The forgotten war and the value of history

25 Jun 2020

Blog, Letter from the CEO

Today is an anniversary that history ignores.

Seventy years ago, the North Korean army under Kim Il-Sung crossed the 38th Parallel and began a surge south that would nearly push South Korea’s defenders off the peninsula. Those defenders included more than 20 countries fighting under the United Nations Command, led by the United States, which would supply more than 90 percent of UN troops.

The Korean War is a middle child, living between the war we all believe in, World War II, and the one that ripped out and reordered the pages of our national narrative, Vietnam. Few school children, and too few adults, realize that the war is ongoing; while there was an armistice agreement, there has never been a negotiated peace. North and South Korea face off across the Demilitarized Zone as enemies to this day.

South Koreans refer to the invasion by its date, 6-2-5, pronounced yook-ee-oh, just as in this country we speak of 9-11. I was in in South Korea on the 50th anniversary, an unimportant and virtually anonymous soldier burning days in the 2nd Infantry Division. Yet I and every other American GI in country received a commemorative medallion and ceramic plate. The gifts were pressed into my hands by two Korean war survivors, a man and a woman, both ancient and tiny. They bowed and said, “Kamsahamnida” (thank you), over and over. They had not forgotten. It is to our collective shame that we have, for the Korean War offers lessons for our time about hubris, race and blind hero worship, but also about courage and resilience.

When I sat down to write, I intended to advance through those lessons in short order. But like the war itself, it seemed my column would never end. I fell back to the coast, regrouped and battled through the mountains, then, running into an unexpected host of new ideas and opinions, settled into a stalemate.

In the end, I hit the delete button and all that writing—about MacArthur and Chosin and Chairman Mao—disappeared from memory. I was left only with a vision of the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. A squad of 19 stainless steel soldiers moves in a V-formation. They may be advancing; they may be in retreat. All are on alert, scanning for hidden danger. Everyone except a lone soldier near the rear. He has heard a sound behind and is turning to look. His enemy is not imagined; it’s already real.

I wonder if in our current era, when statues fall and legends are dispatched as villains, we might find an unintended lesson in the Korean War Memorial: That looking backward can help guide us on the march ahead.

Mostly I pray that today we all take a few moments to honor the 1.8 million US service members who fought and 36,574 who died in in a war that deserves to be remembered.