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January 11, 2012

In August 2011 the U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) held annual war games.

Below my hotel window on Yongsan army base, cabbies salute the dusk with glowing cigarettes. Their mismatched plaids make them perfect extras for a Caddyshack remake; not at all far-fetched in this golf crazed country. Above, Namsan Hill fills a quarter of the horizon, and Seoul Tower looks like a space age, aqua-blue flag stick on the back of a monstrous, terraced green. It’s a rare night without smog, so I walk the course.

It’s a brisk 45 minutes to the top. Dodging busloads of Japanese and Chinese women who come to Seoul to shop, I make it to the base of the tower.

From the observation deck looking west, the skyline undulates as if floating on frozen swells destined to never crest. To the south, apartments line the north bank of the Han River; a kilometer wide ribbon of fast water that bisects a city of twelve million souls, and a formidable obstacle to north-south movement, were it not for its twenty-seven bridges.

It might surprise that these brightly lit structures are thoughtfully pre-chambered for demolition. They’re also within rocket and artillery range of north Korea: a reminder that Seoul is a strategic jewel in arms reach of a hostile enemy that is still technically at war.

The view north, however, is limited by foliage, geography and myopia, so one must climb the tower to gain perspective. A neon conga line sashays between ragged ridge lines and granite peaks north from Seoul to Uijeongbu to Munsan; and finally to the north Korean town of Kaesong about 40 kilometers away, where the lights go out and where many are the armies of darkness.

It was along this axis in 1950, the route of Mongols and Manchus before them, that north Korean tanks and infantry invaded South Korea. And it was along this axis that American policy makers, seeking to deter Stalinist aggression, anchored the outposts of the United States Second Infantry Division and formed an alliance of necessity that’s lasted for over 60 years.

Today, the ROK looks every bit the Asian Tiger of its reputation. A thoroughly modern nation with all the attendant traffic, congestion and grime of an industrial power house: not at all like the sleepy, rice paddy strewn backwater that slid past the gaze of north Korean tank commanders three generations ago.

Roughly the size of Kentucky, with too many mountains and too little arable land, Korea’s 50 million people funnel themselves into high rises and crowded city living. Koreans will tell you their adaptation to the urban jungle is the root of their famous rudeness to foreigners and to each other.

And it’s geography that makes Koreans the most connected people on earth, not activist government foresight, as Tom Friedman implies in “The World is Flat.” It’s easier to run fiber optic cable vertically through the ubiquitous apartment building than it is to wire American suburbs. And there’s plenty of high ground to extend cell phone range from mountain top to valley lowlands.

These industrious and status conscious people coexist through drenching summer humidity and cold, Siberian winters. They endure yellow spring winds that sprinkle the Gobi Desert and pollutants from China across the peninsula. Koreans also live in the shadow of their nuclear armed cousins to the north.

And while these volatile descendants of Altaics, Khans and Manchus would say the world will end in fire, hell for the residents of Seoul, is when the Han freezes over.

Rested after my night on top of the town, I dress for work. Feeling spiffy, I don cappucino Ecco Oxfords, dark brown socks, beige cotton pants and a salmon colored polo shirt. A tiny voice whispers that the shirt appears a tad pink, but I ignore it.

It’s week two of the games and all are in a comfortable rut. I stroll into the exercise control facility and the energetic hum of dedicated people in the serious business of war preparation. I notice my boss looking at me sideways.

“It’s salmon, in case you’re wondering.”

Oozing into my Captain Kirk chair I check email. The Korean army lieutenant to my right nods hello. He’s a big guy, well over 220 lbs and about 6’1, but with a cherubic face and a shy smile. He seems to genuinely enjoy mingling with Americans, a refreshing change from the resentments of the big brother-little brother relationship you often find.

Darry, a retired army colonel and civil military operations specialist, walks by and helpfully calls out, “Is that a pink shirt?”

“It’s salmon, thank you very much.”

The special forces officer on my left, Major Lee, grunts hello. He’s as tall as the lieutenant, but much leaner and more reserved. But today, in spite of my attire, or maybe because of it, he opens up and offers me plum juice. It tastes of licorice, but is delicious. Finding common ground I ask how many jumps he’s had and if he likes to parachute:

“Sixty, you?”

“Only 28, and they were all night jumps. I had my eyes closed on every one.”

He laughs, and I’m glad he hasn’t heard the joke before.

On the knowledge wall to our front, Korean news shows Kim Jong-il’s visit to Russia. A scowl comes over Major Lee’s face. He pulls an olive drab knife from his pocket and runs his thumb along the blade:

“I will kill him, I will kill him.”

I smile and nod. Like many in the room, Major Lee is a remnant of a much maligned culture of ferocity, that in juxtaposition to the progressive mantra, “War, what is it good for?”, believes that righteous violence is the answer to evil.

Meanwhile, on CNN, the rebels have nearly pushed the remaining loyalists from Tripoli, but Gadhafi remains unlocated. What’s taken six months of furious half-heartedness by NATO and an ambivalent President Obama, could have been accomplished in three weeks by one army or Marine division, carrier air and the killer instinct of Curtis LeMay or Bull Halsey.

On the video teleconference the commanding general’s political advisor talks about life after Kim Jong-il. Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is the anointed despot-in-waiting. The son and grandson of tyrants, Kim Jong-un supposedly has the right DNA, craftiness and ruthlessness to effortlessly carry on the oppression of 20 million people who live in conditions medieval serfs would find oppressive.

Back when we had the bomb and the commies didn’t, Douglas MacArthur suggested we use it against the hordes of Chinese infantry streaming across the Yalu. Truman, understandably concerned about the nuclear genie, refused and established the tradition of American military restraint we still have today.

A few years ago Mark Steyn wrote a column called Overwhelming Force, Underwhelming Will in which he pointed out that despite outspending the rest of the world on defense, America has not decisively won a war since 1945:

“We live in an age of inversely proportional deterrence: The more militarily powerful a civilized nation is, the less its enemies have to fear the full force of that power ever being unleashed. They know America and other Western powers fight under the most stringent self-imposed etiquette. Overwhelming force is one thing; overwhelming force behaving underwhelmingly as a matter of policy is quite another.”

It’s this one great thing that despots like Kim Jong-il and Gadhafi know about the west. It’s why for years both could poke, and prod and extort from the musclebound superpower, and not only get away with it, but look good to western nihilists doing so.

The instrument has yet to be invented that could measure the depth of hypocrisy of those who condemn the west for the smallest displays of force-even in the protection of the helpless-while excusing the worst excesses of tyrants, especially in an anti-American context.

Jimmy Carter comes to mind. So does Barrack Obama. The lesson these two never learned is that evil is deaf to moral grandstanding. To be a force for good, a leader must be prepared to employ all elements of national power, including force. Of course, that implies the decision maker is capable of that rapidly vanishing capability for moral outrage: a reminder to an indifferent American electorate that above all else, character matters most in a leader.

On the VTC, an intelligence officer explains indicators of north Korean actions. It’s a small part of a seemingly day-long power point rodeo. Intel guys love to use the word “assess,” which sounds technical, implies great thought, but means anything from “I’m way sure of this” to “This is the biggest guess since Scotty reversed the matter/anti-matter pods to jump start the Enterprises’ warp drive.”

Of all staff jobs, that of intelligence officer is most thankless. He’s expected to predict the future: in short, master the countless variables in the universe. Unlike other staff officers who pull and push information readily available on command networks, the enemy never cooperates in data mining. To compensate, intel guys develop mitigation strategies and a weasel-like vocabulary to grapple with non-linear dynamics:

“We assess that the probable missiles shown in this image might possibly be used in a possible attack against our aircraft.”

For this, commanders share some of the blame. The value of intelligence was never in prediction, but in explanation and understanding. After all, our armed forces, at their worst, do retain all the baggage of large, government bureaucracies and are prone to prolonged bouts of institutional stupidity.

But back to the Enterprise: we all know what happened after the crew blasted themselves back in time- they had four days to re-live. Given the rigidness and inflexibility of what the military calls its “battle rhythm,” you sense that given a do-over, the linear thinkers on staff would repeat exactly the same process, every time.

It’s late in the 12 hour shift, and I’m starting to fade. There’s no sign the briefing will end. In the background it sounds like Marlene Dietrich singing “Lily Marlene.”

It’s the lieutenant. He smiles and asks if I like baseball. There’s an American league game on the flat screen above our row of desks. One of the pitchers has a Korean name.

“Is he from here, or the U.S.?”

“Yes, from Seoul.”

Major Lee says something to the lieutenant and they laugh. I think they’re making fun of my shoes. Lee pours me another shot of plum juice, which perks me up. We both sit back and enjoy the game and the festivities on the knowledge wall.

On the VTC, the four star is marshaling his assets and optimizing his capabilities. While crushing the armies of darkness and their pipsqueak dictator is a foregone conclusion, no one knows how bloody it will be. Although north Korean forces are low tech and antiquated, they are also numerous with a peasant’s toughness that suits infantrymen in rugged terrain.

Last year at the pointy end of the spear in Camp Casey, only 20 miles from the de-militarized zone, I was astonished to see American school kids walking by the Abrams tanks of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. In an effort to halt rising soldier divorce rates from the stresses of non-stop deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and year long separations in Korea, commanders allowed families at the outposts of the Second Infantry Division.

The committees targeting the defense budget, and in particular, retirement pensions and benefits for our armed forces, would do well to consider the fact that no other profession requires choosing between interminable separation, a disintegrating family and placing your children within the sound of the guns.

The lieutenant and Major Lee understand. If only we could transplant that kind of will to our political leaders.

It’s another day in the R.O.K.

(Since the writing of this post both Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi have died.)

Crossposted from Milpundit