A forgotten perspective, 58 years hence


Not long ago, critics of American intrusion into Iraq were calling it the next Vietnam. If that were the case, surely Afghanistan would be Canada’s Vietnam — right? It’s been called un-winnable. It’s a war of not just guns and roadside bombs, but also hearts and minds. Troops often can’t distinguish friend from foe. And it seems that opposition only grows, despite staggering combat losses. It all adds up to Canada’s very own Vietnam — shared with several other willing global partners in war.

But let’s pause for a minute. Is this metaphor even useful? Canada has 2,500 troops stationed in a very deadly part of Afghanistan, but that deployment pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Americans — millions, taken as a wartime total — who served at the same time in Vietnam. Also, Canada’s military is entirely made up of volunteers, though many would suggest that not every soldier really wants to be fighting — or even working for the armed forces.

All of a sudden, Afghanistan isn’t Canada’s Vietnam. That comparison is simply too far-fetched.

No, Afghanistan is Canada’s second Korea. And all the signs have been there for all of these years. Each large military offensive over in Kandahar is labelled “the largest since Korea”, and every so often the mounting death toll is compared to the Korean experience. And it goes further than easy statistics.

To illustrate the point, let me let Pierre Berton tell you the story, just as he did in the pages of Maclean’s back in August of 1951 when he was reporting from the ground. I won’t re-print the whole thing, but I will note some of the more poignant passages. As you’re reading, replace each reference to “Korean” or “Korea” with Afghani and Afghanistan.

What have we done in Korea that is positive? Sure, we’re winning the old-fashioned war of brawn. But what about the newfangled war for men’s minds? Have our actions in Korea made more friends for the Western world? Have we been able to convince the Koreans themselves that the phrase “our way of life” is something more than a slogan? Have we succeeded in selling our brand of democracy to this proud but unhappy race?

It is terrifying to report that the answer seems to be an unqualified No!

If we had gone into Korea as an invading army of conquerors with the express purpose of humiliating the citizenry we could have done no worse than we have done in the name of the United Nations, the Western world and the democratic way of life.


The great lesson of the new decade is already clear: that the ends of military expediency are not enough, that you can’t burn away an idea with gasoline jelly but can only destroy it with a better idea. But this lesson hasn’t been put into practice.

Our soldiers are sometimes referred to as “the ambassadors of democracy”, but the painful fact is that they lack both training and talent for ambassadorship. They have been taught how to fight and they fight well. They have not been taught how to act and they act badly.

It seems to me there are two basic principles we must accept. One has already been suggested in these columns by Lionel Shapiro: that these days it is as important to teach a soldier how to get along with other people as it is to teach him the first and second stoppages on the Bren gun. This will take more than just the odd lecture and the occasional pamphlet. The idea needs to be drilled into the troops as surely as the manual of arms.

The other thing we must understand is that we all share some of the responsibility for what happened to the Korean people and their land. No matter who is to blame, it is we who must rebuild this wretched country, for victory will rest in the end with the side that gains the trust of the people.

I believe this is the only practical aim we can follow in Korea if we are to come out of this business with our heads up and out ideals unsullied. The fact that it is also the moral course is perhaps an added argument in its favour. If we succeed with it we may yet make “our way of life” seem worthwhile to the people who’ve had it inflicted on them for the past twelve months.

Not everything translates to the modern era. Our troops are, in fact, trained to interact with ordinary people who they confront before, during or following combat. But the big picture writing at which Berton so excelled is where his words are so eerily relevant.


3 Responses to “A forgotten perspective, 58 years hence”

  1. 1 Tyler T

    An interesting comparison, Nick. But I’d like to elaborate for a moment.

    Why are we fighting? and why were we fighting 59 years ago? The Korean War was far from an exercise in state-building (or terrorist-routing, or whatever we call it these days) but an attempt to repulse what communist expansion in a vulnerable theatre. The Canadian Army fought because Lester Pearson and his associates felt that we could not afford another Munich and that the large evil empires – USSR and the PRC – were testing the unity of the Western powers. They were also responding to a massive invasion across an international border, deemed “naked aggression.” Our goals in the early days were simple – a re-establishment of the status quo. Then, come October 1950, it was destruction of all enemy forces (at the time, both achievable tasks). The Canadian government hoped to bring the peninsula under UN jurisdiction and removing itself entirely from the administration of the problem state.

    All that being said, this seems vastly different from the reason we are in Afghanistan, where the goals and the enemies are both less distinct. In Korea, we had to beat the North Koreans without disturbing the Chinese or the Russians. After that failed, we had to establish a cease-fire at the earliest moment. The fate or opinions of Korean citizens were of no issue to policy makers in any country. In Afghanistan, the lines between peace and war, occupation and independence are much more tenuous (and political). The casualties are much lower, the violence more subdued and the images and ideals which shroud our current mission are very different. Our chief concern now is not World War III (at least not at the moment), but attempting to show that this is a worthwhile endeavor, preserving our own resources and how not to piss off the Arab world.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate you challenging the norm of Vietnam war comparisons, for they too fall very short of the mark.

  2. Tyler,

    Plenty of good points. It’s probably a mistake from the very beginning to attempt to compare two wars, and especially two that were fought under such different circumstances. I submit that Korea and Afghanistan are quite different conflicts.

    The passage that stays with me more than any other is:

    “The great lesson of the new decade is already clear: that the ends of military expediency are not enough, that you can’t burn away an idea with gasoline jelly but can only destroy it with a better idea. But this lesson hasn’t been put into practice.”

  3. 3 Tyler T

    It is a great phrase. I just couldn’t let my MA on the Korean War be wasted on my thesis alone! I felt the urge to spread knowledge, regardless of the venue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: