Ghosts of Task Force Smith

At the close of WWII, America was the undisputed military power in the world and sole holder of nuclear weapons. From 16 million men under arms we rapidly demobilized. The massive WWII mobilization from a constabulary force of 250,000 revealed many leadership and training issues, so we “reformed” the military to make it more “civilian-friendly.” By 1950, these reforms were fully implemented; training was easier, discipline somewhat lax, particularly in the Army. The Marines were left alone because, well, Marines are expected to be Marines. Future wars would be nuclear wars or not fought at all; ground troops would just “mop up” and occupy the rubble. Great strategy, quite inexpensive compared to messy conventional wars, both political parties loved it. Somebody forgot to tell the North Koreans and the Soviet Union’s Stalin the new rules.
On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea with Stalin’s blessing. A shocked America rushed a pick-up infantry task force, “Task Force Smith,” named after the Army Lieutenant Colonel commanding it, to Korea to save the day. Smith’s troops were occupation troops based in Japan, poorly equipped and trained. They were issued ineffective anti-tank ammunition, which bounced off advancing North Korean obsolete tanks. Smith’s unit was overrun as were follow-on U.S. units, all driven south to the Pusan perimeter with heavy casualties. The Marines were by General MacArthur to save the day with his amphibious landing at Inchon, but between July and November 1950, we suffered 8000 dead, largely due to a lack of preparedness. We went from the undisputed military power in the world to being overrun by a third-world military force in less than five years. It’s happening again. Fast-forward to the present crisis in the Middle East.

As the Syria debate intensified last week, the lack of aircraft carriers on scene was readily apparent, with none in the Mediterranean. These floating airfields give enormous flexibility and combat power to the President and are integral to the effectiveness and survivability of surface warships. Of 10 carriers, only two were in the region, the rest laid-up for major overhauls or in home ports thousands of miles away. While the Nimitz carrier group is redeploying to the “Med,” they are quite alone. Part of the reason for this is the “sequester” and the requirement to curtail steaming time by warships. A carrier battle group can cost $20 million a week, $40 million if you actually use them for combat support. The reduced presence of naval forces in the Med has been felt for some time, most noticeably last year off Libya. When Americans needed to be evacuated, the Navy was forced to rent a Greek ferry due to lack of available American naval assets to do the job. There is a price to be paid for wholesale gutting of the armed forces. The price is usually paid by military personnel who buy time with their lives as did Americans in the past, at Wake Island, Bataan, or Korea. Someday we might not have enough time to recover.


The current Syrian crisis is a can of worms that threatens to undermine the structures of deterrence worldwide. Poor diplomacy and failed leadership got us here. There are few “good guys” and no simple answers, but enormous potential consequences for deploying military force in a haphazard and inadequate manner. This crisis is largely a local problem and should require a local response by the Arab League, but they opted out. Two million refugees have fled Syria and live in abominable squalor; millions more are internally displaced, 6000 a month are being killed. If we militarily intervene, it should be massive, unrestricted and unequivocal or not at all. A massive humanitarian relief effort is required and should be our first priority versus a military strike. Resolving the use and possession of chemical weapons will not be solved by a single, “punitive” strike; the potential for this crisis to exponentially escalate, posing the threat of regional nuclear war, is not out of the question. Lesson to be learned again in world politics: weakness breeds contempt, not respect, and never “fear of consequences.”


Al Fonzi
Atas News article September 11, 2013