Honoring our dead in Vietnam and the Korean War

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A gentle wind on a sunny day created the perfect atmosphere for visiting the monuments of the National Mall in Washington, DC, in honor of the American war dead on Remembrance Day.

Looking at the names carved into the shiny black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, as a reporter covering the war, I searched for those I might have known among the 58,000 dead. Across the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, passing the stainless steel statues of 19 soldiers on patrol, I gazed at the mural, also in black granite, depicting American forces against a backdrop of hostile terrain against which they fought the Bloodiest Battles of the Korean War.

It is a shock to realize that the Korean War, having ended in 1953, a dozen years before the first American combat troops landed in Vietnam, was so forgotten that its memorial only opened its doors. in 1995, 13 years after the Vietnam Memorial began. . It was as if the Americans wanted to erase from memory the trauma of a conflict in which 36,574 American soldiers were killed, of which 8,177 were gone forever. American casualties in the Vietnam and Korean Wars were far less than the millions of Vietnamese and Koreans, military and civilian, who lost their lives, but both conflicts burn the American psyche like enduring tragedies.

Vietnam, judging by the crowds visiting the Memorial Wall, forms the most bitter and ineradicable memory. This is because the war for the United States was a futile crusade in the name of a regime that would never rule effectively, let alone democratically. The realization that everyone who was killed in this war died in vain makes it a lasting stain on the national conscience. Korea was quite different. The invaders from the North were repelled, a great society was born in the South, the economy prospered and finally democracy, however imperfect, won over dictatorship.

The Korean War Memorial, however, is changing. Construction has just started to start all over again. Incredibly, like the Vietnam War Memorial, the plan is to engrave on black granite the names of all American troops killed in the war.

The number, however, will go far beyond those who wore American uniforms. They will also include the names of 7,200 Koreans who served as Korean reinforcement to the US military, known by the rather awkward acronym, KATUSA. American officers will get the recognition they deserve for having fought as members of the United States armed forces.

An American ranger told me that rebuilding the Korean War Memorial would take at least two years. The statues of the soldiers on patrol will have to be cleaned and moved to somewhat different places on the site. The lime trees will be replanted. The list of names of those who died, whether American or Korean, should draw many more visitors to an often overlooked, forgotten memorial just like the war.

But the evolution of the Korean War Memorial reflects another reality. That the Korean War is less and less forgotten. The survival of a North Korean regime whose leader brandishes nuclear warheads and orders the construction of long-range missiles needed to transport them to targets in the United States has done much to increase American awareness of Korea.

In fact, if the Vietnamese and Korean memorials were to compete for the prize which is better, the Korean memorial would win.

The Vietnam Memorial, after all, is a list of the names of those who were killed in the war. This concept is quirky and dramatic, but the Korean memorial is much more complex. The statues, the mural, the surrounding trees swaying in the breeze all contribute to the feeling that at last the memories and lessons of this war are entering the minds of those for whom it is otherwise devoid of real meaning.

The fact that Korean history is ongoing, unresolved and volatile, adds to the impact of the memorial as it stands now and as it will appear with the scroll of the dead rising on the wall beyond the soldiers on patrol. The Korean War, as has often been noted, remains unresolved. Talks, and talks about the talks, involving North Korea’s nuclear program follow one after the other.

The Vietnam War is history. There will be no more names to carve on the wall. The Korean War remains in motion, the changing memorial recalls a never-ending war.

Donald Kirk is the author of 10 books on Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines and the Vietnam War. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.



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