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Ali: Lessons From Korea

11/17/10 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali has been reminiscing about  President Obama's speech on Veteran's Day in Seoul, South Korea.

(ALI) Given the approaching shift in seasons, I was surprisingly attracted to a book titled "The Coldest Winter" by the late Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Halberstam.

This book is an epic account of the most consequential period of the Korean War during the winter months of 1950 and 1951.

It is perplexing to me why this war is often considered a "forgotten conflict" in terms of its impact on international politics.

President Obama raised this matter in his speech to American soldiers serving in South Korea last week. Perhaps his speech was the only silver lining in an otherwise flat and unsuccessful economic trip to the land of Samsung and Kia.  Mr. Obama suggested how the Korean War was a clear success of US military intervention in a century of many misadventures. This point needs to be made more clearly to far more audiences in current US war theaters. Often when I am defending US intentions in Asia, I bring up the Korean War as an example of how American troops might help to positively transform a country.

There may be occasional resentment about the prized real estate that the US forces have in downtown Seoul but in general South Koreans are immensely grateful for the protection the US has accorded them.  Without the intervention from the US, there is little doubt that South Korea would have been overrun by the despotic regime from the North, leading to much despair. While in territorial terms the outcome was a status quo, the expansion of absolutist ideology was resolutely prevented.

Yet this marginal success in the Korean War also laid the foundations for US policy failure in Vietnam because of errant comparisons between the two conflicts. Unlike the self-obsessed despot Kim Il Sung, the Vietnamese had a far more self-effacing and sincere leader in the form of Ho Chi Minh.  The battlefield and the operational strategy of the adversary were also completely different in the two wars. Sadly in an effort to save face, the US ended up trying to caricature the Vietnamese conflict to its own detriment.

But we have moved on and now have diplomatic ties with Vietnam and a flourishing business relationship with the country in a vein congruent to our relations with China.
Even though it began almost 15 years before the Vietnam War, the Korean conflict remains unfinished business. Nevertheless, it is an example of how progress can still be made in the shadow of formidable adversaries. The Korean war exemplifies that American intervention is not malevolent by design as many of our enemies suggest but it also shows us the importance of humility rather than hubris.

Exactly sixty years have passed since that momentous winter which tested America's might.  As we grapple with two current wars, it is worth reflecting on what lessons can and cannot be learned from that troubled time.

(TAG)  You can find more commentaries by Saleem Ali at VPR-dot-net.
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