"Good" and "Bad" War and the Struggle of Memory against Forgetting

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class rescued the study of history from the powerful. Kings and queens, landowners, industrialists and imperialists had owned much of public memory. In 1980, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States also demonstrated that the freedoms and rights we enjoy precariously--free expression, free association, the jury system, rights of minorities--were the achievements of ordinary people, not the gift of elites.

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Historians, like journalists, play their most honourable role when they myth-bust. Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (1971) achieved this for the people of a continent whose historical memory was colonised and mutated by the dominance of the United States.

The "good" world war of 1939-45 provides a bottomless ethical bath in which the west's "peacetime" conquests are cleansed. Demystifying historical investigation stands in the way. Richard Overy's 1939: Countdown to War (2009) is a devastating explanation of why that cataclysm was not inevitable.

We need such smokescreen-clearing now more than ever. The powerful would like us to believe that the likes of Thompson, Zinn and Galeano are no longer necessary: that we live, as Time magazine put it, "in an eternal present", in which reflection is limited to Facebook and historical narrative is the preserve of Hollywood. This is a confidence trick. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

The people of Korea understand this well. The slaughter on their peninsula following the Second World War is known as "the forgotten war", whose significance for all humanity has long been suppressed in military histories of cold war good versus evil.

I have just read The Korean War: a History by Bruce Cumings (2010), professor of history at the University of Chicago. I first saw Cumings interviewed in Regis Tremblay's extraordinary film The Ghosts of Jeju, which documents the 1948 uprising on the southern Korean island of jeju and the campaign by the present-day islanders to stop the building of a base with US missiles aimed provocatively at China.

Like most Koreans, the farmers and fishing families protested the senseless division of their nation between North and South in 1945-a line drawn along the 38th Parallel by an American official, Dean Rusk, who had "consulted a map around midnight on the day after we obliterated Nagasaki with an atomic bomb", as Cumings writes. The myth of a "good" Korea (the South) and a "bad" Korea (the North) was invented.

In fact, Korea, North and South, has a remarkable people's history of resistance to feudalism and foreign occupation, notably Japan's in the zoth century. When the Americans defeated Japan in 1945, they occupied Korea and often branded those who had resisted the Japanese as "commies". …