INCHON LANDING: MACARTHUR’S KOREAN WAR MASTERSTROKE SEPTEMBER 1950

Reviewed by: Geoffrey Till

Pen and Sword is well known as a publisher of workmanlike and perfectly respectable books on all manner of topics in military and naval history, so I approached reviewing this book with some relish, but I have to say I was sorely disappointed. It is not a good book. Normally reading a book helps readers understand the topic it deals with. In this case, the reverse comes close to applying – you have to know the topic to understand the book. While there is a wholly admirable amount of detail on units, movements and places the author’s very heavy focus on  tactical actions, (which is necessarily brief given the size  of the topic to be covered in a very short paperback), gives the reader some of the ‘what happened’ but very little on the ‘why’s’ or the ‘so whats.’ It’s also not always clear what is actually happening, particularly in the case of the chapter on the break-out from Pusan, which could really do with a map to show where everything was in what turned out to be a very fluid battle.

To give some examples of a perhaps excessive focus on the tactical at the expense of the operational and strategic we could start with the failure to draw links between MacArthur’s conduct of the island hopping campaign through the Dutch East Indies, in which American and Australian forces repeatedly and successfully avoided attacking Japanese strong-points by landing with surprise where the Japanese in large measure weren’t, cutting off their main forces and in many cases leaving them to ‘wither’ on the vine. Clearly this inspired MacArthur’s choice of Inchon – a classic case of the Indirect Approach. Surely this should have been mentioned? The same applies to the fact that the landing took place at all, given the widespread view that the arrival of atomic weapons had made them impossible. MacArthur’s huge prestige militarily and, probably even more important, politically, did much to persuade the sceptical that the campaign was worth the risk.

Operationally, one very real issue about Inchon is the extent to which it actually contributed to MacArthur’s objective of cutting off the main enemy force by an indirect assault in its rear ‘thereby avoiding a frontal attack which can only result in a frontal and expensive campaign’? How much did its initial success really contribute to the ability of the UN force to break out of the Pusan perimeter? The question is not clearly addressed, and readers are left in some doubt about the answer. That’s understandable because the issue is a complicated one but again it would have been nice to see some discussion of the point, especially as the author takes a position on the matter, if only by describing the landing as a strategic master-stroke.

Even at the tactical level there’s a lot left unsaid. Inchon is often said to have broken many of the rules of amphibious operations so hard learned in the Second World War, the competing claims of ‘surprise’ versus ‘preliminary bombardment,’ appropriate beach conditions, the need for long preparation, detailed information on enemy positions and strengths and so on and so forth. Inchon disregarded many of these conventions, succeeding because of the guts and determination of the US Marines and the unpreparedness and inferior arms of the adversary. Some discussion of this would have been nice.

It’s disappointing to see very little in the way of supporting references, apart from a rather bizarre reliance on extracts from the commentary of a variety of provincial British newspapers. The longest of the very few footnotes in the book is actually an account of the 7th Cavalry in the 19th century under General Custer, which seemed hardly relevant. The jerky, idiosyncratic writing style in which the probable meaning sometimes only emerges after several readings, doesn’t help. A bit more editorial intervention seems called for.

Altogether, it’s a real shame that the painstaking accumulation of so many facts and figures, the author’s enthusiasm and expertise contributes much less than it could have done to our understanding of a fascinating and crucially important campaign.  Another of the key issues in the Korean War was the decision on what the victors were to do when approaching the 38th parallel – stop or cross it. Maybe the Western Daily News got it right – Stop! But they didn’t and we are encouraged to wait until ‘the Author’s next title on the Korean War’ to find out what happened next. Sadly, I won’t be clamouring to read it – unless the Editor sends it to me!