Letter: Charles J Hanley replies


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)

The recent review of my Ghost Flames: Life and Death in a Hidden War, Korea 1950-1953 notes that the book’s “stories of atrocities … are weighted heavily against the United States and its South Korean ally.” The reason for that is simple: The sheer tonnage of dead civilian bodies tips the scales dramatically that way.

From the massive, indiscriminate air bombardment of North Korea (“We killed off— what—20 percent of the population,” Curtis Lemay estimated), to the South Koreans’ summary executions, with U.S. complicity, of up to 300,000 supposed leftist sympathizers in the south (not “suspected communist guerrillas”), to the routine American strafing of South Korean refugee columns (“Groups of more than eight to ten people were to be considered troops, and were to be attacked,” Navy pilots noted), the American way of war left behind a peninsular landscape of corpses that the North Koreans’ ruthless “people’s court” executions of southern police, politicians, landlords and others could never match.

Ghost Flames brings together many of the recent discoveries of such long-hidden and chilling documents and testimony. At its core, however, the book is meant as a human story, exploring how ordinary people on all sides, its 20 “characters,” make their way through the nightmare of a war without mercy.


Charles J Hanley



Francis Sempa replies:

Charles J Hanley’s letter confirms his perspective on the Korean War. The Korean War, like all major wars, produced acts of courage, heroism, bravery, and even kindness—those stories do not appear in Hanley’s book. What’s more, in his view—as manifested in the book and even more explicitly in his letter—what he characterizes as “the American way of war” was far worse than North Korea’s or China’s way of war. In Korea, he writes, America’s “indiscriminate” air bombardment, strafing of civilians, and complicity in South Korean summary executions produced a “peninsular landscape of corpses”. But the technology of war in Korea, just as in World War II, did not allow for effective “discriminate” air bombardment. And the “fog of war” and stresses of combat sometimes lead to bad judgments, mistakes, and yes, atrocities. In World War II, America and Britain used indiscriminate air bombardment to produce a continental landscape of corpses—that was the nature of war then. That “indiscriminate” bombing killed French, Belgian, Italian, German, Japanese and other civilians. General Curtis LeMay, who Hanley quotes, once noted that warfare was brutally simple—you kill enough of the enemy and they stop fighting. Like Japan and Germany before it, North Korea launched a war of conquest and reaped the whirlwind.