Diggers bring in a wounded Korean boy for medical treatment.
A 'forgotten' conflict is told anew through the eyes of Australian soldiers brought face to face with the human cost of the Cold War.
THE Korean War (1950-53) has been called many things. "Forgotten war" is a favourite description. Despite the best efforts of Mash, Korea has never quite occupied a firm place in the public imagination. "Proxy war" is often used by historians. In Korea the Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, fought each other indirectly.
Yet "unfinished" might be the most appropriate term given that Korea is still divided at the 38th Parallel, a relic of past struggles, a sad reminder that when the wall came down not all of the Cold War's problems were solved.
Australian foreign correspondent Cameron Forbes has won awards for his reporting of conflicts in the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific and Rwanda. He has since published a history of Bali, and the story of Australian prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War. In The Korean War: Austra-lia in the Giants' Play-ground Forbes has written an account of Australia's part in Korea, concentrating on those at the front.
Advertisement: Story continues below In 1945, Korea — formerly part of the Japanese empire — was divided at the 38th parallel into two "temporary" occupation zones. The north was the responsibility of the Soviet Union, the south that of the United States. By 1948, escalating Cold War tensions resulted in the establishment of two Koreas, one communist, the other an American client state. In June 1950, with a wink and a nod from Stalin, Kim Il-sung, the North Korean leader, decided to resolve the stand-off and invaded the south. This was a major misreading of American foreign policy. Under the aegis of the United Nations, Pacific supremo Douglas MacArthur led an international force to South Korea's rescue. As MacArthur came close to the Chinese border in late 1950 Chairman Mao sent thousands of his countrymen over the Yalu River to take on the UN forces. The world held its breath but neither Stalin nor President Truman were willing to precipitate a nuclear Armageddon. The war settled into a sanguinary stalemate before the armistice of July, 1953.
Australia rapidly answered the UN's call for assistance, sending air and naval forces within days of the North Korean invasion. For the last time in Australian history, volunteers for an overseas military expedition were called for and the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment, and later a second battalion of infantry, was dispatched. Forbes tells the story of how the Australian government, anxious to get in the Americans' good books (and beat the British to the punch) hurried up the announcement that ground troops were going to Korea. Cynical perhaps, but good politics. The Americans smoothed the passage of a large World Bank loan to Australia. Then in 1951, ANZUS was signed, the cornerstone of Australia's defence and foreign policies until this day.
Three hundred and forty Australians died in Korea, less than in Vietnam, but in a shorter time. There were more than 1000 wounded and some were taken prisoner. While imprisoned they encountered Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, reporting from the communist side. Forbes deals with Burchett fairly, accurately describing him as both war correspondent and propagandist.
For much of the war the Australians fought small-scale actions against North Koreans and later the Chinese. The fighting was at close quarters and frequently vicious as each side sought to seize territory that would assist their team at the negotiating table. The weather, humid in the summer and bitterly cold in winter, was an enemy to all. The ferocity of the snowstorms impressed the Australians. The suffering of the Koreans was intense; the Australians were especially moved by the plight of orphaned children.
Forbes is at his best telling stories of the combat and how individual soldiers viewed the struggle. He closely examines the two biggest actions fought by Australians — at Kapyong and Maryang San — and justifiably praises the professional way in which the Australians handled themselves. The Australians found themselves fighting alongside the Turks and, with a backward glance at Anzac, Forbes recounts the friendship between the former enemies.
The role played by indigenous soldiers in Korea and other wars is also examined. Forbes points out that the indigenous contribution came when their presence in the armed forces was hardly acknowledged.
Warfare is notoriously difficult to describe well, but Forbes generally does a good job. The photographs are excellent, especially in depicting the physical environment. At times there is some repetition. For example, twice within the space of a few pages, the North Koreans are said to have "blitzkrieged" their way across the 38th Parallel. Men's deaths are anticipated by the author pages ahead of when they actually occur. A reader does not need these signposts. Korea's tragedy is best told simply.
Australian books on Korea are few. Forbes has done a fine job in bringing the stories of our troops, and those of other nations, alive. In doing so, he is right to remind us that while it is still divided Korea is a potential flashpoint. Recent events on Yeonpyeong Island nag at us; while North Korea is a rogue state the split peninsula may still have tragedies to offer.
Richard Trembath is the author of A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53.
Source: sydney morning harald