“Ghost Flames: Life and Death in a Hidden War, Korea 1950-1953” by Charles J Hanley

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Union General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked during the American Civil War: “War is cruelty. You cannot refine it.” In Ghost Flames, former Associated Press (AP) reporter Charles J Hanley writes about the cruelty of the Korean War—and the impacts it had on some ordinary soldiers, civilians, and even some military commanders. While it does include stories of atrocities committed during war by both sides, those stories are weighted heavily against the United States and its South Korean ally.

Hanley and his team of AP reporters won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for their investigative reporting on the killing of South Korean civilians near No Gun Ri by soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry. The details of the story were challenged by West Point professor and military historian Robert Bateman (who served in the 7th Cavalry in the 1990s), who acknowledged that civilians were killed by US forces, but questioned Hanley’s sources, research and objectivity, and his downplaying of the impact of the “fog of war” on that tragedy.

 

Ghost Flames: Life and Death in a Hidden War, Korea 1950-1953, Charles J Hanley (PublicAffairs, August 2020)
Ghost Flames: Life and Death in a Hidden War, Korea 1950-1953, Charles J Hanley (PublicAffairs, August 2020)

Ghost Flames is not history with a capital “H”; it is not intended to be. It is instead a selective journalistic account of the war experiences of certain Americans, South Koreans, North Koreans, and Chinese. Hanley provides brief historical context for the events he recounts, but his narrative is chronological, focusing on the selected months and days when the war affected the people he writes about. He portrays the Chinese and North Korean soldiers and communist guerilla forces in South Korea as idealists committed to the cause of socialism. The American soldiers selected by Hanley, on the other hand, agonize over the purposes and cruelty of the war, and some, like captured African-American soldier Clarence Adams, turn against the war and see communism as a more just society than racially segregated America.

Hanley claims in his introductory note that his goal was to

 

enlist characters of diverse backgrounds, to offer the reader a wide array of perspectives on a war whose causes and conduct remain controversial today.

 

In addition to Clarence Adams, Hanley’s characters are Chang Sang, a female refugee from North Korea; Ri In-mo, a communist guerilla; No Kum-sok, a North Korean naval academy cadet; Park Sun-yong, a South Korean mother; Shin Hyung-kyu, a South Korean high school student; Chung Dong-kyn, a North Korean medical student; US infantrymen Leonard Wenzel, Paul (“Pete”) McCloskey, and Gil Isham; Chinese army medic Chen Hsing-chiu; South Korean soldier Hurh Won-moo; Chinese student Chi Chao-chu; journalists Alan Winnington (who wrote for the London communist Daily Worker) and Bill Shinn; Chinese Army commander Peng The-huai; North Korean General Yu Song-chol; American commander Matthew Ridgeway; and Maryknoll nun Sister Mary Mercy.

The Korean War—at least the part Hanley calls the “hidden war”—is told through the lives of these characters: the daily struggles of civilians, the fears, confusion, and drudgery of soldiers, and the pressures and uncertainty of commanders. It is, however, by its nature incomplete and anecdotal. While it reveals a part of the war that is often left out of conventional histories, by being selective it can distort history.

In recounting the “hidden war”, Hanley writes about American planes strafing South Korean civilians; American bombers indiscriminately destroying towns, villages and their civilian inhabitants; American soldiers blowing-up bridges with civilians on them; American soldiers conducting “scorched earth” tactics in retreat; American soldiers referring to Koreans as “guks” and their black colleagues as “niggers”; South Korean soldiers massacring suspected communist guerillas; and the repressive South Korean regime of Syngman Rhee. Although Hanley occasionally writes briefly about communist atrocities, the “hell” of war in his telling is mostly attributable to Americans and South Koreans.

 

Hanley claims that the causes of the war remain controversial today. It is unclear what he means by this. The war, as he writes, began when North Korea, with the blessings and support of Stalin and Mao, invaded the South. The US, it is true, did not effectively deter such an attack. Secretary of State Dean Acheson months before the invasion declared that Korea was outside the American defense perimeter in the East Asia-Pacific region. But America’s response to communist aggression was consistent with the postwar containment policy explained by George Kennan in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs and the classified guidance of NSC-68 which called for preventing the Sino-Soviet bloc from dominating the Eurasian landmass.

Hanley makes no secret of his own perspective: he praises the “reporting” of communist journalist and propagandist Alan Winnington, and he asserts that the Korean War “turned the United States into a permanently militarized nation.” Winnington took sides in the war—the communist side. And the Korean War did not “militarize” the United States, though it did, in combination with NATO commitments and the beginnings of the nuclear arms race, help make permanent the sprawling US national security apparatus.

Whether intentional or not, Hanley portrays both sides in the war—aggressors and defenders—as morally equivalent, and he reserves his fiercest condemnation for the soldiers, commanders, and leaders of the United States and South Korea. His journalistic approach to history reveals some trees, ignores others, while hiding the forest. The citizens of South Korea are far better off than those in North Korea. Though freedom and democracy did not emerge directly from the war, and South Korean citizens suffered for years under repressive regimes supported by the United States, South Korea is a free, democratic society today that escaped the fate of the people of North Korea largely thanks to the American military. None of Hanley’s stories can erase that large historical truth.


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.