Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Korean War: A History

The Korean War: A History  by Bruce Cumings Cumings - Korean War

I recently visited South Korea, and to help orientate me towards this new destination, I headed to a bookshop to help get a sense of the place. I often think bookstores tell much about a country. Are they looking only for their own stories (America) or keen to learn how to engage others (Taiwan), are they focused on escapism (Australia) or do they want to learn how to succeed and get rich (Singapore). These are just one side to any culture, but where else can you directly see what the people want to bring into their minds just laid out before you.

‘The Korean War: A History’ is by one of the best known American scholars of Korea Bruce Cumings and many parts of this book show a fine scholar at work. One fascinating aspect of this book is the focus on memory as part of history. This is currently a major theme in the field, and producing some fascinating work and important insights. Much of what drives us when we invoke history is less the events themselves than our memory of them. Often it’s not so much the act as the memory of it that has so much impact in the world (The Holocaust being a prime example). Cumings argues Korea is not just a ‘forgotten war’ but one we never knew in part because we never wanted to know just what US actions had resulted in and what the US supported ROK government was doing.

But while we can hopefully correct the record about these acts, we can almost never correct memories. Perhaps appropriately, Cuming’s often displays an anger that fits the tragic material that he covers, and which those with deep ties to these threads of history must feel. But angry memories by those without direction connection to the acts often feels alien, especially coming from such a distinguished scholar.

As such, this is often an angry book, and to the uninformed reader in the wider debates – such as myself- it’s not often clear who Cumings is arguing with or why exactly the topics he picks are the best focus as the book jumps around. Towards then end Cumings reveals he is partly angry at the effect of the war on his own country, first in the move away from Keenan-esq containment to military globalism and then the parallels with the Iraq war. But this seems somewhat to downplay the significance and importance of careful contextual understanding which the book tries to begin with and condemn others for not recognising.

One advantage of this anger however is to recognise just how much history the people of East Asia have to chew through (to borrow Churchill’s famous quip about the Balkans). One of the things I find strangest about the IR theory of ‘Realism’ is how often its advocates assume away so much history as irrelevant. For many who look at the relationship between Japan and Korea or Japan and China or Russia and everyone else, there is a sense of ‘just get over it will you’ in realist scholarship. Their grand balancing schemes require everyone else to shift along desired axis, and for some reason all this history stuff keeps getting in the way.

This is absurd for a doctrine which claims to ‘seeing the world as it is’ to be so wilfully ignorant of what actually drives human behaviour. Of course, that’s not true of the original set, your Thucydides, E.H. Carr & Hans Morgenthau. But starting with Waltz and exemplified by the quantitiative turn, the notion of ‘knowing something’ about particular states seems positively unhelpful in their analysis. This is even stranger for American realists, given the see similar historical struggles on a daily basis in places such as South Carolina and Texas where the legacies of the Border Wars and the Civil War still reverberate through American life. You can’t understand the South without understanding the Civil War, but as Cumings points out, a lot of people try and understand the Korean War, or Korea (North and South) today without recognising its civil war history.

While I do try to engage with material that challenges received wisdom, and appreciate the importance of trying to upend dogma, my weathervane for appreciation of this turns on whether I think the author a ‘fair’ judge. At one point Cuming’s argues that a ‘democratic conception of justice is not dignified by assuring ourselves’ that our side killed less than the others. And he’s right. But somehow a lot of this book also fails to try and show they matter equally. While I trust Cumings as a historian he tends to put forward eye witnesses as truth-tellers of South Korean atrocity while questioning deeply official records and histories that look at the North. The book obviously isn’t about what the North did and continues to do, and does not need to repeat it. But it should not feel like it is dismissing it either, and unfortunately too often in my reading, it did.

Throughout the book Cumings wrestles with the notions of memory, but it seems to me his central message is backwards. He praises memory and condemns our forgetfulness. He also directly attaches the party of memory label on the North while tagging the South as the party of forgetfulness. And that may be true, but what if that’s also why the North stays paranoid within its garrison walls, while the South stands fair and free? It may well be that justice to our parents requires memory, while justice for our children requires forgetfulness.