Lost to Public Commemoration: American Veterans of the "Forgotten" Korean War

By Keene, Judith | Journal of Social History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Lost to Public Commemoration: American Veterans of the "Forgotten" Korean War


Keene, Judith, Journal of Social History


In Washington, on 27 July 1995, in mid afternoon with the sun shining on a sea of fluttering flags, several thousand veterans of the Korean War gathered on the National Mall to cheer President Bill Clinton as he opened the Korean War Veterans Memorial with the South Korean president at his side. The year marked the anniversary, forty five years earlier, of the arrival of United States forces in Korea and the date, three years later, on which the Korean military armistice was signed. The bloody conflict that raged in the years between devastated the Korean peninsula and its people and caused almost as many casualties to the American forces as would the war in Vietnam. On the Mall that day, the old soldiers, many wearing pieces from their original uniforms, brought with them generations of family members. For veterans and the families, it was a day of celebration. It signalled the official recognition of a piece of American military history that had indelibly marked their lives. In the decade and a half since the opening of the Washington memorial there has been a veritable boom across the United States in monument building to the Korean War. (1)

What is notable about the national Korean Veterans Memorial was not the inauguration, though raising the monument was not easily achieved. Rather, it was that during the preceding four decades Korea had been invisible in the national pantheon of war commemoration. The absence had gone unremarked, despite the fact that in American public life, and in the landscape of monuments that peg out the topography of official memory, a great many national commemorations hark back to the country's involvement in past wars. In the annals of American official memory, the conflict in Korea had been the "forgotten war". (2)

The Korean War is an important part of contemporary history, and the case study of Korean veterans sheds light on the paradigms that underpin current memory studies. This essay offers a set of explanations for why these American veterans were rendered invisible in the public memory of America's other wartime involvements. The analysis identifies the conjunction of factors that caused those who supported the memorialisation of America's part in other foreign wars to remain silent when confronted with Korea. Before 1986, neither American officials nor the returned soldiers themselves spoke out to demand the inclusion of the Korean conflict in the calendar of patriotic war commemoration. (3)

The study of forgetting and remembering constitutes an enormous and richly elaborated terrain. According to Jay Winter, whose own work laid some of the foundations of memory studies, there has been a "sea change in focus" within social and cultural history that has recast memory as the "organizing principle of much scholarly and artistic work." (4) Similarly, the study of war commemoration, a sub section of this larger field, offers particular insights when applied to the example of the Korean War because of the similarities and dissimilarities of Korea in comparison with the official memory-making of other wars. Before laying out the constitutive elements of the relevant studies from memory and war commemoration, it is important to emphasise the geographic--specifically Anglo-centric--provenance of the usage of the sobriquet of the "forgotten war" when applied to Korea.

For Koreans, the civil war between 1950 and 1953 has never ended. Nor has it been forgotten. (5) The Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South never signed the armistice. Ostensibly, the United States and China stood in for all the other participants. (6) Equally, the 38th parallel that divided the Korean Peninsula in 1945 and remained the final territorial delineation after July 1953, continues as a military flashpoint between the North and the South. Even more importantly, perhaps, several million Koreans were killed between 1950 and 1953; and the lands on which many Koreans relied for a living, were devastated. …

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Lost to Public Commemoration: American Veterans of the "Forgotten" Korean War
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