brazen honesty, the Korean War memorial on Washington's National Mall is hard to beat. The inscription on that memorial commemorates Americans killed in the Korean War "to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met". With few notable exceptions (most honourably the then captain Bill Keys, later president of the RSL, deservedly knighted with an AC to boot), that melancholy view of the war held as true for Australians fighting in Korea as for Americans.

Now that prospects for conflict in Korea have again escalated, we might reflect on how ignorantly, nonchalantly and awkwardly Australia prepared for combat in the Korean war of 1950-53.

As was the case more recently with Iraq and Afghanistan, few Australians in 1950 knew or cared much about the place their soldiers were being sent to fight and possibly die. Three-hundred-and-forty did die there.

When those soldiers arrived in Korea, they found nothing whatever was simple, easy, clear-cut or reliable. Distinguishing friend from foe was problematic. Civilians could impede or betray you. Cold, dust, rain, snow and mud were lethally hostile, while the cause for which you were fighting was at best distantly ambiguous.

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Statues of US soldiers, part of the Korean War memorial on Washington's Mall.

Statues of US soldiers, part of the Korean War memorial on Washington's Mall.

Australian magazine The Bulletin summed up the troops' predicament in a cartoon of two Australian diggers, holding a Korean civilian upside down with the point of a bayonet, the captive's head hanging limply above the ground. One suggested to the other: "Shove y'r compass on him, Snow, and see if he's North or South." Unhappily, none of the diggers possessed a compass to determine who stood for what in Korea, what to do next, who could be trusted or how to end up safe at home.

In our schools, when the Korean War began, in June 1950, only Victorian senior school students reading Max Crawford's Ourselves and the Pacific would have come across a reference to Korea, as a passing mention in an appraisal of Japanese imperialism. As for diggers, a few of them had encountered Korean guards in Japanese prisoner of war camps; their only meeting might as well have happened in the seventh circle of hell. Australia's representative in Seoul discovered that the only language he had in common with his hosts was Japanese. He had to learn to speak quickly, sympathising with Korean suffering under the Japanese, then note that he had fought against and helped occupy Japan, all without drawing breath, before Koreans could be persuaded to use the imperialists' language again. Geography had helped make Australians ignorant about Korea; history had made them prejudiced.

Nowadays, using Google, plagiarism and Wikipedia, anyone can pretend a nodding acquaintance with the wider world. Back in 1950, ignorance ruled. Although the war in Korea was fought in part to protect Japan, Australian newspapers remained focused on uncovering evidence of Japanese perfidy. In 1950, that extended not only to fretting about Japanese resurgence but also reports that, years before, Japanese troops had dissected the bodies of two executed Australian pilots for medical experiments (allegedly, if weirdly, because they could not procure a bear's gall bladder).

The first editorial comment on the war in The Bulletin began: "Nobody likes the Koreans much. They are a lonely race, mentally and morally belonging to the 15th century." In Melbourne, The Sun ran a photograph of a "bearded and wrinkled" man caught up in the fighting, while The Argus reassured its readers that not all Koreans were sadists. Australian newspapers had no context into which to place Korea, no constituency interested in the place, no causes to push or controversies to provoke.

Now, we might expect our leaders to articulate war aims, insist on allied consultation or at least impose a few constraints on Australian engagement overseas. In 1950, Australians had to cope with a resurgent Bob Menzies, prime minister for the second time but still distracted and deluded by his anachronistic, Anglospheric notions. Menzies continued to place his faith in "a strong, well-knit and mutually supporting British Empire". All that blather and static made it hard to fit into any Australian foreign policy framework a war in Asia rather than Europe, with the United Nations rather than the Empire, under American rather than British command. The framework assembled haphazardly after the war contained two pernicious legacies from the Korean conflict: a shameless beat-up of threats from "the yellow peril" and a shameful emphasis on the domino theory.

When Australia went to war, Menzies noted that Korea was not "quite remote from" us, before going on to announce that Australia would fight "as a British and democratic nation". He added "Christian" later, for ballast. Lurking behind the Britishness was what Allan Gyngell would label as fear of abandonment. One cabinet submission during the war was prepared to underline the need "to cultivate US interest in our welfare and confidence in our attitudes". Such cultivation continues.

Muddle was a logical result, particularly in the timing and composition of Australia's military commitment. The foreign minister, Percy Spender, conceded about UN plans in November 1950 that "we may not always agree with what is being done, but that is inherent in the position". The war seemed to appeal most to those among the volunteers who had fought for and loved their country, but who had grown bored living here, with the wife and the kids, doing mundane jobs rather than embarking on another grand adventure with their mates.

What might have happened had things gone even more wrong in Korea? How would Australians have reacted if the number of casualties had increased, if our troops had lost a major battle, if nuclear weapons had been used or the Chinese border crossed, if conscription had been introduced or the war required real sacrifice on the home front? Few Australians in 1950 ever suspected that any such issues might arise.

When the diggers arrived in Korea, they found nothing whatever was simple, easy, clear-cut or reliable.

This dismal record of ignorance, complacency, prejudice and myopia is leavened by the wisdom of only one, quite unlikely, group of Australians. Presbyterian missionaries actually knew and cared about Korea: they embodied muscular Christianity in action. They had been working there, selflessly and heroically, for decades (from 1889) and had acquired a cold-eyed but never cold-hearted knowledge of the country.

The Presbyterians should have been co-opted as country-specific national security advisers, invited to do "deep dives" and assess the "granularity" of issues on the ground. The missionaries refused to depict Korea in black and white terms, zealously exposed the shortcomings of the South Korean government, and bitterly bewailed the plight of ordinary Koreans. Their 1949 report, just before the war, declared presciently that Korea's problems "are enough to appal the wisest and the best". As far as Korea was concerned, those missionaries, pretty much alone, then comprised "the wisest and the best".

We would do a bit better now, given the number of Korean students and citizens here, and Australian business folk and tourists in Korea. I wonder, though, how many Australians could name the Korean president, the parallel of latitude on which Korea is divided, or Korea's largest export to Australia. The wisest and best cannot afford to be otherwise engaged this time.

Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.

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