The Korean War and the Need for Atonement

Forgotten War

Image: Natalie Wu

By Scott Strgacich

The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 was modern America’s first public opinion war. For the first time, Gallup, Incorporated conducted polling that actually fluctuated with the course of the conflict. Five years earlier, the initial loss of Pacific holdings to the Japanese, the ineffectiveness of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and the horrendous losses the Marines suffered on Iwo Jima could not move the opinion of an American public that remained staunchly in favor of beating the Japanese and Nazis. Korea, however, inaugurated a new kind of war – one in which its worth and efficacy would have to be regularly proven to the American people to justify its continued prosecution. One could say it heralded the beginning of modern American warfare.

Sandwiched between the righteousness of World War II and the divisiveness of Vietnam, the Korean War is known as the “forgotten war.” It lacked a Hitler to overthrow. The war had no Buffalo Springfield to provide it with a cool soundtrack. The Korean War was a grizzly, murderous affair that took 2.5 million lives – including those of 36,000 Americans – over three long, arduous years. How something of its scale and cost could be “forgotten” is at the heart of how the American polity processes war. Victory is a vindication to be set in stone for posterity. Defeat, however, does not comport with the American mythology and must be swept under the collective rug of memory and culture. Eventually, Americans learned, however imperfect, to come to terms with such a defeat in Vietnam. Korea has yet to receive its moment of atonement.

Last Wednesday, at a solemn ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Vice President Mike Pence received the remains of 55 Korean War dead repatriated from the North. His speech, replete with the obligatory patriotic bromides, acknowledged the Korean War’s unfortunate moniker: “Some have called the Korean War the forgotten war but today we prove these heroes were never forgotten. Today, our boys are coming home.”

As another 55 fallen Americans are laid to rest decades after their war was fought, they clearly have not been forgotten. But their war has. Its purpose has. Its implication has. As is so often the case with Americans’ heartfelt tributes to their fallen heroes, they mourn the dead without asking why they died in the first place. To do so is sacrilege, marring something pure in a warrior’s death. Politics has no place at Arlington National Cemetery. In American political culture, the virtue of the dead is inextricably bound up with the virtue of the wars that took them. To laud the warrior is to laud the war and vice versa. This is ever the story of all American wars, but Korea in particular.

But, as is said in the Gospel of John, “Ye worship ye know not what.”

The Korean War began with the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950. The US-led intervention on behalf of the Western-aligned Republic of Korea marked the first and only time the United Nations Security Council voted to go to war. The communist advance was swift. With UN forces relegated to a small pocket of territory around the southern port of Pusan, General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II, conducted a daring amphibious landing at Inchon that September. Seoul was rapidly liberated and the communist forces were ejected from the South. It was a decisive victory. If the war had ended there, Vice President Pence would likely have had no remains to welcome home last week.

For General MacArthur, the liberation of the South was insufficient. The North, too, must be purified of its Stalinist oppressors. Herein lies the birth of a psychological malady of warfare I like to term the “MacArthur Syndrome” – the impulse to carry a conflict beyond the point of strategic necessity thus dooming the endeavor itself. Having decisively fulfilled the UN mandate for intervention, MacArthur used all his energies to haul the war across the 38th Parallel to continue his crusade. In October, he succeeded.  

His northward advance toward the Yalu River– an advance so fast American supply lines were stretched to their limits – provoked the ire of Maoist China, whose intervention in the middle of October pushed UN forces back to where they had begun and then some. Here is where the Korean War can truly be said to have begun.

The ensuing years of slaughter have, to this day, not been fully comprehended by an American public who collectively lack an understanding of the war as their diet of Korea-related information stems largely from popular caricatures of amenable South Korea’s totalitarian neighbor to the North. The reality, as always, bears with it uncomfortable complexity.

As Bruce Cumings stated in his breathtaking 2010 book on the war, “North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it.” American responsibility is more inextricably linked to South Korean conduct during the war, practicing a brutality of equal measure. Political killings and iron fist repression had a home in Seoul as well as Pyongyang. The strategically unnecessary two and a half additional years of toil on the Peninsula opened all Korean homes to the angel of death, North and South. The American air campaign, while the greatest tactical tool in its arsenal against the communist onslaught, dropped, often indiscriminately, 635,000 tons of bombs on Korean soil, more than all of the bombs dropped in the whole of the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Koreas shared in their mutual devastation at the hands of an increasingly Americanized conflict that was, is and always shall be innately Korean.

The very arrogance that took us across the 38th Parallel in 1950 allows us to laugh at the comical Kims. For this, Cumings goes on to chide us:

“It is our blindness, our hidden complex of unexamined assumptions, that constitutes the core of Kim-hating – what makes him simultaneously so laughable, so impudent, and so outrageous; we revile him, while he thumbs his nose at us and our values and gets away with it. We have proved over seven decades that we do not understand North Korea and that we cannot do anything about it, however much we would like to. We can do something about our prejudices.”

Written of the late father of North Korea’s current leader, the above passage still resonates truer than ever.

Earlier I called for an atonement. For what should we atone? A prolonged war, the hypocritical support of an oppressive regime in Seoul, the devastation of one people in two countries. This is all apparent. However, the question of how we should atone remains. If there is ever to be a general thawing of relations, histories and memories, Americans ought to first embrace the painful introspection that has accompanied other tragedies. Just as in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we asked our sons and daughters to cross an ocean, to kill and to die as an American public turned en masse against a major US war for the first time since the darkest days of the Civil War. They could not comprehend why their countrymen were dying. This war, unlike that which confronted the Nazi scourge, was not worth the flag-draped caskets it produced by the many thousands.

As stated above, Gallup was busy at this time. According to a 2001 article, “polls in August [1950], and again in November, continued to show widespread support for U.S. participation in that war, with about two-thirds saying the United States should not pull out its troops, while only a quarter or less said it should… After large numbers of troops from Communist China entered the war in October 1950 to support the failing North Korean troops, Americans changed their minds. A poll in January 1951 showed that about two-thirds supported a U.S. withdrawal, while just a quarter wanted to stay.”

We fought it out over Vietnam. In many ways we still do. Vietnam has its wall which has evoked the tears of a generation that could not understand why it was slogging through rice paddies and jungles. Our fight over Afghanistan and Iraq goes on as the wars do. One day they too shall have a wall of their own. Korea is different.

We have not had our fight over the Korean War. Instead, it became the “forgotten war.” Did we win in Korea? Did we lose? Was it a stalemate? How do we taxonomize this species of tragedy? If the answer is not simple, if the conclusion is not decisive, America will choose to forget. It is time that we remembered.

The ghostly stainless steel statues that silently patrol the Korean War memorial in Washington, DC have a story to tell. They have questions that need to be answered. They need the Americans of today to care about those who died then, to see the 38th Parallel in every new military adventure that a president announces from the Oval Office. They deserve more than a feel-good eulogy from Mike Pence. They deserve a nation that cares enough to fight over what their deaths really meant.

Scott is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley where he studied political science with an emphasis on international relations. He was the founder of the Berkeley chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society and received highest departmental honors for his thesis “Tehran’s Pragmatism: Iranian Strategic Culture After the Nuclear Deal.” He is interested in national security policy, arms control and Iranian affairs. He also has a weird thing for Egyptology.






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