Long before he rose to the top of the military as a four-star general with global responsibilities, Volney Warner was a newly minted second lieutenant, responsible mainly for keeping his troops alive in the brutal early months of the Korean War.
"We were armed with hand-me-down World War II equipment, both weapons and uniforms," Warner told ABC News contributor Col. Steve Ganyard. "We spent a lot of time trading two cartons of cigarettes to try and get an additional A4 or A6 machine gun. And if we weren’t fighting for firepower, we were fighting for rations. It was a terrible way to fight a war."
Outgunned and outmanned, Warner’s unit once grabbed a couple of abandoned Russian T-34 tanks out of a ditch to get some armor at the front of the infantry column, until Air Force tank-busters told them it was a bad idea.
If another war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. military will have no need to scrounge enemy tanks. Now there are stealth bombers, F-35s and all manner of sophisticated weaponry giving a clear advantage to the U.S. and South Korea.
"Obviously, as the president has in fact announced, if a war starts we could win that war," Warner told Ganyard. "What we have to do that might be unacceptable to many other countries and many other people, but I think it goes without saying that we could win that war. The real question is whether we’re politically apt enough to go ahead and figure out how to not have that war."
Many Americans may not realize it, but the Korean War isn’t officially over. The armistice signed in 1953, which established the demilitarized zone, was simply a ceasefire. The state of war is one reason North Korea justifies its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. Warner sees an opportunity.
"I think the big thing that we have forgotten about the war is that it still exists," said Warner. "In my personal opinion, one of the best things that we can do on a political note would be to go ahead and talk to North Korea on that issue and try to formally end the war with North Korea."
Warner won a Silver Star in Korea for leading a bayonet charge on a North Korean artillery unit. He went on to serve in Vietnam, then rose through the ranks to ultimately head the military’s global rapid response system, known then as REDCOM. But the hardship of his early service in Korea remains vivid.
"Thirty-four thousand names on a wall is a high price to pay," Warner says. "As a soldier, whether it is in Vietnam or anywhere else, when I see walls with names on them, I think about, 'Could there be a better solution?' and 'Do we have the capability in this country to come up with it?'"
On Saturday, the Korean War Veterans Association will host the official Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Ceremony. It is a day for America to remember the sacrifice of all those who fell in battle and to reflect on the high cost of war.
Among those who gave all nearly 70 years ago in Korea were 41 members of Warner’s West Point graduating class.