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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful with Defects, September 11, 2010
This review is from: The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) (Hardcover)
This is a useful introduction to the Korean War. This is not a conventional military history and anyone looking for a conventional military history will be disappointed. Cumings, a leading expert on modern Korean history, is primarily interested in debunking common American myths about the Korean war. The book is organized as a series of essays on aspects of the Korean war. Topics covered include the ultimate genesis of the war as a civil conflict between Korean clients of the Japanese imperium and anti-colonial insurgents, the essentially arbitrary post-WWII division of Korea, the nature of the American occupation and direct rule of Korea, the efforts of the US to rollback Communism in the Korean peninsula, the remarkably brutal nature of the conflict - including our use of saturation bombing, and the last consequences of the war for both Korea and the USA.

Cuming's analysis is that the War was an essentially unavoidable civil conflict between Koreans who has been Japanese clients, and who became our clients, and anti-Japanese Korean insurgents allied with the Chinese Communists. Like many local-regional conflicts of the Cold War, the local issues became entangled in the East-West rivalry, greatly exacerbating the conflict. As Cumings points out, the war was started by the North Koreans led by Kim Il Sung but against the background of constant conflict between the Northern and Southern regimes, and given the resources (approval of the US), the Rhee regime in the South would have happily struck first. Cumings devotes quite a few pages to the many, many crimes of the Korean war. As is typical of civil wars, there were enormous atrocities committed by both sides. Partly because of the debunking intent of this book, and partly, I suspect, because documentation is better, there is more discussion of the crimes committed by the South Korean regime. Cumings also discusses US atrocities, and probably more important, the remarkably intense bombing campaign conducted by the US. Cumings emphasizes the centrality of Korea to this phase of Cold War diplomacy. This includes the American tendency to see Korea as an economic adjunct of Japan, a point appreciated quite well by many nationalist Koreans, and the way in which the Korean conflict contributed to the formation of the national security state we still live with. The consequences for Korea were just as great, including the establishment of the authoritarian South Korean state and what Cumings describes nicely as the nationalist monarchy of the North, a garrison state with few peers in recent history.

While there is a lot of useful information and analysis in this book, the format and manner of presentation are less than optimal. The individual chapters are somewhat overlapping essays. Cumings has written each of these sections in a somewhat self-consciously literary style which sometimes impairs readability. In addition, Cumings presents some important arguments in pieces in different chapters, which degrades the quality of his analysis. The discussion of the American tendency to see Korea as a economic adjunct of Japan is an example. Some of the writing has an almost angry tone; Cumings is clearly frustrated by American ignorance of Korea and its history. I think Cumings would have done better to use a more conventional narrative structure and adopt a more neutral voice in this book. There are also, I think, a few errors of interpretation. Cumings, for example, contrasts the limited containment policy advocated by George Kennan with the rollback advocated by Dean Acheson. Kennan, however, was an advocate of rollback at one point in his career.

I have to comment on some of the more negative reviews of this book. This is not a "far-left" view of the war. The civil nature of the Korean conflict, the authoritarian nature and brutal behavior of our Korean clients, the excessive nature of the American bombing campaign, and our primary interest in securing Japanese security, are not arguable points. Nor is Cumings an apologist for North Korea. Cumings own ideological orientation is probably revealed best by the fact that this book is dedicated to the late Kim Dae Jung, the courageous pro-democracy politician who was nearly killed by the authoritarian South Korean regime we supported.
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