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Book Review 216: The River and the Gauntlet

October 21, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE RIVER AND THE GAUNTLET, by S.L.A. Marshall. 373 pages. Time-Life paperback.

I first encountered S.L.A. Marshall through his newspaper pieces during the Vietnam War. I thought he was an idiot.

I was aware that he had done well-regarded work on small-unit combat experience, and in a sense could even be credited with creating a sociology of small-unit behavior under fire. But I did not see any reason to read the works of an idiot.

Recently, I came across one of Marshall's Korean War books, the story of the 2nd Infantry Division when it was attacked by Chinese armies in November 1950, and, idly, I picked it up. I was right 40 years ago. S.L.A. Marshall was an idiot.

“The River and the Gauntlet” not only purports to tell the experiences, by company, platoon, squad, even fire team or individual of some of the GIs, it attempts to place it into a larger context. It is the second effort where Marshall stops making sense.

The relations of the units under assault – his specialty – are reasonably well done, though hardly of such exceptional character as to justify the praise handed out to him. He at least pays a lot of attention to logistics, which is more than the higher commanders did.

But the antecedent premises are wrong, and the consequent “lessons” also are wrong.

First of all, while studying small units intensively is an excellent idea if the idea is to offer guidance to men fighting small-unit battles, it is absurd to think that the outcomes of these small battles will make any difference, in aggregate. It remains true, as Turenne said, that providence is on the side of the big battalions. Once MacArthur put the 8th Army in a ridiculous position, it did not matter whether some American platoons neglected to load up with grenades, or that others did – more usually, did not -- take ordinary precautions about flank security.

They were defeated before the shots were fired. It made some difference whether the local commanders were competent or not, so that the retreat could be well managed or otherwise. At X Corps, the Army run in panic, except the First Marine Division, under Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, the only clearly competent American general officer in MacArthur's whole command.

The retreat of 2nd Infantry was not well managed. It was hardly managed at all, and after the four days battle along the ridges, the attempt to run the gauntlet was a rout. It is a measure of Marshall's stupidity and partisanship that he criticizes American newspaper reporters for calling the run a “bug out”: This after just giving the reader more than a dozen instances of how the tankers bugged out on the infantry.

As a result, something like half the division and related elements (South Koreans, Turks) were wiped out.

To a degree, this would have happened even if Oliver Smith had been in command. It was the Supreme Commander, MacArthur, who divided his forces, advanced them up narrow, indefensible corridors (coyly called MSRs, main supply routes, by Marshall), failed to get food and munitions to the front lines (GIs who had to serve under MacArthur always starved at the front, got fat in the rear areas), failed to collect or interpret intelligence.

The great issue, avoided by Marshall, is whether the Chinese would “come in” either to rescue the reeling North Koreans or, more reasonably, to keep capitalist armies away from their own borders. MacArthur famously was certain they would not, even after his armies began capturing Chinese soldiers scores of miles inside Korea.

His staff, and Marshall seems inclined to go along with them, concluded that these were strays and not significant, whereas a competent commander would have realized that the presence of Chinese soldiers a long way from China, while it might not prove anything, ought to have raised suspicions, like (borrowing Thoreau's words) “finding a trout in the milk.”

MacArthur, and Marshall along with him, was contemptuous of Chinese abilities, a mistake MacArthur made many times. For Marshall, the later Chinese success was attributable to “stupidity mixed with low cunning.” This is as much the measure of Marshall's idiocy as anything.

A modern, industrialized army has enormous defensive power. It ought to be able to, at least, maintain itself against a premodern army equipped with nothing heavier than machine guns and small mortars. 2nd Infantry, and the rest of 8th Army and X Corps, cracked instantly, so unprepared were they.

The degree of unpreparedness passes belief. They were not merely unprepared to stand on the defensive, MacArthur was crazy enough to think they were ready to take the offensive and continue to the Yalu River.

Throughout the book, Marshall makes much of the results of failures of “unit cohesion.”

Some of this always occurs in battle, when junior officers become casualties, or platoons go astray in the dark or other accidents of war. Marshall is right to emphasize that a unit that loses cohesion has only a fraction of the capabilities of an intact unit, even if it hasn't absorbed any casualties.

Somehow he fails to notice, though he does report, that the 8th Army had lost unit cohesion even before the Chinese attack. The North Koreans had fought hard, and by Nov., 25, 1950, many of the frontline rifle companies of the 2nd Division were under half strength, not counting the South Korean replacements (there weren't many American replacements available).

The South Koreans fought bravely but were poorly trained and had few, if any, experienced junior officers. (South Korea had not really had an army in June 1950, just a glorified constabulary; and most of that had been destroyed. There had not been time to train newcomers, however well motivated.)

It is obvious, in principle and from instances related by Marshall, that a rifle company made up of three-quarters speaking one language and one-quarter speaking another, with no translators, no common doctrine and no common experience lacks unit cohesion. Expecting an army like that to continue an attack requires a belief that organized resistance had ended.

So it had, by Nov. 27, only for the 2nd Division.

Marshall has nothing to say about this, the key factor (after MacArthur's incompetence and corruption), to the outcome of the battle.

There were plenty of failures at low levels, too, as well as some meaningless bravery and local competence; but it was the high level failures that determined the outcome.

Most tragic, except for the civilians, who barely rate a nod from Marshall, were the Turks. The Turkish Brigade was new to the front. When the South Koreans broke, the brigade was rushed forward by American Corps commanders, without maps, support, intelligence or liaison into a hole in the front that couldn't have been – and hadn't been -- covered by a division.

The bewildered Turks were annihilated.

The full measure of Marshall's idiocy shows in his final paragraph, which needs to be quoted in full:

“That (the end of the battle) was on December 1. By Christmas Day, 2nd Division was again a going concern, en route to a new battlefield,. Its swift flight upward from its own ashes, even more than this story of struggle, bespeaks the character, courage, and faith of those who survived and the others still missing.”

Does it need to be said that the unit on Dec. 25 was not the 2nd Division? That formation was no more. It had been destroyed by MacArthur, with Chinese help, never more to exist. Giving new men an old number is not resurrection.


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