From the archives: Pierre Berton and the Korean War

A panel of veterans and historians react to Berton's critical view

Pierre Berton reported from Korea for Maclean’s during the height of hostilities in 1951. When he returned to Canada, he convinced his editors to let him write an editorial. “The Real War in Korea,” published Aug. 1, 1951, took a critical view of Canada’s contribution to the conflict. Sixty years after the Armistice that ceased hostilities, we’re re-publishing Berton’s editorial. We asked veterans and historians to react to Berton’s words. Our panel included:

  • General (ret’d) Ramsey Withers served in Korea with 1 Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment. He climbed the ranks and served as the Chief of Defence Staff from 1980-83.
  • Donovan (Reg) Redknap served in Korea with 4 Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. He fought at the Battle of Hill 187 in May 1953.
  • Berrard (Buzz) Bennett served in Korea with Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He remained in the country until just after the Armistice was signed in July 1953.
  • David Bercuson, a military historian at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
  • Paul Evans, a professor of Asian and international affairs at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research and Liu Institute for Global Issues.

Berton penned his editorial less than a month after initial armistice negotiations, when the war settled into a vicious stalemate that held for two years until hostilities on the peninsula ceased. He returned home after a year of brutal fighting on the front lines that saw Chinese forces join with North Koreans to drive allied forces back near the 38th parallel, the border that divided the two Koreas before war erupted. Evans says Berton would have witnessed the height of the nastiness. “1951 was about as bad a time as it looked because still, there was the hubris that the Americans and the allies thought they were going to win pretty quickly,” he said. “The Chinese intervention changed that fundamentally in a long, long muddy struggle.”

What complicated matters on the front lines, says Evans, was a lack of understanding about what the fight was all about. “It was guys who were not altogether sure exactly why they were there,” he said. That view doesn’t jibe with Redknap’s own reasons for enlisting. “People asked me why I joined, and I said, maybe 10 or 15 per cent patriotism—and the rest of it, adventure,” he said. What about the risk attached to fighting a determined enemy? Irrelevant, says Redknap. “When you’re 20 years old, you do not think that way.” Withers was blunt. A young soldier headed overseas doesn’t think about risk. “You’re indestructible,” he said. Bennett joined out of a sense of duty. “It just seemed like the thing to do,” he said.

Redknap recalled a conversation with a veteran of Afghanistan who’d served three tours overseas, and was denied a fourth round with the Canadian contingent. “Strange as it may seem, there are people who want to do these things,” he says.

Before the three vets headed overseas, the war had already reached its stalemate. They’d lived in Canada for much of the war, and said the country wasn’t much interested in Korea. “You’ve gotta appreciate that Canadians were tired of war. We had been in it for six years [during World War 2]. We were the third-largest war-producing nation. And we lost a lot of people,” said Withers. “Five short years later, you’re back to war, so the Canadian public was not so much ignorant as disinterested.”

Not nearly as many Canadians were involved in Korea, said Bennett, and that meant the majority of the population was disconnected from the fighting. “Unlike the Second World War where everybody was impacted and involved for a long time, probably only about one in every 500 or 1,000 Canadians knew somebody directly in the Korean War,” he said.

With that backdrop, Berton got to work.


In the gathering dust of Korea’s weary, bloody war, some things were clear and others still clouded. Certainly the Chinese, some of whom had Spanish-American War rifles and some of whom had only clubs, were moving back up the peninsula through villages roasted by our napalm and cities crumbled by our shells. The long lines of refugees were on the move again, and the rice was green only in those paddies that had survived the tread of marching feet. People were saying that we’d won the war.But had we? Can you win a war in this tragic year of 1951 as you win a prizefight, by brute force in the fifteenth round? To answer that question you’ve got to think back to what the war in Korea was all about. The initial objective was clear enough. It was, as Corporal Karry Dunphy of the Pats put it, “To resist aggression and all that sort of thing.” BERCUSON: The army of the day was a very different army than we have now, in the sense that it was an army that was created to win wars. Kill people. Although that’s still the basic mission of any army, nonetheless we know today that it’s not the only mission of the army.

←EVANS: Looked at 20 years later, or 60 years later, that whole episode, as ugly as it was, is part of a bigger pattern that has a more virtuous dimension to it: on balance, those guys were doing the right thing, even though they behaved in some pretty horrible ways on all sides.

But surely this is a negative objective. What have we done in Korea that is positive? Sure, we’re winning the old-fashioned war of brawn. But what about the newfangled war for men’s minds? Have our actions in Korea made more friends for the Western world? Have we been able to convince the Koreans themselves that the phrase “our way of life” is something more than a slogan? Have we succeeded in selling our brand of democracy to this proud but unhappy race?It is terrifying to report that the answer seems to be an unqualified No! ←EVANS: Even into the 1980s, South Korea was no democratic paradise. It was authoritarianism; elements of a market economy, but only elements. It took a generation for the ideas that looked rather hollow in 1951 to actually take root in that muddy soil of Korea.

If we had gone into Korea as an invading army of conquerors with the express purpose of humiliating the citizenry we could have done no worse than we have done in the name of the United Nations, the Western world and the democratic way of life.I have some vivid memories of Korea, and many of them I wish I could forget. There is the memory of the old Korean who stumbled uploading a crate from a C-54 in Pusan, and of the little pipsqueak of a GI private who seized him by the coat lapels and shouted in his face, “You sonofabitch—if you do that again I’ll punch you in the nose!” There is the memory of the wretched young man with his feet half eaten away, dying of gangrene and refused medical assistance by a succession of MOs because he was a Korean and didn’t count. There is the memory of the Canadian private who emptied his Bren gun into a Korean grave, and the memory of the GI in the bus at Pusan who shouted loudly at a comrade about how much he hated the gooks—and the look on the face of the Korean bus driver who overheard him.

And always there is the memory of the crowded streets and the khaki river of soldiers flowing through them, many of them drunk, not a few of them arrogant, most of them with too much money to spend: a shifting montage of jeeps driving lickety-split down narrow lanes built for oxcarts, of voices cursing at the men who didn’t move out of the way quickly, of faces leering and winking at the women, of hands dispensing the largesse of democracy—a piece of gum here, a piece of chocolate there—to the ragged hungry children begging on the curb.

←WITHERS: We never got to see the Korean people. The Korean people were kept approximately 20 kilometres behind the front. We never interacted with the Korean people.

←BENNETT: Some of the incidents he relates certainly happened, but they were not widespread. There’s a few people who do this sort of thing, but this was not the sort of thing you saw all the time.

←REDKNAP: If I may use a good army expression, that paragraph is bullshit. It annoys me intently to read that. Every Korean that I’ve talked to had nothing but admiration for the Canadians who came to free their country. No axe to grind.

There is above all the memory of the serious young Korean university graduate gazing solemnly and sadly at me across the remnants of a chow mein dinner that had cost the equivalent of two months’ wages in Korea, and saying, “You Americans are so stupid. You have made prostitutes of our women and beggars of our children. Surely you are not going to make the mistake of thinking the Koreans love you?”We were eating in a native restaurant because this young man could not eat with me in the officers’ mess where all other war correspondents ate. Yet he was an accredited war correspondent, too, who wore the United Nations patch and uniform. But he was a Korean. Sorry.

Surely this illustrates the stupidity of our policy in Korea. We not only go out of our way to insult a group of Koreans, but we single out newspapermen—the very people who can interpret, or misinterpret, our way of life to their countrymen. In Korea we have given very little thought to anything but the military expediency of the moment, whether it encompasses the breaking of dikes on a paddy field or the tacit support of a government that is about as democratic as Franco’s.

Our soldiers are sometimes referred to as “the ambassadors of democracy,” but the painful fact is that they lack both training and talent for ambassadorship. They have been taught how to fight and they fight well. They have not been taught how to act and they act badly.It seems to me there are two basic principles we must accept. One has already been suggested in these columns by Lionel Shapiro: that these days it is as important to teach a soldier how to get along with other people as it is to teach him the first and second stoppages on the Bren gun. This will take more than just the odd lecture and the occasional pamphlet. The idea needs to be drilled into the troops as surely as the manual of arms.

The other thing we must understand is that we all share some of the responsibility for what happened to the Korean people and their land. No matter who is to blame, it is we who must rebuild this wretched country, for victory will rest in the end with the side that gains the trust of the people.

I believe this is the only practical aim we can follow in Korea if we are to come out of this business with our heads up and out ideals unsullied. The fact that it is also the moral course is perhaps an added argument in its favour. If we succeed with it we may yet make “our way of life” seem worthwhile to the people who’ve had it inflicted on them for the past twelve months.

The great lesson of the new decade is already clear: that the ends of military expediency are not enough, that you can’t burn away an idea with gasoline jelly but can only destroy it with a better idea. But this lesson hasn’t been put into practice.

←WITHERS: We were taught to fight. Bloody right, we were, and I’m glad we were. We wouldn’t have survived. That’s why we went there: to fight, to restore the stability of the south. Ambassadorship came later in the history of the Canadian Forces with peacekeeping operations, and we did rather well at that, too.

←BERCUSON: I don’t think we really learned, really until the last 10 years, that when you’re fighting a war that is a limited war, your soldiers have to be prepared for what they’re about to encounter. We really didn’t get into that until after Somalia. We started to really make an effort to teach our soldiers about the social and political context of the countries into which they were going—and try to make them more aware of, more sensitive to, the larger issues that they were dealing with.

←EVANSThe training our soldiers get, in most instances, they’re much better prepared—or at least somewhat prepared—for the situation they’re going into. I worked with some of our guys before they went to Afghanistan… They had at least a little bit of a sense of what that conflict was about. And though some of their generals sometimes put it in pretty ugly terms, on balance Canadian soldiers are now much better prepared to go into civil war conflicts.

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