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Reviewed by:
  • Their War for Korea: American, Asian, and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945–1953
  • James I. Matray
Allan R. Millett , Their War for Korea: American, Asian, and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945–1953. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. xiv + 285 pp. $29.95.

Countless Korean War veterans in the United States have felt angry and bitter about having fought in what for nearly a half-century was a forgotten conflict. The dedication in June 1995 of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, reflected and accelerated a revival of public interest in President Harry S. Truman's "police action." By then, historians for more than a decade had been adding new books and articles to a growing literature that depicted the Korean War as the most important event of the Cold War. In Their War for Korea Allan R. Millett "attempts to find the meaning of the Korean War through the experience of individuals and small groups of people caught within the third-bloodiestconflict of the twentieth century" (p. xxii). "This is a book of war stories," Millet writes (p. xxi), but unlike other recent compilations of reminiscences it includes recollections not only from American but also from South Korean and European participants. Millett's desire to highlight the "international dimension" (p. xii) of the war extends to a discussion of North Korean, Chinese, and Soviet perspectives, but in far less depth because of restricted (or non-existent) access to archives. Millett rightly notes that the evidence in declassified Soviet documents "is better than nothing, but it is hardly satisfying" (p.138).

Their War for Korea begins with a brief but insightful introduction that explains how North Korea's invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 transformed a postcolonial conflict into a conventional war. Millett then shares the results of numerous interviews in forty-six chapters varying in length from less than two to at most six [End Page 168] pages, summarizing the recollections of participants and often inserting block quotations retelling personal experiences. Most of these snapshots focus on a particular individual, usually offering details about the person's life before and after the war. Part I ("The Koreans") relates the stories of previously unknown people who endured hunger, separation, injustice, misidentification, torture, imprisonment, familial distress, and unspeakable carnage. Part II ("The Allies") describes the experiences of Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Thailand, Australia, China, and the Soviet Union, all of which fought for reasons of duty, obligation, adventure, and national security interests. Occupying the most space, Part III ("The Americans") retells the stories of heroic infantrymen, inexperienced Marines, mistreated pilots, a dedicated doctor, and a crusading attorney.

Readers interested in military history but unfamiliar with the Korean War will appreciate the valuable special features in the book. An appendix (printed three times in my copy!) contains statistics on war-related casualties, U.S. military service, the air war, and prisoners of war. Millett includes a useful chronology and a handy glossary of abbreviations, military terms, and non-English words and terms. Though grainy, photographs of participants from then and now enhance consistently excellent personal profiles. Millett, a respected military historian, discredits the popular belief that 54,000 Americans died in Korea, rather than the more accurate 36,000. But it is his familiarity with the history and people of Korea that energizes this volume with passion and power. Millett writes with understanding and emotion about a U.S. pilot stranded in North Korea who "had just experienced enough misfortune to qualify as a Korean" (p.70). He makes frequent references to the disruptive and destructive impact of the Cheju-do Uprising of 1948 and the Yosu-Sunchon Rebellion of 1949. In highlighting these events, Millett skillfully demonstrates the civil character of a war that "reflected the development of two diametrically opposed political visions of a modern Korea, released from the Japanese colonial exploitation that began in 1905 and ended forty years later" (p. xxii).

This well-written and carefully prepared study has a distinctly respectful tone. As a former U.S. Marine officer, Millett often writes in the first person about his personal interactions and relationships with Korean and American veterans. Some Korean War scholars, however...