On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle. Hampton Sides. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2018.
A Sun Tzu lesson inspires the apropos title of this book. In describing nine different situations in warfare, Sun Tzu describes “desperate ground” as a situation in which an army can only save itself from destruction by fighting without delay. This is the situation in which the First Marine Division found itself at the Chosin Reservoir on the morning of 28 December 1950, after surviving a massive assault by the 9th Army of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army that surrounded the marines and cut them off from United Nations forces on the coastline. Decisive and heroic action saved the marines as they fought their way back to the coast, but at the cost of a thousand dead, thousands more wounded and missing, and an end to the dream of a united Korea.
Hampton Sides’ eminently readable account of the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, brings this decisive battle in an oft-forgotten war to a wider audience. He weaves his story from the viewpoints of diverse actors in the conflict, including the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division, General O.P. Smith; a Korean refugee from the North who is, by chance, posted as a translator for the American Army in his hometown meters away from the family he left behind; and multiple young marines and soldiers. Sides makes ample use of Marine Corps and Army archival documents and the extensive existing literature on the battle, and he infuses his story with material from interviews he conducted with survivors. Material from his personal interviews with survivors keeps the human dimension in focus, but a couple of longer detours into personal stories fail to add to his central narrative. Sides is at his best when distilling the key events of the battle from existing literature on the conflict and conveying these to the reader in his intimate and exciting journalistic style.
While a scholar of the Korean War may not find a lot of new material in this history, he or she will still enjoy the compelling writing that makes this history accessible to more casual students of military history. Importantly, Sides’ history highlights lessons from one of America’s few large-scale conventional conflicts in the post-World War II era. Sides’ story highlights the risk of miscalculating a foreign power’s intention to intervene in a conflict, the American predilection to over-rely on technology in warfare, and the enduring importance of experienced leadership in combat. As the United States faces rising strategic competition with peer competitors, these lessons deserve close examination.
The first question that demands an answer is how the marines found themselves occupying such desperate ground? Today, marines fondly remember the quip from Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the commander of the 1st Marine Regiment: “So the Chinese are to our east. They’re to our west. They’re to our north. And to our south. Well, that simplifies things. They can’t get away from us now!” But even Chesty’s swagger belies the dire situation for the marines. How did they get in a situation in which the triumphal outcome was a successful retreat? Though General Smith would famously dispute, “Retreat, Hell! We’re just attacking in a different direction!” the fact remains that the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army nearly overwhelmed the marines. How did a 120,000-strong Chinese force manage to conduct a surprise attack that completely surrounded the 1st Marine Division?
Despite their concerns about Chinese and Soviet intervention, members of the Truman administration were wary of opening themselves to charges by Congressional Republicans, including Senator Joseph McCarthy, of being “soft on communism.” In late September 1950, Defense Secretary George Marshall gave MacArthur the green light to proceed past the 38th parallel. Afraid of the political consequences of crossing MacArthur, the Truman administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would continue to give timid and ambiguous orders to MacArthur over the next several months. MacArthur thrived on ambiguity and ran with these orders as he saw fit.
One order that wasn’t ambiguous was the necessity of halting an advance into enemy territory at any sign of major Soviet or Chinese intervention. Within weeks of crossing the 38th parallel on 7 October, U.S. troops began detecting the first of the 200,000 Chinese troops infiltrating North Korea from Manchuria. MacArthur’s staff systematically minimized the size and threat of these troops. MacArthur’s sycophantic staff, specifically his chief of intelligence, General Charles Willoughby, produced intelligence that fit MacArthur’s conception of the war. According to MacArthur, the Chinese were not a significant threat, so Willoughby deliberately prefabricated intelligence that matched this assessment. Even after the 39th Army of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army encircled and overran the defensive flanks of the U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Unsan on 25 October 1950, General MacArthur’s staff stuck to their belief that the Chinese did not possess the means to seriously oppose MacArthur’s “Home by Christmas” campaign to the Yalu River.
Absent from the battlefield, and reassured by the echo-chamber of his own staff, MacArthur ignored the possibility that he incorrectly read the situation. Sides joins Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins, MacArthur’s replacement General Matthew Ridgway, and many historians in criticizing MacArthur’s choice to preside over the war from his headquarters at the Dai Ichi building in Tokyo where it was hard to develop a visceral feel for the mountainous terrain and incapacitating cold in which his forces operated. Nor could MacArthur see for himself the warning signs of Chinese intervention free from the filter of his obsequious staff. In the weeks leading up to the Chinese attack at the Chosin reservoir, MacArthur spent just a few hours on the Korean peninsula during a single visit the day after Thanksgiving. Despite General Smith’s strong reservations, X Corps Commander General Almond ordered the 1st Marine Division to proceed inland along a single mountain-choked road into the Chosin Reservoir and into the center of 120,000-strong Chinese force surrounding the reservoir. American commanders’ adherence to the belief that the Chinese could not or would not significantly oppose an American advance—despite evidence to the contrary—disciplined Chinese tactical movement, and the imprudent decision to continue deep into unknown mountainous terrain along a single road put the 1st Marine Division on desperate ground on the morning of 28 December 1950.
Part of the Americans’ overconfidence rested on a belief that superior American technology, specifically airpower, would make quick work of any resistance offered by the peasants of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. MacArthur proclaimed that the best way to beat the Chinese was to hit them “where they are weakest, namely in the air and sea.” He added that all you needed to defeat the Chinese was to place “500 fighter planes under the command of some old war horse.” Sides uses the ample existing literature to reconstruct the 15 October 1950, meeting between MacArthur and President Truman on Wake Island where an overconfident MacArthur boasted that without air cover any Chinese forces they might encounter would face “slaughter.” MacArthur’s faith in airpower was shaped by his experience fighting the Japanese in World War II, where he successfully engaged fixed targets of the modern, industrial Japanese military. The Chinese would not provide such targets.
While the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army was woefully under-equipped compared to the American military juggernaut, they offset this disadvantage with sound infantry tactics and mass. By traveling exclusively at night, utilizing camouflage and concealment, avoiding roads, and halting all movement after spotting airplanes, the Chinese evaded detection by American aerial reconnaissance planes and infiltrated key terrain. Chinese attacks sought to close with American defensive positions, neutralizing American fire support. In the close-in fight, the better trained and equipped Americans wrought destruction on their Chinese attackers, but the sheer number of Chinese troops allowed them to continue the fight.
In the wars of the last two decades, the American military has become all too familiar with the asymmetric tactics that guerrillas and terrorists can employ to neutralize American technological advantage. Chinese tactics at Chosin serve as a reminder that conventional armies are capable of something similar. China or another peer competitor in a future conflict will also likely try to offset American superiority in materiel with a high tolerance for battlefield casualties. Brutal close-quarter infantry fighting saved the marines from destruction at Chosin and could be the difference in a future conflict. Technology may shape how American forces find and close with the enemy, but the destruction of the enemy will still require the same hard infantry fight the marines at Chosin and generations of warriors preceding them have fought for millennia. Given this permanent likelihood, maintaining the edge in close-combat lethality is an enduring imperative for the American military.
Finally, it is worthwhile to look at the leadership and organizatioal culture that fostered the heroism and fighting spirit that enabled the marines to overcome overwhelming odds. Sides seems to suggest the warrior ethos displayed by the marines is an innate quality. Further examination reveals the importance of leadership in enabling the heroism displayed by the individual soldier or marine. Specifically, the historian and Army Korean War veteran Faris Kirkland points to the difference in the level of experience of leading combat units among senior Marine Corps and Army leaders at Chosin. Smith and all three of his regimental commanders had led combat units during World War II. Conversely, both the Army Division Commander Major General David Barr and RCT 31 Commander Colonel Aaron MacLean had spent the Second World War as staff planners. Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, who would assume command of RCT 31 after the death of Colonel MacLean, had never been assigned to a front-line unit. Faris concludes that this lack of experience contributed to Army leaders at Chosin demonstrating a lack of understanding of crucial elements of communications, logistics, reconnaissance, and fire support.
Although Sides appropriately credits Smith’s decision to consolidate his regiments and build an airstrip at Hagaru-ri for putting the Marines in a position to defend themselves against overwhelming numbers, he otherwise seems to pass on analysis of leadership and tactical decision making. Institutional culture is important, but military leaders must translate that culture into effective fighting units. If the Marine Corps did possess an effective institution-wide warrior ethos, how did they foster and maintain that culture? Sides misses an opportunity to explore these important questions in his narrative, but military leaders seeking to build effective combat units should not.
Sides’ gripping, journalistic narrative of the of the Chosin Reservoir brings this important Korean War battle to life and offers timely lessons from the largest conventional war America has fought since World War II. Facing rising strategic rivalry from peer competitors, American policy makers should take notice of how the American political, diplomatic, and military leadership failed to understand Chinese intentions to intervene in the conflict. Military leaders should note how Chinese discipline, tactics, and numbers neutralized American advantages in technology, equipment, and training, turning MacArthur’s grand race to the Yalu into a desperate foxhole fight. American national security strategists must seek to understand the intentions of potential foes and posture to deter conflict. Failing that, the American infantrymen must retain their edge in close-combat lethality for when they next find themselves fighting on desperate ground.
Ian Cameron is a U.S. Marine Corps Infantry officer. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header Image: UN forces began their breakout from Koto-ri on December 8th, 1950. The convoy moved out in the midst of a snowstorm. In general, the Marines' winter clothing was cumbersome but effective—except for the shoe-pac. The rubber insoles in Marines' boots caused sweat to freeze into a block of ice, resulting in frostbite for many of the men. (U.S. National Archives)
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles, The Internet Classics Archive, Assessed February 9, 2019, http://classics.mit.edu/index.html.
 Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2018), 220.
 Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2018), 261.
 David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York, NY: Hyperion, 2007), 330.
 William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (New York, NY, Little, Brown and Company, 1978), 1215.
 David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York, NY: Hyperion, 2007), 692.
 Thomas Ricks, The Generals: American Command from WWII to Today (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012) 160.
 Ibid., 687.
 William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1978), 1269.
 Bob Scales, On War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016)
 Thomas Ricks, The Generals: American Command from WWII to Today (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012) 129.
 Faris Kirkland, “Soldiers and Marines at Chosin Reservoir: Criteria for Assignment to Combat Command,” Armed Forces & Society 22, no. 2 (Winter 1995–96), 266.