One thing indisputable about the six-part series "Korea: The Unknown War," beginning tonight (Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television at 9 p.m.) and continuing through Wednesday is this: It's timely.
For the Korean War, called a "police action," marked the first time the United Nations sent a multinational force to a distant hot spot to shoot at an aggressor nation. Today's smoking Persian Gulf crisis may be the second time.
Thus, what the nation's TV viewers see in the three two-hour segments of "Korea" will be regarded as a preview of what will happen if the United States and its U.N. allies charge into Kuwait to dig out Saddam Hussein's entrenched army and bomb his air fields, factories, roads and bridges in Iraq. This preview is not pretty. Real warfare never is, especially up close.
"Korea" shows the devastation inflicted by the shelling and bombing, deadly for civilians but not effective enough to spare soldiers the terrifying job of killing the enemy one by one with rifle and bayonet, and getting killed themselves; the atrocities committed by both sides; the cruel and humiliating psychological warfare, such as North Korean Communists marching captured Americans through streets lined with jeering soldiers and civilians; how easily battles can be lost through misguided tactics.
"Are we ready for this?" the TV series seems to ask, even though this was not the intent of the producers, Thames Television of London and station WGBH of Boston, which have gone to laudable lengths to draw this detailed portrait of the Korean War. Film crews even traveled to North Korea to get the views of North Korean officers and also let Allied as well as American officers have their say in the pursuit of balance on this painful war. Even so, as is bound to happen whenever an attempt is made to summarize a war with no clear victor, the series is virtually certain to provoke controversy, probably the charge that it is too sympathetic to the enemy and overly critical of the American side.
The interviews scattered through the series provide fresh testimony that U.S. experts wrongly believed that the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 was masterminded by Moscow to discombobulate NATO; that none of the American players, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the intelligence agencies, believed China would enter the war, which indeed it did; that the United States threatened, if not planned, to use the atomic bomb; that millions of lives were lost without either North Korea or South Korea achieving the prime objective of unifying the country under its flag. Even so, both sides declared victory -- with President Eisenhower hailing the U.N. response as a lesson to aggressors.
Despite its impressive breadth and accidental timeliness, "Korea" does not grab and hold you with the power of PBS's recent Civil War series, even though it employs action-packed war footage instead of still photographs. I think this is because there is no commentator like Shelby Foote to put flesh and blood on the characters who march across the television screen. "Korea" is often flat, like an overly long newsreel, but nevertheless was eminently worth doing and is eminently worth watching.