Monday, September 17, 2012

Book Review: From Pusan to Panmunjom

Title: From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General
Author: Paik Sun Yup
ebook: 271 pages
Publisher: Potomac Books Inc. (October 1999)
ISBN-10: 1574887432
ISBN-13: 978-1574887433

An immensely important contribution to Korean War discussions, From Pusan to Panmujom chronicles the Korean War from instigation to armistice from the viewpoint of arguably the most influential and well-respected ROK Army officer ever, former General Paik Sun Yup. His involvement permeated virtually every major battle and decision that occurred on the battlefield and thus, innately qualifies him to narrate the vastly overlooked Korean perspective of the war. From frantically forming a counterattack to repel the invading North Korean forces, holding the line at the Pusan Perimeter, re-establishing tactical dominance back near the 38th parallel and beyond to capture Pyongyang, to domestic objectives such as quelling the communist guerrilla force near Mt. Jiri and representing the armed forces at the armistice talks, General Paik was the quintessential key player in every major event during the Korean War. His story is begging to be heard.

As Paik concedes, just prior to the war The ROK Army was an overwhelmingly under-equipped militia at best. It was only army in name. None of the heavy armor, long-range firepower, or logistical support existed yet and thus, was reduced to being compared to the U.S. Army as nothing more than a ragtag group of underpaid and undertrained volunteers and forced draftees. While this might be partially correct, the later joint U.S. Army's contribution of heavy armor and superior howitzers combined with the ROK's infantry proved to be an effective fighting force despite relatively little previous experience. Paik maintains that his men's determination to unify the country and staunch anti-communism stance steeled them into hardened soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. Paik proudly writes highly of his men; so much so that it's difficult to imagine how he must have dealt with the loses inflicted by the numerous Chinese human wave offenses that inundated his forces.

Not only was Paik the first Korean to reach the prestigious rank of Four-Star General, he was also amazingly young; few other 33-year-olds could claim his level of success. Yet, Paik comes off as a humble working-man's soldier; a man devoted to the service of his country but who could also see the internationally unfolding big picture. Even as he pens this memoir decades later, he attributes successes to those around him and claims responsibility for failures. Men of Paik's caliber are indeed rare. 

Paik's memoir affects me on a few personal levels. As a former enlisted member of the U.S. armed forces, I can understand the clear reasons why he was quickly promoted; Paik appears to have been an outstanding commanding officer at a time when they were likely few and far between. The history nerd in me appreciates Paik's ability to give grand scheme analyses when deconstructing individual battles; he appropriately expounds on certain contextual details to help color the circumstances that he and his men faced. His politically sensitive language, too, is foretelling of his second career in diplomacy. Furthermore, he often goes beyond dryly stating who did what; Paik briefs the reader of the men around him who would later rise to future successes inside and outside of the military. For all of Paik's militaristic achievements, he also maintains a certain degree of literary professionalism that hovers around frankness and cordiality. For such a heavy topic, it's really a great read.

This is a well-constructed memoir, no doubt about it. I have very few reservations about recommending it. If only the reader does a short brush-up on basic military hierarchy and unit strength comparison (corps, battalion, company, etc) the book then becomes highly appreciable by non-military and former military alike. Like many others who have read this book, I come away feeling not only more informed and also grateful to Paik for writing down his astonishing experiences. If you're interested in Korea or the Korean War, you will surely appreciate this organically Korean side of the story.


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