Read for the War Challenge with a Twist 2014 at War Through the Generations
The River and the Gauntlet - S. L. A. Marshall, 1951
This is an account of the defeat of the Eighth Army by Chinese Communists Forces in November 1950 in what is now North Korea. It also chronicles the ensuing retreat down the peninsula, the longest in American history. As a journalist and military man, Marshall specialized in interviewing troops in order to compose reports of “lessons learned.” Full of eye-witness accounts, this book is intense and dramatic. Its strength is the focus on the experience soldiers in combat as they face confusion and personal danger.
Marshall’s underlying point, I think, is that soldiers fight for their comrades, their war buddies. Training is key because it cools the blood and clears the head. But more importantly infantry soldiers realize that their failure to fight will put themselves and their buddies in peril. It’s important not to let down people who are depending on you.
With amazing stories, Marshall also implies that a minority of soldiers act in such a way that they inspire a more or less torpid majority. Keeping in mind an integrated army was a new thing in the early fifties, we read of the black lieutenant who was left in command when his captain was wounded. He covered the withdrawal of the last of his men from a hilltop. His men could see his silhouette on the skyline, heaving rocks and cans of c-rations at Chinese heads about 25 feet away. A white enlisted man stood beside him, swinging his empty carbine like a club, aiming for the skull of any unwary Chinese who tried to rush his lieutenant.
The book is not a military history in the sense of examining the background of the whole sorry episode. I suppose it would be unfair to criticize the book for not being what Marshall did not intend it to be. At the end, Marshall approvingly quotes a corporal, “Our error was that we had too few men, too few automatic weapons, and too much territory.”
This summary is concise and memorable but it isn’t good enough. Marshall does not devote a paragraph as why the Eighth Army had too few men and weapons and too much territory to deal with. He does not hint at failures of GEN MacArthur. GEN MacArthur failed to interpret collected intelligence properly. GEN MacArthur had such contempt for the Chinese fighting machine that it made GEN MacArthur short-sighted. GEN MacArthur presided over poor logistics. GEN MacArthur was assigning troops to hazardous territory near the Yalu in the first place.
Nor does Marshall, for all his emphasis on small unit cohesion, explain to us how units composed of English speakers and Korean speakers could communicate with each other. Or could not communicate with each other, as we suspect.