Korean War Vets Missing from Popular Culture

By Van Ells, Mark D. | VFW Magazine, August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Korean War Vets Missing from Popular Culture


Van Ells, Mark D., VFW Magazine


America's prime transmitter of cultural "values" has ignored the 1.8 million Americans who served in the 1950-53 war even during the 50th anniversary years.

The Korean War was a crucial moment in American history. When the United States sent troops to stop Communist North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June 1950, it signaled the nation's determination to check the spread of communism. It was the first war fought under the authority of the United Nations. American troops remain in Korea today.

But sandwiched between the titanic scope of World War II and the vitriolic debate over Vietnam, the Korean War never really captured the public imagination. The year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the armistice ending the fighting in Korea. In that half century, the image of the Korean War veteran at the movies and on television remains vague, imprecise and influenced by the experiences of other wars. The Korean War is the "Forgotten War" in popular culture, too.

Korean War films of the 1950s and early 1960s were much like the scores of WWII movies popular at the time, but modified to meet the realities of Korea. The typical "melting pot" platoon, for example, now included black Americans and those of Japanese ancestry, acknowledging the racial integration of the armed forces.

New technologies also made appearances, such as helicopters in Battle Taxi (1955) and jet aircraft in films like Sabre Jet (1953), Jet Attack (1958) and most notably The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1954) based on the novel by James Michener.

In reality, the Korean War differed from WWII in many respects. For one, it was not nearly as large. The war directly involved 1.8 million Americans, as opposed to the 16 million who served in WWII. Indeed, Korea was often referred to as a "police action" and not a war at all. Korea was a remote country unknown to most Americans.

Although most Americans accepted the logic of Cold War containment, the primary adversary in their minds was the Soviet Union; Korea seemed to be merely a sideshow or prelude to a larger war. Its ambiguous conclusion-a cease-fire remarkably close to the prewar boundaries-also lacked the decisiveness of WWII. To Americans, the Korean War was an uncertain and unsatisfying affair.

Hollywood Takes the Dark Side

Hollywood dealt with the ambiguities of the war by sidestepping them or ignoring them altogether. Korean War films tended to avoid the war's "big picture" and focused instead on small groups of fighting men-often lost or isolated units-in films such as Fixed Bayonets (1951), Combat Squad (1953) and HoW Back the Night (1956).

In Pork Chop Hill (1959), Gregory Peck stars as a junior officer fighting the military bureaucracy, as well as the Communists, in a seemingly meaningless battle late in the war. During the battle one young officer asks pointedly, "Is this hill worth it?" The men agree that it is, but only because they had fought so hard to take it, and not for any larger goals.

Many Korean War films fall into the film-noir style that was popular after WWII. Film-noir is characterized by dark psychological dramas in which the motives and morals of the protagonists are unclear and troubling. These films often take place in exotic settings, and contain shadowy lighting and uncomfortable camera angles that elicit feelings of anxiety, loneliness and vulnerability.

In the 1951 film The Steel Helmet, for example, Gene Evans stars as Sgt. Zach, a battle-hardened WWII "retread" who teams up with some inexperienced soldiers to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. But beneath Zach's tough-as-nails exterior is a softhearted man who befriends a Korean boy, removes his helmet before a gigantic statue of Buddha and orders that the temple not be damaged.

In the midst of battle, Zach breaks down, flashing back to D-Day. Zach is bitterly critical of a green lieutenant. When the lieutenant is killed, Zach mournfully places his lucky steel helmet (it has stopped a bullet in a previous engagement) on his grave.

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