Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering the Forgotten War

From the 15 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Here’s an experiment in the study of US military history: Ask anyone to list in order the three US military involvements of the past 75 years that had the highest number of casualties.

Most respondents will answer incorrectly. They will respond in a hurry, and correctly, with number 1 (World War II) and number 2 (the Vietnam Conflict). After some stumbling over a response for the third slot, most everyone – be they students or adults – will come back with the nation’s current war in and occupation of Iraq, responsible for over 4,200 deaths. That is the wrong answer. As horrific as that death toll is, it is dwarfed by that of the Korean War. The bloody conflict accounted for the death of more than 34,000 Americans and the wounding of over 103,000 more from 1950 to 1953.

That experiment shows the flaw in our society’s understanding of America’s role in global affairs. Through no fault of their own, people are deeply affected by news and entertainment media and their understanding of historical context becomes skewed by the messages and images they are bombarded with on a daily basis. We are led to live and perceive only the present, never the past and future. (In a similar vein, the media leads folks to believe that the current economic downturn is as bad as the Great Depression. It’s not even close).

It doesn’t help that the participants of the Korean War were already disrespected long before the Iraq War began. For many years this Asian conflict has been known as “the Forgotten War” because, collectively, we have ignored it and its meaning because it was bookended by the epic World War and the immensely-controversial Vietnam War.

And a Forgotten War it is. It’s rare that that we discuss it. It’s rarer yet that we give the participants their just recognition and appreciation. Everyone can readily identify the center point of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington…the restrained yet powerful Vietnam Wall. How many people can identify the primary image of the Korean War Memorial? For those who don’t know, it’s a collection of 19 statues of American soldiers trudging across rough terrain, harried looks on their faces anticipating the next surprise attack.

That haunting memorial perfectly represents the Korean experience. It was a frightening war, full of dreadful fighting reminiscent of WWI’s close-quarters bloodbaths. It started off horribly as over a thousand inexperienced and underequipped young soldiers were cut down in one of the first American battles of the war, US and UN forces greatly underestimating the power of the North Koreans. The body count remained high throughout the three-year occupation when battles in extremely rugged and dangerous mountain terrain became the norm. None of us today can imagine the stress of scaling a steep hill, wondering if the barrel of an enemy’s gun will be at your head at the next rise. Our soldiers paid a heavy price in life and limb and those who survived saw things on a daily basis that no one should ever see, memories they carry with them to this day. The war was so violent that come 1953 - after both sides each lost over a million soldiers – it ended with an armistice, a cease-fire that left a ravaged land and its two parties in no better shape than before the war.

The proper honoring of our Korean vets and their sacrifices in this ugly war are long past due. Highlighting the differential in respect versus other wars, if you travel across the States, you will find that Vietnam War memorials – all of them well-deserved - outnumber Korean War memorials at a 2.5 to 1 rate, despite the casualty difference being just 1.3 to 1. It’s surprising if not disheartening that public and private investments in Korean remembrance have been so comparatively low. Even the 50 year anniversary ceremonies held earlier this century went by with no fanfare, barely a blip on the radar of our media, our elected officials, and our citizens. Adding to this, our schools tread lightly on war studies. It’s really a travesty that most Americans are grossly uninformed in regard to something so great in scale and importance.

That lack of respect can be corrected. But, it’s important that any and all Korean memorials and ceremonies occur as soon as possible, before it is too late. The participants are in their twilight years and they won’t be with us much longer. The youngest of the soldiers turned 73 this year. As a country, we need to give them the love that is due.

You can do your part by sharing a heartfelt “thank you”. They haven’t been told those simple words enough in their lifetimes.

No comments: