Exorcising the Ghosts of War


Book Reviewer
Exorcising the Ghosts of War

Near Koyang, north-west of Seoul, pre-dawn, Jan 3rd 1951. British soldier David Strachan peered into the freezing darkness. Defeated UN forces were streaming south. His battalion, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, was rearguard. Strachan was in the forward trench.

Suddenly, a figure appeared directly to his front. Strachan fired. The enemy was so close, he collapsed on top of him; it took him four hours to die. Battle raged. The Fusiliers were surrounded. A wild bayonet charge freed them; they retreated in darkness, through blazing Seoul . On the smoldering battlefield, the Chinese soldier lay dead - but he and Strachan would meet again.

Air strikes pounded the abandoned capital. South of the Han, John Preston-Bell of the 8th Hussars sat in his tank turret. His friends in the Hussar unit north of the river had been annihilated, but it was the sight ahead that transfixed him. Refugees were crossing the frozen river but UN troops, desperate to halt the Chinese, were smashing the ice. Before Preston-Bell’s anguished gaze, screaming children were separated from their parents.

The guns fell silent across Korea nearly 60 years ago, but many men who fought remain haunted to this day by the memories of war.

Preston-Bell returned to the UK but could never dispel the searing memory of those helpless children, divided from their families – perhaps forever – on the frozen Han.

Strachan left the army. Decades later, he was sleeping in his bedroom in England . Dreaming fitfully, he sensed a malevolent presence. He awoke. A figure was sitting at the foot of his bed. In the darkness, he made out a bloodstained tunic, a pair of eyes peering intently at him. It was the Chinese soldier. The hauntings continued for years.

Compounding their stress was the lack of conviction some UN veterans had in the UN cause, for atrocities were not confined to the communists. Many were appalled by the devastation caused by UN airpower, and by the brutality of the South Korean paramilitaries.

Some veterans have no intention of ever returning. Yet South Korea – unlike North Korea , which still has the same government in power from the 1950s - is not the nation it was. Economic prosperity and political freedoms have been achieved. The brutalized, broken land of yore has been replaced by the 20th century’s greatest national success story. For those who do return, the realization that their struggle laid a foundation for this regeneration sparks redemption – even a sense of gratitude toward the nation they defended.

Upon the advice of his psychiatrist, Strachan returned. Though deeply apprehensive, he was astonished at what he discovered. “Modern Korea – I couldn’t believe it!” he said. When he entered a Seoul shop to fix a broken belt buckle the proprietor bowed and refused payment. Strachan was deeply moved. Inside him, something evaporated. The Chinese ghost never returned.

Preston-Bell, who had been so traumatized by the sight of the helpless children, had his outlook forever changed by today’s South Korea . Musing on his visit, he asked, “What do giving and loving have in common? There is no difference. Fifty years ago, I gave a year of my life and nearly lost it. I hadn’t realized what the Koreans had done with that little contribution. When I saw their gratitude – and this brand new, wonderful, cheerful, homogenous, vulgar, prosperous nation – I wanted to say, ‘Don’t thank me; it is you who have made my life worthwhile; it is you who have magnified me.’”

In Memorium: 25 June, 1950.


Andrew Salmon is the author of To The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River , Korea , 1951.

Forgotten War, Unforgettable Sacrifices

It is called the Forgotten War, but the carnage unleashed when Kim Il-sung launched his blitzkrieg into South Korea 59 years ago today should be remembered - for while the regime headed by Kim’s son remains Asia’s most dangerous, the stand made by the U.S.-led free world forces laid the foundation for the 20th century’s greatest national success story.

Korea was the first United Nations war; the first “limited war” after World War II. It was the first hot war of the Cold War; at no time since have superpowers ever clashed on the battlefield.

The names the soldiers of the United Nations Command gave their battlefields grant a grim sense of what transpired: Hellfire Ridge; Massacre Valley ; The Bloody Hook. The decimation of major units – such as the US 2nd Infantry Division at Kunu-ri pass and Britain ’s “Glorious Glosters” on the Imjin River - remain tragedies unsurpassed in subsequent conflicts, including Vietnam . The war claimed perhaps 2 million lives – including those of 33,000 Americans.

Was it worthwhile?

Today’s North Korea is run by essentially the same government that ruled it 59 years ago. It has not advanced economically, socially or politically. Its people are starved of food and information, victimized by poverty and repression, and cut off from Northeast Asia , one of the world’s most prosperous regions.

Washington has not risen to Pyongyang ’s challenge, seemingly content to let it wither on the vine as it retreats ever deeper into isolation. Yet isolation guarantees the continued survival of the North Korean elite. Given that the economy and the public’s quality of life are minimal priorities for the regime, sanctions that would be effectual against more rational states are invalidated. The country may be on its knees; the leadership is not.

More missile and nuclear tests are a near certainty. Each brings Pyongyang closer to its goal: A nuclear warhead that can strike the US mainland. The clock ticks.

Given the above, the conflict is often seen as a failure, or, at best, a half-victory that left a critical situation unresolved, a formidable enemy still in place.

Yet despite the harsh climate and terrain; despite the “human wave” the enemy employed; despite the lack of an end-game strategy; the men of the UN Command held the line. That proved enough. Although the peninsula remains divided, the Forgotten War can be seen with today’s hindsight as a good one, for South Korea moved decisively to win the peace.

With its existence underwritten by the blood of UN Command soldiers and funded by American gold, South Korea – armed chiefly with sweat and tears - built a “miracle economy” from nothing. The country – a land that was, until colonization by Imperial Japan, a medieval monarchy, then a war-scorched ruin – was transformed into what would become the world’s thirteenth largest economy.

Prosperity ignited demands for political freedoms. After mass people-power protests in 1987, Seoul ’s authoritarian governments – governments that, for all their depredations, were less dictatorial than their counterpart north of the 38th parallel – were booted into the dustbin of history. Today’s South Korea is not just a thriving economy, armed with cutting edge technological infrastructures and world-leading exporters, it is also one of the region’s most vibrant polities.

Many veterans have no desire to return to what they remember as a barren, savage place. Those who do, learn that their sacrifices were not in vain. In April 1951, British veteran John Preston-Bell of the 8th Hussars fought at the epi-center of the greatest communist offensive of the war, just northeast of Tongducheon. Fifty years later he revisited.

“What do giving and loving have in common?” he asked. “There is no difference – they are the same. Fifty years ago, I gave a year of my life and nearly lost it. I had not realized what the South Koreans had done with that little contribution. When I saw their gratitude – and more than that, the way they’d created this brand new, wonderful, cheerful, homogeneous, vulgar, prosperous new nation – I wanted to say, “Don’t thank me: It is you who have made my life worthwhile; it is you who have magnified me.”


Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author of To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River , Korea , 1951

At 04:00, on 25th June, 59 years ago today, Kim Il-sung unleashed an offensive designed to take South Korea by storm and re-unify the peninsula under his control. Three years of carnage would ensue.

The UK lost 1087 men dead, making the Korean War the bloodiest war fought by British troops since WWII. Likewise, the battle of the Imjin River remains Britain's bloodiest post-WWII battle.

The first op-eds above apeared in Korea's leading paper The Chosun Ilbo; the second one in the US Armed Forces paper Stars and Stripes.

Needless to say, British newspapers approached had no interest.

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