On a crisp, sunny winter’s day on a red earth hilltop in North Vietnam, a young Californian named Howard Simpson was reluctantly fishing around with borrowed chopsticks in a lunchtime bowl of pho soup, while trying to ignore the stench of torn-up corpses festooning the barbed wire a few yards away. Simpson, a stocky World War II veteran with a broad smile and thick glasses, was an information officer from the US Embassy in Saigon. Part of his job was to monitor the use that the French Expeditionary Corps was making of the generous flow of US aid provided through the Military Advisory Assistance Group installed in Vietnam two years previously. He had hitched a flight here from Hanoi on a C-47 full of ammunition, to gather facts and impressions after what was being presented as a particularly significant French victory over the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.

The French theory was that even in the roadless wilderness of this ‘High Region’ a strong air–ground base could be implanted and kept supplied by airlift alone – a concept for which the British ‘Chindit’ campaign in Burma in 1944 offered encouraging precedents. The Viet Minh had been born as elusive guerrilla bands; but for two years now, with Chinese help, they had been reinventing themselves as a conventional army, with 10,000-man divisions and light mobile artillery. Such forces are a great deal more unwieldy to move and supply than furtive packs of guerrillas, and the French Air Force could hope to track and harass their marches, robbing them of surprise. By using their American-supplied transport aircraft to create and sustain strong garrisons in the hills, complete with field artillery for defence and paratroop battalions for aggressive sorties, the French high command hoped if not to block, then at least to channel and hamper the cross-country movement of Giap’s large regular formations, and to lure him into attacking them where they were strongest. Howard Simpson would be told that what had happened here at Na San seemed to vindicate that hope.

The garrison which had defended Na San over the previous few nights was a microcosm of the French Expeditionary Corps and its local allies. As he was jeeped across the camp Simpson saw French Colonial and Foreign Legion paratroopers, Legion infantry, North African riflemen, lowland Vietnamese from the Red River delta, and Thais recruited in the hills round about. Virtually all the officers were mainland Frenchmen or ‘blackfeet’ from France’s North African colonies. On previous occasions Simpson had not received a particularly warm welcome from the French Army in the field. Here at Na San, however, most of the officers of the Troupes Aéroportées d’Indochine (TAPI) and the Légion Étrangère were happy to drink the ‘Amerloque’s’ whisky and let him look around; they had a story that deserved to be told.

Since mid-October 1952 the Viet Minh’s military commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been leading three divisions of his best troops, trained and equipped by Communist China, deep into these Thai Highlands – the jumbled, forested hills of north-west Tonkin that straddled the border with Laos to the south. Until recently these sparsely populated highlands had played little part in France’s six-year-old Indochina War; the cockpit of the fighting against General Giap’s regulars had been the Red River delta, 100 miles away to the east. But after a first probe in October 1951, this last autumn Giap had opened a new front here in the High Region.

The tribal peoples of the border country had no love for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause, and the French had never needed to guard these hills with more than a chain of tiny forts scattered along the ridges between the Red and Black rivers, mostly garrisoned by local recruits. There were no usable roads, and apart from jungle tracks the lines of communication to these remote posts had been maintained by air. Few had airstrips that would take anything larger than small bush aircraft, and any large-scale resupply or reinforcement had to be done by parachute. Since October 1952, these little garrisons had been swept aside by Giap’s advance; French paratroopers had made sacrificial jumps to buy time for their retreat, and now the remaining defended islands in this green ocean had been pushed west of the Black River. Their anchor had been planted here, at Na San, where a dirt airstrip had been skinned with pierced steel plates to allow its use by the Air Force’s C-47s, and an entrenched camp had been created in Giap’s path with frantic haste. It was held by a mixed garrison of a dozen battalions, designated ‘Operational Group Middle Black River’ – GOMRN for short.

The defences of Na San were a series of dug-in positions surrounded with barbed wire and minefields, most of them manned by single companies of a hundred or so French troops, and arranged to occupy a rough ring of hilltops about 3 miles across that surrounded the airstrip cupped in the valley below. Inside this outer rampart GOMRN’s commander – a dour, one-eyed paratroop colonel named Jean Gilles – had built a continuous inner ring of entrenched strongpoints around the airstrip, headquarters, medical aid post, stores depots, and artillery and heavy mortar positions. But not all the garrison had arrived, the defences had not been fully prepared, and most of the vital artillery was not yet in place when the first Viet Minh units reached the area in the third week of November. In keeping with their guerrilla tradition, they arrived unannounced.

Strongpoint PA8 in the northern face of the inner ring was held by only 110 men – 11th Company, III Battalion of the Foreign Legion’s 5th Infantry Regiment – but it was exceptionally well built. Its commander, Captain Letestu, had served in the Maginot Line as a young ranker, and understood exactly how to lay out a defensive position; under his guidance his légionnaires had worked with a will, and their generous allocation of machine guns were well sited in sandbag ‘blockhouses’ pushed out to sweep the approaches to the wire. All this fieldcraft and labour might have gone for nothing on the night of 23/24 November. With neither warning nor preparatory fire, a Viet Minh battalion infiltrated right up to the northern wire of PA8 under cover of some nervous movement by Thai troops, and at about 8pm they tried to rush it. The only other officer, Lieutenant Durand, was killed at once, and Letestu led a small counter-attack force into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the two enemy platoons that had got into the trenches. The Viet Minh were finally killed or driven out at about 9.30pm, by which time 11th Company had already lost 15 men dead or disappeared and as many again seriously wounded.

Meanwhile heavy mortar fire was falling on the southern part of the position, heralding another attack. In the absence of French artillery, Captain Letestu got in radio contact with the Foreign Legion mortar company in the central area, and although no fire plans had yet been prepared Lieutenant Bart managed to bring down the fire of his ten weapons on the threatened sector and the gullies approaching it.4 A company of 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion from the central reserve was sent to reinforce PA8, arriving at about 11pm just in time to help hold off a dangerous attack; but Letestu was furious to overhear their commander Captain Guilleminot reporting that he had arrived to ‘retake the strongpoint’, and obliged him to get back on the radio and put the record straight. The wounded were now being cared for by the battalion medical officer Lieutenant Thomas, who with Sergeant Chief Rinaldi had disobeyed orders and crawled half a mile from the central camp to slip through the enemy ranks and the barbed wire.

The last attack came at about 12.30am; it was repulsed like the others, and a useful part was played by a ‘PIM’ – a Viet Minh prisoner long kept by the company as a tame porter. On his own initiative he replaced the wounded crew of one of the company’s 60mm mortars and loaded and fired it by himself. The enemy finally fell back under cover of darkness, taking most of their casualties with them, but 64 corpses and five abandoned wounded were found around the strongpoint. Next morning Colonel Gilles – not a man much given to public praise – told Captain Letestu that he had saved Na San; he also ordered the officers of the other strongpoints to come and examine Letestu’s ‘magisterial’ example of field fortification.


The British in Manila

Lieutenant Colonel William Draper, an officer of the 79th Foot (one of the regular regiments that had fought at the Battle of Wandiwash), had been on leave in England in the winter of 1761–62 when he suggested an expedition against the Philippines to Anson and Ligonier. Reasons similar to those that had made them choose Havana as a target disposed them to listen to Draper’s proposal. Manila was the center of trade and administration for the Spanish Philippines and perhaps even more important in the Pacific than Havana in the Atlantic. Nor was conquest an impossible goal, for although the Spanish had built the fort of Cavite to protect the harbor and had enclosed the city’s core within a bastioned wall, they had clearly believed that Manila’s best source of security was its remoteness. That the Philippines took six to eight months to reach from Europe, in fact, only made the expedition more attractive to Ligonier and Anson, for Draper assured them that all the troops he would need were already in India, just six or eight weeks’ sail from the archipelago. Since Spain communicated with the colony via Mexico on the Manila galleon, there was good reason to hope that the invaders might arrive before the garrison even knew that Spain and Great Britain were at war.

Soon after the declaration of war, therefore, the ministers decided in favor of the venture. In February, Draper left Britain with a temporary commission as brigadier general and authority to raise an expeditionary force of two regular battalions and five hundred East India Company troops. By the end of June he had reached Madras. Once there, however, nothing went as planned, and the would-be conqueror of Manila found that the local authorities were willing to release only one redcoat regiment (his own 79th Foot), and a company of Royal Artillery. Draper therefore recruited what men he could—two companies of French deserters and several hundred Asian recruits (“such a Banditti,” he grumbled, as had “never assembled since the time of Spartacus”)—and sailed from Madras at the end of July.

When Draper’s little flotilla of warships and transports entered Manila Bay on September 22, the Manila galleon had yet to arrive. Thus the British sailed unchallenged past the guns of Cavite, landed near Manila, and attacked the city on the twenty-sixth, before the Spanish commander had heard that a state of war existed between their monarch and his own. Despite the tiny number of troops Draper had at his disposal (only about two thousand, including a battalion of sailors pressed into service), and despite the onset of the monsoon, which repeatedly held up siege operations, the British managed to breach the wall and storm the city on October 5. Manila surrendered later that day. Five days later the fort of Cavite capitulated, and on October 30 Spanish authorities throughout the archipelago made their formal submission. The booty captured exceeded $4,000,000—more than £1,300,000 sterling—in value.

There could have been no more conclusive demonstration of the global reach that the army and navy had acquired during the Seven Years’ War. In the whole military history of Europe nothing quite compared to it. Even as the government faced unprecedented postwar challenges—as Wilkes railed against the ministers and the London crowds roared back their approval—the conquest seemed to affirm Britain’s essential invincibility. Even more than Havana, Draper’s feat was the crowning accomplishment of Britain’s most glorious war, and in it the British people for one last shining moment saw reflected all their nation’s glory. What they did not see (and perhaps would not have understood if they had) was the significance of what happened once the conquerors ran the Union Jack up Manila’s flagstaff.

Unlike Canada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Havana, the people of the Philippines did not turn out en masse to trade with the British. Instead the East India Company, to which Draper turned over the task of governing in November 1762, never did establish control over the archipelago, or indeed over any territory outside the immediate vicinity of Manila itself. Don Simón de Anda, a junior judge of the royal Audencia (supreme court), managed to slip out of the city during the siege and escape to the province of Pampanga, on the north shore of Manila Bay. There, in the town of Bacolor, thirty-five miles from Manila, he established a provisional government and began to organize an army. The highest officers of the Spanish colonial administration hesitated to join him, but thousands of Filipinos did not. Soon Anda’s guerrilla army mustered ten thousand men, and even though more than seven thousand of them lacked arms more formidable than bows and arrows, they still denied the British control over anything outside of Manila and Cavite. Despite news that a treaty had been signed, Anda refused to agree to a truce until orders arrived from London in March 1764, restoring the archipelago to Spanish control. Even then he would not order his men to lay down their arms until the new Spanish governor arrived. On the last day of May 1764, Anda led a column of native soldiers into Manila to receive the city from its British rulers. Any casual bystander would have concluded that he was witnessing a British surrender.

Administering Manila from November 2, 1762, to May 31, 1764, cost the East India Company over £200,000 sterling above its (modest) share of the booty and its (negligible) profits on trade. The conquest of Manila differed from other British overseas victories, therefore, insofar as the occupants of the colony refused to be subdued either by force or by commerce. Anyone paying attention to the history of Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines at the moment it ended might well have pondered its implied lessons in the relationship between arms and trade, loyalty and empire. In the Philippine episode more than any other of the Seven Years’ War, the principles of imperial dominion stood out with unmistakable clarity. Military power—particularly naval power—could gain an empire, but force alone could never control colonial dependencies. Only the voluntary allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of the colonists could do that. Flags and governors and even garrisons were, in the end, only the empire’s symbols. Trade and loyalty were its integuments, and when colonial populations that refused their allegiance also declined to trade, the empire’s dominion extended not a yard beyond the range of its cannons.

The Dark Age of Mesopotamia

Between 1119 and 1032 BC, the Hittites collapse, and the prosperity of Assyria and Babylon withers.

While the Mycenaeans deserted their cities and the Dorians trickled down into them, disruption was rippling eastwards, past Troy (now shabbily rebuilt, resettled, and a ghost of its former magnificent self) and farther east, into the lands still held by the Hittites.

By this time, the Hittite empire was not much more than a shadow state. The poverty, famine, and general unrest of Tudhaliya IV’s reign had worn away its outer edges, and fighting over the throne continued. During the Mycenaean slide downwards, Tudhaliya IV’s younger son took the crown away from his older brother and claimed the country for himself. He called himself Suppiluliuma II, in an effort to evoke the great Hittite empire-builder of a century and a half earlier.

Suppiluliuma II’s inscriptions brag of his own victories against Sea Peoples. He fought several naval engagements off the coast of Asia Minor, beating off Mycenaean refugees and mercenaries, and managed for a time to keep his southern coast free of invasion. But he could not bring back the golden days of Hittite power, when his namesake had almost managed to put a son on the throne of Egypt itself.

The same wandering peoples who had pushed towards Egypt—peoples fleeing famine, or plague, or overpopulation, or war in their own lands—were pressing into Asia Minor. Some came from the direction of Troy, across the Aegean Sea and into Hittite land. Others came from the sea; Cyprus, the island south of the Hittite coast, apparently served them as a staging point. “Against me the ships from Cyprus drew up in line three times for battle in the midst of the sea,” Suppiluliuma II writes. “I destroyed them, I seized the ships and in the midst of the sea I set them on fire…. [Yet] the enemy in multitudes came against me from Cyprus.” Still other enemies crossed over the narrow Bosphorus Strait, from the area north of the Greek peninsula called Thrace; these tribes were known as the Phrygians.

There were too many of them, and the Hittite army was too small. The newcomers moved right through Suppiluliuma’s troops, scattered his defenses, and arrived in the heart of his kingdom. The capital city Hattusas burned to the ground; its people fled; the royal court dispersed like dust.

The Hittite language survived in a few separated cities around the southern edge of the old empire; Carchemish was the largest. In these last outposts of the Hittites, the Hittite gods hung onto life. But the kingdom that had worshipped them was gone.

The ebb of three civilizations in a western crescent—the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Egyptians—coincided with a sudden burst of power to the east. For a few brief years, while the wandering nomads and Sea Peoples were busy harassing the west, Assyria and Babylon brightened.

In Assyria, the king Tiglath-Pileser was crowned not long after the sack of Hattusas. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had each in turn ruled over the Assyrian heartland—an upside-down triangle with Assur at its bottom point, stretching up and over to Erbila on the west and Nineveh on the east. It was a nice little area, prosperous and easily defended, with the richest corn-growing land in all of Mesopotamia. All three kings had been content to hold it, defend it, and keep it safe.

Tiglath-Pileser wanted more. He was the first warlike king since Shalmaneser, eight generations and a hundred years earlier. He turned against the invaders and used their attacks to take more land for himself. And for a brief period—a little under forty years—Assyria regained something like its previous luminescence.

The Phrygians, having stormed through the Hittite territory, were approaching Assyria on the northwest. In one of his earliest victories, Tiglath-Pileser beat them off. His inscriptions boast that he defeated an army of twenty thousand Phrygians (he calls them “Mushki”) in the valley of the northern Tigris: “I made their blood flow down the ravines and pour from the heights of the mountains,” he explains. “I cut off their heads and piled them like grain heaps.”

And then he went on fighting his way northwest, heading right into the face of the approaching wave. “[I set out for] the lands of the distant kings who were on the shore of the Upper Sea, who had never known subjection,” he wrote in his annals. “I took my chariots and my warriors and over the steep mountain and through their wearisome paths I hewed a way with pickaxes of bronze; I made passable a road for my chariot and my troops. I crossed the Tigris…. I scattered warriors…and made their blood to flow.”

For thirty-eight years, Tiglath-Pileser fought. An expanding list of cities, conquered by the king, sent taxes and laborers to the Assyrian palace and suffered under the rule of Assyrian governors. Among them was Carchemish; Tiglath-Pileser had taken it (according to his own inscriptions, anyway) “in one day.” Other cities gave up without a fight, their kings greeting Tiglath-Pileser’s approach by coming out and falling down to kiss his feet. Tiglath-Pileser himself travelled all the way to the Mediterranean coast, where he went dolphin-hunting on a spear-boat rowed by his men. The pharaoh of Egypt—one of the eight Rameses—sent him a crocodile for a present, which Tiglath-Pileser took back to add to his game preserve in Assur. He built shrines and fortresses and temples, each proclaiming that at long last, Assyria had another great king.

Down to Assyria’s south, Babylon also saw the rise of a great king.

Babylon and its surrounding lands had been ruled by nobodies ever since Burnaburiash, who had corresponded with Tutankhamun two hundred years earlier. Within three or four years of Tiglath-Pileser’s accession up in Assur, the undistinguished line of the Second Dynasty of Isin spat out a genetic sport named Nebuchadnezzar.

While Tiglath-Pileser fought his way west and north, Nebuchadnezzar turned east. The statue of Marduk, after all, was still in the hands of the Elamites of Susa; since its capture a hundred years before, no king of Babylon had proved himself mighty enough to get it back.

Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Elam was met by a wall of Elamite soldiers. He ordered his troops to retreat, and made a cunning plan for a second attempt. He would march his men into Elam at the very height of summer, a time when no commander with any sense would force an army to march anywhere. The Babylonian soldiers, arriving at Elam’s borders, caught the border patrols by surprise and made it to the city of Susa before anyone could raise the alarm. They raided the city, broke down the temple doors, kidnapped the statue, and departed to march in triumph back to Babylon.

Rather than waiting around for the priests of Marduk to acknowledge their debt to him, Nebuchadnezzar hired scribes to compose tales about the rescue, not to mention hymns in Marduk’s honor. Stories and songs and offerings streamed from the royal palace to the Temple of Marduk until the god stood at the top of the Babylonian pantheon; it was in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I that Marduk became the chief god of the Babylonians. And in a classic circular argument, Nebuchadnezzar reasoned that, since he had rescued the chief god of Babylon, the chief god of Babylon had set divine favor on him. The undistinguished beginnings of the Second Dynasty were forgotten; Nebuchadnezzar had the god-given right to rule Babylon.

Under these two mighty kings, Babylon and Assyria were more or less balanced in power. Sharp border spats occasionally intensified into actual battles. A couple of Assyrian frontier towns were sacked by Babylonian soldiers, and Tiglath-Pileser retorted by marching all the way down to Babylon and burning the king’s palace. This sounds more serious than it was. Babylon lay so close to the Assyrian border that most of the Babylonian government offices had already been moved elsewhere. The city was a sacred site, but no longer a center of power. And Tiglath-Pileser, his point made, marched back home and left Babylon alone. He did not intend to provoke an all-out war. The two kingdoms were equally strong, and there were more serious threats to face.

The movement of peoples from the north and west had not stopped. Tiglath-Pileser was continually fighting border battles against roving wanderers who were rapidly becoming as pervasive as the Amorites had been, almost a thousand years before. These people were Western Semites who had lived in the northwest of the Western Semitic lands, until pushed onwards by the influx of people from farther west. The Assyrians called them Aramaeans, and by Tiglath-Pileser’s own accounts, he made something like twenty-eight different campaigns to the west, each aimed at beating back Aramaean invasions.

Nor were Babylon and Assyria immune from the famine and drought, the crop failures and sickness plaguing the rest of the known world. Court records describe the last years of Tiglath-Pileser’s reign as desperate and hungry, a time when the Assyrian people had to scatter into the surrounding mountains to find food.

Babylon was in hardship too, and the city’s suffering grew more intense as Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-year reign drew to an end. The city’s troubles are described in the Erra Epic, a long poem in which the god Marduk complains that his statue is unpolished, his temple in disrepair, but he can’t leave Babylon long enough to do anything about it, because every time he departs the city, something horrendous happens to it. The current horrendousness is the hovering mischief of another god, Erra, who because of his nature can’t resist afflicting the city: “I shall finish off the land and count it as ruins,” he says. “I shall fell the cattle, I shall fell the people.” Babylon itself, shrivelled by the wind, had become like a “luxuriant orchard” whose fruit had withered before ripening. “Woe to Babylon,” Marduk mourns, “I filled it with seeds like a pine cone, but its abundance did not come to harvest.”

The dryness and failed crops suggest famine; the falling of people and cattle, a repeat visitation of the arrows of Apollo Sminthian. Sickness and hunger did nothing to improve the defenses of either city. By the time that Tiglath-Pileser’s son succeeded his father, the Aramaean problem had become so acute that he was forced to make a treaty with the new king of Babylon. Together, the two kingdoms hoped to beat off their common enemy.

The attempt failed. Not long after, Aramaeans rampaged across Assyria, seizing for themselves all but the very center of the empire. They invaded Babylon as well; the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king, lost his throne to an Aramaean usurper.

The Aramaeans, like the Dorians, did not write. And so as Egypt descended into fractured disorder and darkness spread across the Greek peninsula, a similar fog rolled from the old Hittite lands to cover Mesopotamia. The land between the two rivers entered its own dark age, and for a hundred years or so, no history emerges from the blackness.

The Twenty-first Century’s Rifle

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, early 2006

The fourteen Marines, ready to dash, waited for the signal. It was a cold February morning on a firing range just inland from North Carolina’s coast. The Marines, members of Second Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, were preparing for a deployment in the Anbar province of Iraq, and on this day they had set aside their M-4s and M-16s. In front of them, a short jog away, were fourteen Kalashnikov assault rifles, disassembled, unloaded, resting on the ground. At the signal, the Marines were to sprint to the rifles, reassemble them, perform a function check, load a magazine, and fire into a man-shaped target, aiming for the face and chest. Their rifles were a mix of Kalashnikov variants. They came from Romania, Russia, China, and North Korea. One was an original AK-47 from Izhevsk, assembled from solid machined steel, date-stamped 1954. It was fifty-two years old—almost three times the age of some of the men about to fire it.

The Corps had a nickname for this test: Just In Case. In the tour ahead for these Marines, their officers wanted to be sure that they could pick up a Kalashnikov, in any condition, whether from an allied Iraqi soldier or from an insurgent in a close-range fight, and use the weapon immediately and well. The signal was given. The Marines were sprinting. Thirty seconds or so later, the first of them were firing. Holes began to appear in their targets’ heads.

After almost six decades, the long travels of the Kalashnikov assault rifle had achieved the inevitable state: full saturation. Decades earlier the first AK-47s had left Soviet hands, and in the years since they had become the hand weapon of choice for strongmen, criminals, terrorists, and messianic guerrilla leaders. In time the Kalashnikov had also become a preferred arm for those who fought against the Soviet Union or Russia, and those who organized genocide. And now it was institutionalized in the training of American infantrymen. It could not, with all prudence, be any other way. In the battles ahead, every one of these Marines would encounter Kalashnikovs in the hands of allies and enemies alike. To see Marines prepare themselves around these simple facts, training with the signature socialist arm on one of the most prominent American military bases, was to grasp the extent of Kalashnikov saturation in modern war.

What does saturation mean? It would be naïve to think that war would stop without these weapons. It wouldn’t. It would be just as naïve to think that many of the consequences of war as it has been waged in recent decades might not be lessened if these rifles were in fewer hands, and not so available for future conflicts. For how long will battlefields be so? The answer is straightforward—as long as the rifles exist in the outsized numbers the Cold War left behind.

Much attention is paid to accountability, security, and destruction of potential materials for weapons of mass destruction. With lesser urgency and smaller budgets, efforts to secure and destroy antipersonnel land mines have become widely accepted. In the past decade or so, similar attention has been given to efforts to eliminate stocks of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, whose existence threatens the security of air transportation. The notion of regulating military firearms and destroying excess stockpiles enjoys much less support and faces considerable opposition, no matter that illicit uses of assault rifles have killed and wounded far more people than have all of these other weapons combined.

There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that surplus small arms are regarded as foreign-policy tools to be kept in reserve. Part of it is that to many government officials, honest and corrupt alike, surplus small arms are commodities, items to be converted to cash. Part of it is the manner in which priorities are set. Infantry arms that are loose in the field are exceedingly difficult to account for or collect. Surplus arms, locked up in armories, do not seem to cry for attention. Domestic and international politics play a role, too. The governments most responsible for the widespread distribution of military assault rifles—Russia, China, and the United States—have, for different reasons, shown little to no interest in destroying their excess weapons or those of other governments, even when they are not needed by standing military forces, and even when they endanger their own troops.

The United States has underwritten destruction programs. These have been small in ambition and scale, low in priority and funding, and undermined by official incoherence. Moreover, domestic politics in the United States have hindered any American government from trying to undo assault-rifle proliferation, at least as more than a backwater project. The climate of mutual distrust—between those who would seek to regulate and destroy more military assault rifles and those who claim that any such steps risk infringing the right of American citizens to bear arms—is of such an order that those who direct American foreign policy often steer clear of the issue. There is also a psychological hurdle. The near ubiquity of military assault rifles in conflict zones can send the subliminal signal that nothing can be done, except perhaps to arm more people against those who already have the guns. This is a typical course. Where armed groups threaten a perceived American interest, a common solution is to send in more guns to counter them. In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The processes of arms reduction are not completely idled. Some aspects of nonproliferation have broad international support, and certain procedural and legislative elements of trafficking control are here to stay. But the efforts are patchwork and are undermined by inattentive and uninterested governments, and by governments that actively flout the rules. Local successes have occurred. More successes remain possible. Diligent researchers and nongovernment groups, along with individual officers, can stop bad practices here and there. But there is little momentum and many loopholes, and there is little reason to think that on the grand scale much will be done to keep the flow of illegal infantry arms in check. The case of Leonid Minin, the Ukrainian-Israeli arms dealer arrested near Milan, illustrated the state of affairs. Caught with documents describing the illegal shipment of nearly fourteen thousand Kalashnikovs and 9 million rounds of ammunition, Minin was released from custody after Italian courts ruled that Italy had no jurisdiction over his black-market brokering activities elsewhere. He walked. Had he been convicted and remained in jail, the trade would have continued. Where assault rifles are wanted, recent history shows, they appear. They move across borders like any other contraband, like heroin or hashish, like illegal immigrants, almost like rain. They are liquid. Demand ensures supply.

The comparison to illicit drugs has its limits. Like narcotics, assault rifles are difficult to find, secure, and remove once they have been distributed within a population. Unlike narcotics, they are not consumable. They remain in their users’ possession, sometimes for decades. From 2001 through 2009, it was possible to find Kalashnikov assault rifles in Afghanistan bearing manufacturing stamps from as far back as 1953.2 These were some of the very first AK-47s made. They had been forged, machined, and assembled nearly six decades before in Izhevsk. If they had been accompanied by log books revealing the names of those who had carried them, each would likely tell of years in the hands of Soviet conscripts, then of a period of reissue to the Soviet Union’s Afghan forces. They survived from there, in militias and caches, until they resurfaced in the hands of the current generation of Afghan police officers and soldiers, the proxies of the United States, alongside Kalashnikovs that originated in arms plants throughout the former communist bloc—Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The wooden stocks of these most aged AK-47s showed dents and dings. Otherwise most of these rifles appeared to be in excellent order, ready to fire for decades more.

Of all the methods to limit illegal trafficking in military arms, only one way is sure: destruction. Destruction can happen any number of ways. The most straightforward and effective method is to destroy excess rifles in government stockpiles, or those that are collected in conflict zones. Programs along these lines have faced obstacles of all sorts, ranging from practical to ideological. The urge to redistribute the arms often outweighs suggestions to destroy them. In this way, efforts to disarm Iraq and Afghanistan failed. Few arms were collected, and commanders who did obtain working rifles often reissued them to people considered, at least at the moment, supportive of the American military’s mission. In stockpiles, other pressures prevented destruction, and many of the nations that have the largest stocks of weapons—Ukraine, for example—have participated in destruction programs only on a small scale. No sustained will has emerged to cut up the guns, in part because guns and ammunition can still be converted to money. The United States sent mixed messages and created uncomfortable situations in the Eastern bloc. During the past decade, one arm of the United States government, the State Department, was encouraging ministries to destroy excess weapons. Another, the Department of Defense, was shopping for the same items in the same countries and often purchasing through some of the same black-market middlemen who have been accused of smuggling.

Is there an end? Yes. But the end of the Kalashnikov’s role as a primary tool for killing will not result, in all likelihood, from any disarmament program or policies. The final factor will be time. Kalashnikovs are sturdy, but not indestructible. They can and do break—sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car, sometimes when struck by bullets or shrapnel, occasionally when warped by fire. If left exposed and unattended long enough, they can succumb to pitting, corrosion, and rust. With the passing of many years, the combined tally of these forces will bring an end to these weapons. This will not be a short time. It will not even be decades. But in another half-century, or century, the rifles will have broken, one by one, and the chance exists that they will no longer be a significant factor in war, terror, atrocity, and crime, and they will stop being a barometer of the insecurity gripping many regions of the world. Until that time, they will remain in view and in use. Mikhail Kalashnikov was right. The AK-47 is one of the great legacies of the Soviet period. Its descendants will outlast the Soviet Union for decades more, products intended to strengthen nations that have made many nations weaker and put more people at risk.

Prussia in the Danish War

In the winter of 1863, Schleswig-Holstein was in the news again. Frederick VII of Denmark had died on 15 November 1863, triggering a succession crisis. As there was no direct male heir (the Danish Crown passed instead via the maternal line to Christian of Glücksburg), a dispute arose over who had a legitimate hereditary claim to rule over the duchies. The details of the Schleswig-Holstein controversy have always been taxing to follow – the more so as nearly everyone involved in it was called either Frederick or Christian – and the following is a sketch of the salient points. A series of international treaties had established in the early 1850s that the new King of Denmark, Christian of Glücksburg, would succeed on the same terms as his predecessor, Frederick VII. In 1863, however, the waters were muddied by the appearance of a rival claimant, Prince Frederick of Augustenburg. The Augustenburgs did have a longstanding claim to the duchies, but Prince Frederick’s father, Christian of Augustenburg, had agreed to renounce it as part of the 1852 Treaty of London. In 1863, however, Frederick of Augustenburg declared himself unbound by the treaty of 1852 and defiantly adopted the title ‘Duke of Schleswig-Holstein’. His claim was enthusiastically supported by the German nationalist movement.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the distinctive quality of the Schleswig-Holstein crisis. Modern and pre-modern themes were interwoven. On the one hand, it was an old-fashioned dynastic crisis, triggered, like so many seventeenth and eighteenth-century crises, by the death of a king without male issue. In this sense, we might call the conflict of 1864 ‘the War of the Danish Succession’. On the other hand, Schleswig-Holstein became the flashpoint for a major war only because of the role played by nationalism as a mass movement. The galvanizing effect of the Schleswig-Holstein issue on the German national movement had already made itself felt in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848; in 1863–4, German nationalist opinion demanded that the duchies be constituted jointly as a new German federal state under the rule of the Augustenburg dynasty. Nationalism was crucial on the Danish side as well: the Danish nationalist movement demanded that Denmark defend its claim to Schleswig, and it was supported in this by the mainstream of Danish liberal opinion. The inexperienced and ineffectual new king, Christian IX, thus faced an explosive domestic situation when he came to the throne. At one point, the demonstrations taking place outside the royal palace in Copenhagen were so turbulent that the city’s chief of police warned of the imminent collapse of law and order in the capital. It was anxiety about the prospect of political upheaval that forced the hand of the new king. By signing the November Constitution of 1863, Christian IX announced his intention to absorb the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish unitary state, a gesture denounced by the German nationalists as an unpardonable provocation.

There were now three conflicting positions on the duchies. The Danes insisted on the incorporation of Schleswig as set out in the November Constitution of 1863. The German nationalist movement and the majority of states in the Confederation favoured the Augustenburg claim and were prepared to support an armed intervention. The Prussians and the Austrians opposed the Augustenburg claim and insisted that the Danes (and the Augustenburgs) abide by the promises made in the international treaties of 1850 and 1852. After much horse-trading at the Confederal Diet in December, a resolution was passed (by just one vote) that an intervention could proceed on the basis of the London treaties. On 23 December 1863, a small Confederal task force crossed the Danish frontier and moved northwards without resistance to occupy most of Holstein south of the river Eider. The strains within the Confederation soon began to tell. The task force (with only 12,000 men) had been sufficient to take undefended Holstein, but Schleswig would be another matter. The Danes were expected to put up a vigorous defence and a much larger force would be required to ensure success. Still acting in concert, Prussia and Austria declared that they were prepared to invade Schleswig, but only in their own right as European powers and only on the basis of the treaties of 1851 and 1852, not as representatives of the German Confederation and not in support of the Augustenburg claim. In January 1864, the two powers presented their joint ultimatum separately to Denmark (without consulting the other Confederal states) and, when the Danes refused to comply, moved their combined forces across the river Eider and into Schleswig.

It was a remarkable turnaround. The Austro-Prussian rivalry of the 1850s and early 1860s seemed to have made way for a mood of sweet harmony and cooperation. But the apparent unity of purpose concealed a pandemonium of conflicting expectations. For the Austrian Chancellor Count Johann Bernhard Rechberg, the joint campaign was a chance to discredit the German nationalist movement while establishing an Austro-Prussian condominium over Germany and reinvigorating the trans-territorial institutions of the German Confederation. It was also a way of preventing Berlin from securing major unilateral gains (such as the annexation of Schleswig) at Denmark’s (and Austria’s) expense. At the back of Rechberg’s mind was another threatening prospect: Napoleon III, who had begun to warm to his role as Europe’s troublemaker, had suggested to the Prussians that France would support the outright annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, along with the lesser states of northern Germany, to Prussia. It looked as if Paris was angling for another anti-Austrian war, with Prussia playing the role of Piedmont. Rechberg, who was kept fully informed by Bismarck of these initiatives, knew this was a war that the Austrian Empire could not afford to fight.

Bismarck’s agenda could scarcely have been more different. The Confederation as such played no role in his planning. His ultimate objective was to annex the duchies to Prussia. The Prussian Chief of Staff Helmut von Moltke may well have been the key influence here. Moltke was strongly opposed to the transformation of the duchies into an independent principality, on the grounds that the new entity might become a satellite of the Habsburgs and open up a hole in Prussia’s northern seaward flank. As Bismarck knew, however, a unilateral annexation would have exposed Prussia to the threat of combined reprisals from Austria, the rest of the Confederation, and possibly one or more European powers. The extra troops would also come in handy, especially if, as Moltke warned, the Danes succeeded in exploiting their superiority at sea to evacuate their troops from the mainland. The agreement to work with Austria was thus a temporary device to limit risk and ensure that all options remained open.

The Danish war came to an end on 1 August 1864, when the Danes were forced to sue for peace. Three features of the conflict deserve emphasis. The first is that the Prussians did not outperform the Austrians militarily. One early mistake was to nominate the Prussian Field Marshal Count Friedrich Heinrich Ernst von Wrangel as overall commander of the allied forces. The eighty-year-old Wrangel was old for his years and, though popular with the conservatives at court, at best a mediocre general. All his combat experience had been acquired against civilian insurgents in the revolutions of 1848. While Wrangel lurched from blunder to blunder in Denmark, the Austrian units acquitted themselves with courage and skill. On 2 February 1864, one Austrian brigade charged and took the Danish positions at Ober-Selk with such panache that old Wrangel rushed to embrace and kiss its commander on the cheeks, to the embarrassment of his Prussian colleagues. Four days later, the Austrian Brigade Nostitz broke through heavily defended Danish fortifications at Oeversee, while a Prussian Guards division on their flank looked on almost inert. These were frustrating setbacks for an army that had not experienced war for half a century and desperately needed to prove its mettle, both to the international community and to a domestic population that had been following the political struggle over military reform.

A second striking feature of the conflict was the primacy of the political over the military leadership. The Danish war was the first Prussian armed conflict in which a civilian politician exercised control. Throughout the war Bismarck ensured that the evolution of the conflict served the objectives of his diplomacy. He prevented the Prussian forces from pursuing the Danish army into Jutland during the early weeks of the war, so as to reassure the great powers that the joint campaign was not aimed at the territorial integrity of the Danish kingdom. There were slip-ups, to be sure – in mid-February, Wrangel sent an advance detachment of Guards north of the Jutland border despite instructions to the contrary. But Bismarck persuaded the war minister to send a sharp reprimand to the elderly general, and Wrangel was relieved of his command at Bismarck’s insistence in mid-May. It was Bismarck who oversaw Prussian communications with Vienna, ensuring that the terms of the alliance evolved to Prussia’s advantage. And in April it was Bismarck who insisted that the Prussian forces attack the Danish fortifications at Düppel in Schleswig, rather than mounting a protracted invasion of Denmark that might have dragged the other powers into the conflict.

The decision to attack Düppel was controversial. The Danish positions there were heavily fortified and manned, and it was clear that a Prussian frontal attack would succeed only – if at all – with numerous casualties. ‘Is it supposed to be a political necessity to take the bulwarks?’ asked Prince Frederick Charles, a brother of the king, who had been placed in charge of the siege. ‘It will cost a lot of men and money. I don’t see the military necessity.’ The case for engineering a showdown at Düppel was indeed political rather than military. A full-blown invasion of Denmark was undesirable for diplomatic reasons and the Prussians sorely needed a spectacular victory. There was much grumbling among the commanders, but Bismarck’s will prevailed and the deed was done. On 2 April, the Prussians began a heavy bombardment of the defence works, using their new rifled field guns. On 18 April, the infantry went in under the command of Frederick Charles. It was no easy fight. The Danes offered fierce resistance from behind their battered defences and subjected the Prussians to heavy fire as they climbed the slopes before the entrenchments. Over 1,000 Prussians were killed or wounded; the Danes suffered 1,700 casualties.

Bismarck’s dominance throughout the conflict generated considerable tension and ill-feeling. When the commanders protested, Bismarck was quick to remind them that the army had no business interfering in the conduct of politics – itself an extraordinary declaration in the Prussian setting, and one which reveals how things had changed since the revolutions of 1848. The army, however, had no intention of accepting this verdict, as War Minister Albrecht von Roon made clear in a memorandum of 29 May 1864:

There has been, and is now hardly any army that regarded itself and understood itself to be purely a political instrument, a lancet for the diplomatic surgeon. [… ] When a government depends – and this is our situation – particularly upon the armed part of the population [… ] the army’s views on what the government does and does not do are surely not a matter of indifference.

In the exhilaration of victory, these altercations were quickly forgotten, but the issue underlying them would later resurface in more acrimonious and menacing forms. Bismarck’s assertion of control over virtually every branch of the executive papered over but did not solve the structural problem of civil–military relations at the apex of the Prussian state. The 1848 revolutions had parliamentarized the monarchy without demilitarizing it. At the heart of the post-revolutionary settlement lay an avoided decision that would haunt Prussian (and German) politics until the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918.

Prussia’s victories in Denmark – Düppel was followed at the end of June by a successful amphibious assault on the island of Alsen – also transformed the domestic political landscape. The resulting wave of patriotic enthusiasm opened up latent divisions within the Prussian liberal movement. The Arnim-Boitzenburg petition of May 1864, which called for annexation of the duchies, attracted 70,000 signatures, not only from conservatives but from many liberals as well. Prussian military successes also had an unsettling effect more generally, since they seemed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the reform programme so bitterly opposed by the liberals. There was a growing desire for a settlement with the government, reinforced by the fear that if the conflict dragged on, the liberal movement would forfeit its purchase on public opinion.

During 1864 and 1865, Bismarck and ‘his’ ministers played skilfully with the parliament, confronting it with bills that divided the liberal majority or forcing it into unpopular positions. In the naval construction bill of 1865, for example, the government asked parliament to approve the building of two armed frigates and a naval base in Kiel, at a cost of just under 20 million thalers. The creation of a German navy was a fetish to the liberal nationalist movement, especially in the aftermath of the Danish war, where naval operations had played a prominent role. The overwhelming majority of the deputies strongly supported the proposed expenditures, but they were forced nevertheless to reject the bill on the grounds that, in the absence of a legal budget, no new funds could be approved by parliament. Bismarck seized his opportunity to deliver a tirade against the ‘impotently negative’ attitude of the chamber.

Naval Aviation in the Korean War I

When the Korean war began in 1950, the F9F Panther comprised the vast majority of US Navy carrier based aircraft. The illustration “First Light” above is by aviation artist Ed Markham.

On Sunday, 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army—the In Min Gun—attacked across the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (ROK) thereby initiating the Korean War. Numerous provocations over the preceding two years such as raids, sabotage, guerrilla activity, infiltration, propaganda, and economic pressure had failed to bring down the Syngman Rhee government or persuade a majority of South Koreans to support a Communist takeover. Meanwhile, the United States had sent ambiguous diplomatic signals regarding its commitment to Korea, and all of Asia for that matter, beyond its vital interests in Japan and the Philippines. The general weakness of American military forces in the Far East coupled with their withdrawal from Korea after the establishment of the Rhee government in 1948 created an impression among Communist leaders that a conventional assault from the North could succeed where numerous subversive efforts had failed. Additionally, the 1949 Communist takeover of mainland China had reinforced the notion that America would not commit ground forces on the mainland of Asia. The United States had stood by as Mao Zedong’s Communists forces defeated the Nationalist Chinese—an America ally throughout and after World War II—and drove them to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), at some cost to America’s international stature. In light of all these considerations, Communist leaders in Pyongyang, Beijing (Peking, as it was then called), and Moscow believed attacking South Korea would be a relatively low-risk operation, which could produce great strategic advantages throughout Asia.

During the months leading up to the North Korean attack, U.S. intelligence services observed increasing signs of its possibility, yet the actual event achieved strategic and tactical surprise. Despite the fact that many ROK units and individuals fought courageously and in some cases effectively, their weapons, equipment, training, and leadership could not match that of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA). The ROK Army had no armor to oppose the T-34 tanks—provided to North Korea by the Soviet Union—nor did they possess antitank weapons capable of stopping them. They had no heavy artillery comparable to the Soviet-supplied systems, and did not have fighter planes or antiaircraft weapons with which to oppose North Korea’s Soviet-supplied aircraft. When coupled with the element of surprise, these deficiencies proved far too great to overcome. The blatant nature of the North Korean attack supported by weapons, material, and training from the Soviet Union caused many American leaders to see a similar pattern in which “Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier.”

In the days immediately following Kim Il-sung’s invasion of the Republic of Korea, important events took place in New York and Washington D.C. The United Nations passed a resolution that condemned the attack as an act of aggression, ordered North Korea to cease operations and withdraw its forces, and called on member nations to assist the United Nations in resisting the action. The Soviet delegation would surely have blocked this resolution had they not been boycotting Security Council meetings at the time, in protest against its refusal to seat the People’s Republic of China. Ostensively the war in Korea would be fought under the auspices of the UN; but in essence, it would be an American conflict despite the small contribution of a few allies. The UN action provided the Truman administration a certain amount of international and domestic cover, allowing the United States to take action that might otherwise be problematic.

Among other things, the president of the United States ordered General Douglas MacArthur to take command of all U.S. forces in Korea, conduct evacuation of American citizens, provide ammunition and equipment to South Korean forces, and move the U.S. Seventh Fleet—under command of Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble—north from the Philippines. He also authorized the use of air and naval forces to protect all such activity and for a survey team to evaluate the situation on the peninsula and determine what the United States could do to assist the Republic of Korea. The president expanded MacArthur’s area of responsibility to include Formosa and ordered the Seventh Fleet to protect that island nation against attack from Communist China. In addition to defending Formosa, Seventh Fleet would also inhibit Chiang Kai-shek from using the crisis as a pretext to attack mainland China, thereby expanding the war. The earliest American combat action of this conflict involved an effort to keep open the air and sea points of embarkation for emergency evacuation. When North Korean YAK fighters attacked U.S. Air Force F-80 Shooting Star and F-82 Twin Mustang aircraft covering the evacuation of civilians over Inchon, American pilots splashed three of the Communist aircraft and later shot down four more over Seoul.

Despite the unpreparedness of U.S. forces, President Harry S. Truman believed he must prevent a Communist takeover of South Korea even if it meant going to war. In Truman’s view, this crisis constituted a critical test of will between the two international blocks—free democracies and totalitarian Communism—that had evolved since the end of World War II. It was a decision widely supported at the time by the American people and the U.S. Congress. Within days of the North Korean attack, the Truman administration authorized MacArthur to use American ground forces to halt the North Korean advance. Of course, this would be problematic since the United States had chosen to scuttle its military might in the aftermath of World War II. Ultimately, it would take full application of American air, naval, and amphibious capability as well as the activation of four National Guard divisions and numerous reserves to reverse the fortunes of war in Korea. Carrier-based naval air power along with land- and carrier-based Marine Corps close air support would prove crucial in the hard fighting American forces faced during three years of the Korean War.

American planes of the Far Eastern Air Force—under command of Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer—not only engaged North Korean YAKs during evacuation operations at Inchon and Seoul, but also conducted some to the earliest offensive actions of the Korean War. B-29 Superfortresses and B-26 Invaders flew missions against targets in North Korea, and—in conjunction with F-80 Shooting Stars—attempted to provide support to allied ground troops in the South. The U.S. Navy also conducted early offensive action with the first major strike coming from aircraft of Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 77 off USS Valley Forge on 3 July 1950. These carrier planes, consisting of F9F Panthers, F4U corsairs, and AD Skyraiders, attacked the North Korea capital at Pyongyang and other targets, destroying much of the North Korean air force in the process. Throughout the month of July, Task Force 77—including the Royal Navy’s HMS Triumph and several British escorts—attacked enemy targets in both North and South Korea, while Task Force 96 (a surface action group consisting of one cruiser and four destroyers) provided naval gunfire in support of South Korean forces retreating down the peninsula toward Pusan. The F-80 Shooting Star served as the preeminent U.S. Air Force plane in the theater at that time, but it was primarily a fighter-interceptor. Although superior to anything the North Koreans had, these planes were not ideal in the ground support role. Additionally, they primarily flew out of bases in Japan carrying limited ordnance loads due to their fuel requirements. Therefore, they had minimal time on station once they arrived over Korea. As a result, the only substantial air support available to U.S. and ROK ground forces during much of the early fighting came from carrier-based tactical air.

The outbreak of the Korean War found the United States near the nadir of its post–World War II disarmament. Although the National Security Act of 1947 and its addendum of 1949 purported to strengthen the U.S. military, they fell far short of that goal. Besides, even the most effective legislation could not have overcome the severe budget reductions imposed on the military by Congress and enthusiastically carried out by the Truman administration. Of course, this created enormous inter-Service rivalry for resources, roles, and missions. Additionally, the newly formed U.S. Air Force had made a disruptive play for control of all air missions during the postwar unification battles, including those developed and performed by naval aviation. Many leaders within the defense establishment questioned the need for carrier-based air power anyway, believing that land-based bombers could assume all Navy missions. Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson had ungraciously stated to Admiral Richard L. Conolly just six months before the Communist invasion of South Korea, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. . . . There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General [Omar] Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.” Johnson underscored his myopic view of defense planning by canceling the Navy’s modern super carrier project, USS United States, and promoting a strategic bomber of questionable design and excessive cost named the B-36 Peacemaker. The subsequent B-36 debate and controversy had the unfortunate effect of focusing the Air Force’s thinking primarily on strategic air power at the expense of tactical capability. To the extent that naval aviation continued to develop in the constrained and conflicted environment of the late 1940s, it did so in an era of technological change, including the transition from propeller to jet propulsion and the consequent need to move toward more capable carriers.

By 1950, cost-cutting measures had programmed the Navy to retain only five fleet carriers despite the clear beginnings of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Of course, the U.S. government had mothballed large quantities of ships and other combat systems at the end of World War II with the intention of refurbishing them for future wars, if and when necessary. In the event, nineteen enhanced Essex-class carriers eventually returned to service by the end of the Korean War, fully equipped with operational air groups. This revitalization of naval aviation permitted four carriers to operate continuously in Korean waters while maintaining two in the Mediterranean in support of NATO strategy through the end of the war. Despite Secretary Johnson’s arrogant claims of the demise of the Navy and Marine Corps, carrier aircraft—under Navy and Marine Corps leadership—flew more than 30 percent of all combat sorties of the Korean War. This naval air power, coupled with land-based Air Force capability, proved essential to American operations against the vastly superior manpower that the Chinese Army brought to the fighting when it entered the war in the final months of 1950.

Despite air attacks against the invading In Min Gun and introduction of U.S. ground units, American and South Korean forces could not halt the Communist onslaught until sufficient reinforcements arrived in country. The cumulative effect of the fighting by sea, land, and air forces, coupled with an effective reinforcement effort, eventually halted the North Korean offensive just short of the city of Pusan, thereby permitting American and South Korean forces to retain a toehold on the southeast corner of the peninsula. The American ground troops initially introduced into Korea consisted of ill-trained and inadequately equipped elements of Major General William F. Dean’s 24th Infantry Division based in Japan. Subsequent reinforcements included the 1st Cavalry Division—which landed unopposed at the port of Pohang just north of Pusan—and the 25th Infantry Division. None of these units was combat ready in terms of their authorized strength, the adequacy of their weapons, or the state of their training. Largely, this resulted from a general view among Americans and their leaders that the United States would fight any future war principally with air power and nuclear weapons. Few believed that hard fighting by ground forces such as occurred in World War II would ever again be required.

During the latter part of July, the defenses of the Pusan Perimeter began to stabilize under command of Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army headquarters. By early August, Walker’s forces included five ROK divisions, three U.S. divisions—the 24th, the 25th, and the 1st Cavalry—along with the 5th Regimental Combat Team from Hawaii. Additionally, U.S. replacements, reinforcements, and supplies continued pouring in at the port of Pusan from around the world. Shipments included weapons more able to deal with the Communist T-34 tanks, which had previously been difficult to stop by ground forces. In these early weeks of fighting in Korea, several things became obvious to American commanders. Most significantly, the Communists had found a way to negate America’s nuclear advantage by waging war at a level below the nuclear threshold. It was equally apparent that although air power could not win the conventional war that Communist forces had imposed, “it could and did prevent the North from overrunning the South.”

By early September, it became clear that “the United States would not be driven off the Korean Peninsula.” Also by this time, the United States had three aircraft carriers on station, which provided air support to American and South Korean forces while attacking the In Min Gun’s lengthening lines of communications. These, and subsequent carriers assigned to Task Force 77, consisted of Essex-class fleet carriers capable of conducting jet aircraft operations. In addition to Valley Forge, the carriers on station early in the war included Philippine Sea, Leyte, and Boxer. In August, elements of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing arrived from the United States with F4U Corsair squadrons embarked on the escort carriers Badoeng Strait and Sicily thereby constituting Task Element 96.23. This Marine Air Group, MAG-33, was actually a task organized element of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade that included the 5th Marine Regiment as its ground combat element. Although the Marine Corsairs flew close air support missions for all ground forces fighting in Korea, they primarily supported units of the 1st Marine Division through a highly synergistic relationship that presaged the modern Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). In the course of the war, six escort carriers with Marine Corps squadrons embarked served in Korean waters.

The typical air group on Essex-class fleet carriers consisted of two F9F Panther jet squadrons, one F4U Corsair squadron, and one AD Skyraider squadron. Ideal in the fighter-intercept role, the Panther also saw service in support of ground operations, and its bomb- and rocket-carrying capacity increased during the war to where it could routinely carry 1,200 pounds of ordnance. The propeller-driven Corsairs could carry 3,000 pounds and the Skyraiders 8,000. The U.S. Far East Air Force quickly recognized the superiority of the Navy’s aircraft mix for the ground attack mission, and sought to improve its ability to support directly the fighting troops. Since Navy squadrons received all available Corsairs and Skyraiders, the Air Force drew on an outstanding World War II fighter that also performed relatively well in the ground attack role, the F-51 (P-51) Mustang. They also upgraded their fighter-intercept capability to the F-84 Thunderjet and then to the F-86 Sabre, the only American or allied airplane that could consistently defeat the Communists’ MiG-15, which entered the fray in November 1950. Once the U.S. Air Force established its squadrons on the Korean peninsula—after a reversal in the fortunes of war—it proved to be a formidable force in the fighting. As the war played out, tactical air support came from 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77, Marine Corsairs off escort carriers and land bases, and ground-based squadrons within South Korea under Fifth Air Force. Once the Air Force established F-86 Sabres on the peninsula to provide fighter cover against the MiG-15, American air superiority in Korea was never in question, although the duel between MiG-15s and F-86 Sabres continued throughout the war.

In the early weeks of the Korean War, as the In Min Gun drove down the peninsula, circumstances constrained the Air Force’s ability to provide close air support to American and South Korean ground forces. The F-80 Shooting Star was not ideally suited for this mission, and it had to restrict the ordnance carried due to the fuel requirements of flying from bases in Japan. This limited firepower, coupled with the short time the jets could remain on station, made for inefficient use of the aircraft. But the Navy and Marine Corps could fly support missions from carriers, which moved close to the battle areas and delivered Corsairs and Skyraiders with generous ordnance loads. Of course, many problems remained, including communications between air and ground forces as well as coordination between Task Force 77 and Fifth Air Force’s Joint Operation Center. Yet these problems improved as the war progressed. Once Air Force squadrons relocated their operating bases from Japan to South Korea, after the Army pushed back the In Min Gun, their contribution became much greater. Throughout the Korean War, the close air support provided by Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force aircraft remained the key to success for units fighting on the ground.

Even though close air support constituted the most crucial mission for naval air power in the early weeks of the Korean War, pilots also performed other important tasks. On 18 July, Valley Forge launched seven F9F Panther jets to conduct an armed reconnaissance along the eastern coast of North Korea. At the port of Wonsan, they identified the vital Wonsan Oil Refining Factory entirely untouched by the war. Later that afternoon, Valley Forge launched a flight of ten Corsairs loaded with rockets and 20-mm ammunition along with eleven Skyraiders carrying rockets, 500-pound bombs, and 1,000-pound bombs. Arriving over Wonsan, the Navy planes swarmed above the refinery attacking first with rockets, then with bombs, leaving it in a state of twisted steel and piled rubble. The naval aviators could observe the towering column of smoke from sixty miles away and it took four days for the fire to burn out. The attack damaged the facility beyond repair and destroyed some 12,000 tons of refined petroleum, at no loss of American planes or pilots.59 Like the earlier attacks against Pyongyang and other North Korean targets, this assault obliterated its target area, demonstrating the flexibility and destructive capability of U.S. naval air power.

In the early weeks of the Korean War, American naval aviation units implemented a number of innovations. The first combat use of an ejection seat occurred during August when Lieutenant Carl Dace’s F9F Panther received ground fire while strafing a North Korean target. After some considerable maneuvering, Dace made it out to sea where he jettisoned his canopy, shot into the air, separated from his seat, opened his parachute, and descended into the water below. Several hours later, a destroyer rescued the damp aviator from his raft. Another innovation involved the military application of rotary-wing aircraft. Helicopters were just beginning to come of age in 1950, and the Navy and Marine Corps found numerous opportunities for their use. Relying primarily on the Sikorsky HO3S, the Sea Service’s aviators initially used these new machines for air rescue and as plane guard during carrier operations. As we shall see, the role of helicopters continued to grow throughout the course of the Korean War.

During the first weeks of August, General Walker and his Eighth Army fought a continuous series of hard battles to prevent the In Min Gun from breaking through the Pusan Perimeter. Much of this fighting benefited from the close air support provided by Marine Corsairs flying off Badoeng Strait and Sicily. On 17 August, Walker attacked a particularly dangerous North Korean position known as Obong-ni (also known as No Name Ridge because reporters did not initially know its real name) that formed a bulge into the American lines. Previous efforts to dislodge the In Min Gun had been unsuccessful, but this time Walker’s attack included a relatively fresh unit, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Edward A. Craig. The ground combat element of the brigade amounted to nothing more than a reinforced Marine regiment. A week earlier, ground combat Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade, teaming with their aviation brethren, had demonstrated the effectiveness of the Marine Air-Ground concept by devastating an NKPA motorized regiment during an attack near the town of Kosong in the southern part of the Pusan Perimeter.

Consisting of the 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Air Group 33, and a combat logistics element, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was the lead component of the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. General MacArthur had specifically requested this force for the amphibious counterstroke he planned to launch against the North Korean Army. But the situation in the Pusan Perimeter proved too critical to reserve the Marines for some future action. From the time of their arrival off Korea, the Marine Corsair squadrons launched ground-attack sorties, often in conjunction with naval carrier aircraft and Air Force F-51 Mustangs flying out of tightly packed bases within the Perimeter. The 5th Marines, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray, working in conjunction with U.S. Army units, would now assault the most critical threat to the Pusan Perimeter, and they would do so under the cover of Marine Corsairs flying off Badoeng Strait and Sicily.


Naval Aviation in the Korean War II

In two days of very hard fighting, Marines on the ground teamed with Marines in the air to drive the North Korean forces from Obong-ni ridge and across the Nakton River thereby eliminating the dangerous salient. This did not end the fighting along the Pusan Perimeter as the In Min Gun desperately tried to drive American and South Korean forces off the peninsula before reaching their culminating point. But U.S. Army and ROK forces on the ground and Navy, Air Force, and Australian planes in the air would undertake the subsequent fighting at Pusan without their Marine component. In the first week of September, Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade loaded on amphibious shipping and joined their fellow units of the 1st Marine Division then arriving from the United States. Their destination would be the port city of Inchon where they would conduct a remarkable amphibious landing, resulting in a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of war.

Operation Chromite, the amphibious landing at Inchon and subsequent capture of Kimpo airfield and the capital city of Seoul, began on 15 September 1950 with the Marine landing force securing Wolmi-do Island under fire. Of course, the planning and preparation had begun well before that date including an extensive effort by General MacArthur to persuade civilian and military leaders in Washington of the efficacy of his plan. In the minds of many high-ranking leaders, MacArthur’s concept was not only bold, but also highly risky. The geography and hydrography of that area made the approaches treacherous, with tides averaging twenty-three feet and a strong tidal current that further complicated navigation. In the Supreme Commander’s view, all these difficulties would cause his enemy to discount the possibility of a landing at Inchon and thereby ensure the element of surprise. In MacArthur’s mind, catching the NKPA unaware and unprepared would more than make up for the physical and tactical problems of landing at Inchon. Ultimately, MacArthur got his way as well as the forces he believed he needed to conduct the operation. These included the 1st Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division, and the largest assemblage of naval air power since the end of World War II. The Fifth Air Force provided a supporting role by neutralizing North Korean airfields, cutting railroads and bridges, conducting reconnaissance, and providing tactical air support to Eighth Army at the Pusan Perimeter.

During the transit from Japan and the Pusan Perimeter to Inchon, naval aircraft operating from Sicily, Badoeng Strait, Valley Forge, Philippine Sea, and HMS Triumph lashed out at targets in the objective area as well as other locations along the coast to diminish enemy capability and keep them guessing as to the actual landing site. Additionally, aircraft flying off Valley Forge flew regular photoreconnaissance missions, providing current intelligence and updated targeting information. As the Amphibious Task Force moved toward the objective area on 14 September (D-1), carrier aircraft attacked the landing sites, followed by surface fires from supporting cruisers and destroyers. The carrier planes alternated with surface guns throughout the day, focusing much of their fires on Wolmi-do Island where the Marines would make their initial landing. As the assault force made its way to Green Beach on Wolmi-do in the early hours of 15 September, twenty-eight Marine Corsairs covered the final run-in as four destroyers continued to provide surface gunfire support.

The Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, captured Wolmi-do Island by 0800 in the morning on D-day, and turned toward So Wolmi-do (a small island attached by causeway to Wolmi-do) which they captured by late morning. On receiving a message that the beachhead had been secured, MacArthur turned to Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, Commander of the Amphibious Task Force, and said: “Please send this message to the fleet: ‘The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning.’” In accomplishing this first phase of the operation, the Marines suffered only seventeen casualties, none of which proved fatal. They now prepared for a potential counterattack across the causeway from Inchon and waited for the tide to rise for the next phase of the complex operation. During this time, Skyraiders from Task Force 77 continued to isolate the battlefield by interdicting enemy movement and attacking various targets. Carrier-based aircraft also concentrated fire on the next landing sites including Beach Red, north of Wolmi-do Island in Inchon proper, and Beach Blue, south of Wolmi-do in slightly more open country. The task force commander set H-hour for 1750 at which time the First and Second battalions of the Fifth Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Murray assaulted Red Beach and the First Marines under legendary Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller assaulted Blue Beach. By the end of the day, the Navy had landed 13,000 troops along with their weapons and equipment, and the landing force had secured all objectives. The cost in blood for the first day of fighting amounted to 21 killed and 174 wounded. The uniform success of this D-day operation owed much to the professionalism and courage of the Marines of the landing force, of course. Yet the importance of overwhelming close air support provided by Navy and Marine carrier aircraft on this day and in subsequent fighting ashore cannot be overstated. On D-day alone, these pilots flew 344 sorties at the loss of two aircraft. The carriers would maintain that high-intensity level throughout the two weeks of the Inchon-Seoul operation.

On 16 September, the Marines continued the attack to capture Kimpo airfield while the 7th Infantry Division landed in trace (i.e., behind the 1st Marine Division, the initial assault force) and moved south toward Suwon to recapture its airfield and prepare for a linkup with the Eighth Army upon its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter. Much of this fighting by Eighth Army and X Corps (the parent command of the Marines and Army units conducting the Inchon-Seoul operation) proved to be very fierce. By 20 September, the Marines began their assault on Seoul and one week later secured the city. On 29 September 1950, MacArthur returned Seoul to Syngman Rhee and restored civil government to the Republic of Korea. As Walker’s Eighth Army attacked out of the Pusan Perimeter, it met desperate resistance initially, “but with supplies gone, caught between pincers, and without retreat routes available, he [the enemy] gave way at an accelerated rate.” The collapse of the In Min Gun went from a precipitate withdrawal to complete disintegration in which Kim Il-sung’s experienced and hardened troops abandoned their arms and equipment while surrendering in droves. “Within a month, the total of Red captives rose to 130,000.”

In late September, MacArthur received amplifying instructions directing the destruction of remaining North Korean units, including operations north of the 38th parallel. By 20 October, Eighth Army initiated an attack on the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, which quickly fell, while X Corps landed at Wonsan on the east coast of Korea. Over 3,000 expertly laid magnetic and contact mines delayed the landing, and it ultimately required a concerted effort by naval aircraft, helicopters, and surface minesweepers to clear Wonsan Harbor and land the Marines. The NKPA commanders had clearly learned a hard lesson from the Inchon operation, and thereafter mined all the major harbors they could access. By the time the Wonsan landing occurred, ROK Army units had cleared the area of light In Min Gun resistance, and the Marines went ashore unopposed. Subsequently, X Corps landed U.S. 7th Infantry further north at Iwon and an ROK force at Tanchon. Despite the delay at Wonsan, the drive to the Yalu had begun.

For the march into North Korea, MacArthur’s Far East Command divided air support between Fifth Air Force, which supported Eighth Army moving north from Pyongyang on the west side of the peninsula, and Task Force 77 supporting X Corps to the east. Initially, Task Force 77 controlled all air activity in the Wonsan area, but that changed when Air Force leaders argued that the arrangement would lessen coordination of Allied tactical air in Korea. As a result, MacArthur placed 1st Marine Air Wing under control of Fifth Air Force although it remained primarily in support of X Corps. Doctrinal differences between Air Force procedures and those of the Navy and Marine Corps created problems that became apparent early in the war and were never fully reconciled. Yet this command arrangement for aviation units remained in place through the end of the war. Despite ongoing problems and general dissatisfaction among Navy and Marine Corps commanders, the relationship worked, as evidenced by subsequent combat actions in both North and South Korea. For example, during the fighting around the Chosin reservoir and subsequent march to the sea in December 1950, after the Chinese Communists entered the war, ground units of the 1st Marine Division were covered by one of the heaviest concentrations of aircraft of the whole war, consisting exclusively of carrier-based planes of the Marine Corps and Navy.

Clearly, close air support proved to be among the most important missions for both carrier air power and the fighting units on the ground; and this remained true throughout the Korean War. Yet naval aviation provided numerous other functions that contributed substantially to American’s military effort during the conflict. Among the more important of these were interdiction missions, armed reconnaissance, and Air Group strikes. The latter involved scheduled attacks consisting of thirty to fifty aircraft against fixed objectives such as bridges, dams, or industrial areas. In these strike packages, the Corsairs and Skyraiders typically carried heavy ordnance loads while Panther jets provided air cover and suppressed ground fire with rockets and 20-mm gunfire. Air Group strikes proved particularly significant early in the war before American air power had destroyed most high-value targets.

The interdiction missions involved strikes to disrupt the flow of war material from enemy supply bases to their front lines. Once the Chinese entered the war in late 1950, this became a particularly lucrative, though difficult, area for exploitation. Since the U.S. Navy controlled the seas and dominated major ports such as Wonsan, Hungnam, and Chongjin, Communist leaders had to rely on railroads and the primitive road system for re-supply. This resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between the planes of Task Force 77 and their enemy on the ground who frustrated the aviators by hiding trains within tunnels, moving primarily at night, and emplacing automatic weapons at key positions to protect locomotives and major staging areas. As the war progressed, these missions became increasingly dangerous for the planes and pilots of Task Force 77. Yet the interdiction sorties had a major impact on deliveries at the front, particularly ammunition of all types, which Mao Zedong’s army used in great quantities. The deep interdiction mission also focused against troop concentrations and key transportation centers twenty to forty miles behind the front, especially after the Chinese entered the war. The most famous interdiction operation of the war occurred during March and April 1951 against two bridges in the Kilchu-Songjin area. This action became known as the Battle of Carlson’s Canyon due to the damage inflicted by a squadron of Skyraiders commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harold G. “Swede” Carlson flying off USS Princeton.

The Battle of Carlson’s Canyon involved a thirty-day sequence of bridge bombing, bombing the efforts to repair the bridge, and confronting clever efforts to bypass the bridge. Not only did this prove frustrating, but also these and other targeted bridges became great anti-aircraft traps for the pilots of Task Force 77. The Battle for Carlson’s Canyon became the real-life model for James A. Michener’s novel The Bridges at Toko-ri and subsequent movie of the same name. In his role as correspondent, Michener spent several weeks on board Essex and Valley Forge, becoming familiar with the people and missions of their Air Groups, whom he also used as models for his fictionalized version of the naval air war in Korea. Carlson’s squadron of Skyraiders later succeeded in destroying the sluice gates of the Hwachon Dam after previous efforts by air and land had failed, earning his unit the nickname “Dambusters.” The complexity of this mission required an unconventional approach and the Princeton’s aviators responded by using aerial torpedoes left over from World War II. If other missions had established the destructive power of naval aviation, the attack on Hwachon Dam demonstrated its flexibility and capacity for innovation.

The armed reconnaissance mission proved particularly valuable in areas that artillery or naval gunfire could not cover, such as mountainous areas of North Korea. Conducted primarily by F9F Panther jets of Task Force 77, these actions focused on the primitive road network. A typical mission consisted of four Panthers (two sections of two planes each) loaded with rockets, bombs, and 20-mm ammunition. After clearing the beach at ten thousand feet, the aircraft would descend and move to their patrol area looking for targets to attack. The lead plane would fly at three hundred feet followed by a second plane at one thousand. The second section consisting of the third and fourth plane would follow at about three thousand feet to provide air cover and assist in navigation. The lead pilot served as a spotter in identifying targets and threats for the second, which conducted the actual attack. This action would occur at a speed of about 250–300 knots, and typically in very rugged terrain. After the attacking plane expended its ordnance, it would rotate with the lead plane, and then the sections would rotate until all aircraft had exhausted their loads.

The military use of helicopters evolved significantly during the course of the Korean War. Initially used for observation and evacuation, innovative leaders quickly devised other important applications such as laying communications wire and telephone cables, night casualty evacuation, search and rescue, covert operations, gunfire spotting, minesweeping, and transporting troops and supplies through vertical envelopment, including ship-to-shore movement. Arrival of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR)-161, operating the larger Sikorsky HRS-1 transport helicopter in the spring of 1951, made possible the first mass helicopter re-supply in history, named Operation Windmill 1, in which 18,848 pounds of gear and seventy-four Marines were moved a distance of some seven miles in twenty-eight flights. Similar evolutions including operations Summit and Bumblebee occurred in the following weeks, helping to establish the helicopter as an important tactical system. Helicopters evacuated nearly ten thousand Marines in the course of the Korean War during which over one thousand flights occurred at night. Although the Navy made use of helicopters in Korea as well, Marines accomplished most of the battlefield innovation with the Army and Air Force essentially uninvolved until the latter part of the war.

After the large-scale Chinese entry into the war in November and December 1950, the battles moved several times into South Korea and then back to the north as each side launched major offensive operations. During this fighting from 1951 through 1953, naval aviation executed numerous and various roles. Planes of Task Force 77 undertook considerable air action in conjunction with the Air Force’s massive interdiction effort known as Operation Strangle and its successor, Operation Saturate. Other functions included, on 25 August 1951, the first ever use of carrier fighters to escort Air Force bombers over hostile territory. This period of the war also marked a time of greater cooperation between the Air Force and naval aviation units in joint targeting and operational planning. Of course, as the war progressed, numerous changes occurred in the nature of the naval air war. Among other things, the ratio of jet aircraft sorties to propeller planes increased significantly. This resulted from adjustments made in aircraft employment as well as introduction of the F2H Banshee jet in the fighter-bomber role. The Banshee could outperform the Panther in both the intercept and ground attack mode, and proved particularly effective against bridges and railroads. It also served as a superb photoreconnaissance aircraft in its F2H-2P variant. Additionally, introduction of the F3D Skyknight night fighter during the war augmented the Panther and Banshee in their fighter-intercept role. Among other advantages, the Skyknight had a sophisticated radar system that could identify enemy aircraft approaching from both front and rear. It proved particularly valuable in escorting Air Force B-29s on nighttime bombing runs. Although not as effective against the MiG-15 as the F-86 Sabre, all three of these Navy fighters could often defeat MiG challengers due to the superior training of the Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

Changes in the concept of carrier employment also occurred in the course of the war from a blue-water replacement for the battleship to that of a more littoral and land-focused platform. This led to the idea of aircraft carriers operating throughout the world in environments where land-based air power may not be available. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personified his evolving view of the utility of the carrier many years later with his famous question during times of crisis, “Where are the carriers?” Of course, carriers themselves underwent significant enhancements beginning with upgrades to Essex-class ships. This led to development of the big deck super carriers including the Forrestal class in 1955 followed by the nuclear-powered Enterprise and Nimitz classes.

A need for carrier-based fighters that could compete with the Communist MiG-15 in air-to-air combat as effectively as the Air Force F-86 Sabre influenced the development of the F-8 Crusader and F-4 Phantom II, both of which performed well against the MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 in Vietnam. Modernization of naval ground attack capability resulted in production of the superb A-4 Skyhawk light attack jet. Further, the need for an all-weather, night strike plane led to production of the A-6 Intruder (along with its electronic warfare variant, the EA-6B Prowler), another weapon system that performed very well in Southeast Asia and subsequently. The tactical maturing of the helicopter during the war had an impact on land combat like few innovations in military history. This constitutes another important area where the experiences and lessons of the Korean War profoundly affected events a few years later in Vietnam. Regrettably, this good use of lessons learned and improvement in warfighting did not extend itself to an understanding of the role of strategy in warfare—and the importance of adequacy in strategy—once the United States committed itself to the conflict in Southeast Asia. Having accepted war without victory in Korea, American leaders twenty years later found it possible to accept defeat for the first time ever in Vietnam. The most important lesson of Korea and of the history of warfare in general is that wars are won by adequate strategy and not tactical or operational excellence alone. This seems to have been completely lost on America’s leaders of the 1960s.