WASHINGTON -- The Korean War has never exactly been the war that young men came back from whispering, "It was the greatest moment of my life." It was not the war that journalists wrote books about the second- or third-"greatest generation."
It was a war spanning those ambiguous years, 1950 to 1953, sandwiched between the "Big War" of the 1940s and the confusing wars in the years afterward, from Vietnam to Iraq, that no one would accuse of being the "good wars."
And yet, this weekend the armistice that ended the war in 1953 is being celebrated here. The Korean War Memorial is a thrilling commemoration. More and more, analysts and journalists are writing to remember the "forgotten war," where so many died facing the "Red Chinese" for the first time, and history is recording the daring tactics that were used there.
To talk about all of this, I went to one of the few remaining survivors of that war, former ambassador and strategic arms adviser Gen. Edward L. Rowny, now 96 years old. At the time of the Korean War, he was Gen. Douglas MacArthur's spokesman and one of the planners of both the amazing Inchon landing and the dropping of a fully employable bridge to help our troops escape the awful fighting at the Chosin Reservoir.
A mere five years after the end of the wars in Europe and the Pacific, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson mistakenly left out the Korean peninsula from an important strategy statement on those parts of the world the United States would defend. It did not take long for the Russians to respond, sending the North Korean troops they controlled to attack the South.
In Tokyo, where MacArthur was still, with enormous success, supplanting the emperor in Japanese minds, troops were already preparing to go home; now, instead, they would move swiftly to Korea. But where to land?
To suggestions from his staff, the mince-no-words MacArthur declared, "You're all pusillanimous. Why not terrain-hop and land in Inchon? Have you considered that?"
General Rowny responded that, realistically, Inchon, a small port town on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, "has a 32-foot tide, the greatest tidal range in the world. It would be difficult for a landing force to fight without reinforcements until they could arrive on the next tide." But the fact that the Pentagon itself was for evacuating American troops from Japan did not stop MacArthur, who advised that day, "Go for the throat. The tides are simply another obstacle to be overcome."
Despite the obstacles, in mid-September the first ships rode the waves of high tide onto Inchon's beaches and city walls, for which special aluminum ladders were built. Twelve hours later, the second wave of Americans arrived.
MacArthur afterward gave Rowny a bear hug and told him, "Rowny, Inchon will go down in history as the 22nd greatest battle of the world."
For the Inchon landing involved a heroic and nearly superhuman effort on the part of the American strategists, a major one being Rowny, then a tall, handsome man of Polish descent who could do everything from speak flawless Russian to outflank the Chinese. All of these details are available on Amazon in short book form, "An American Soldier's Saga of the Korean War," which will soon be out in full book form as "Smokey Joe and the General, The Tale of Gen. John E. Wood and His Protege, Lt. Ed Rowny."
But more was to come. Months later, when American troops had taken Seoul and then crossed the 38th parallel and moved toward the North Korean/Chinese border at the Yalu River, MacArthur's daring proved rather too daring.
As Chinese troops poured over the border and it became impossible for the Americans to retreat, Rowny and the other planners designed a bridge to span the Koto-Ri chasm, which ranged from 30 to 100 feet wide. They decided to use a C-119 cargo plane to airdrop parts of a treadway bridge, which would then be rebolted together on the ground.
"It was an ambitious idea whose biggest obstacle was finding an Air Force pilot brave enough to airdrop the sections, since most argued that it couldn't be done," Gen. Rowny told me. "The airplane's weight would shift too dramatically when parts were unloaded."
But this, too, was accomplished by daring American pilots, and thousands of Americans were thus evacuated.
Today, South Korea is one of the top 15 economies in the world. It is the very example of an Asian democracy, with education for all, amazing prosperity and even an elected female president. This is an outcome not seen in any other "small war" that we engaged in afterward.
Many can and will always argue that this was a war that did not have to be fought and should not have been; but the outcome, nevertheless, was proof that the United States can both devise inventive and successful war tactics and build a nation afterward. In all of this, the Korean War was unique.