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Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall
By Kristin Ann Hass
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Forgetting the Remembered War at the Korean War Veterans Memorial
THE KOREAN WAR VETERANS MEMORIAL was dedicated in July 1995, forty-two years after a tense stalemate was reached in Korea, twenty-two years into the period of the all-volunteer military in the United States, twenty years after the fall of Saigon, and just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It is the first of many memorials built on the Mall in response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It began with a fairly straightforward, not unreasonable desire for acknowledgement of service in the Korean War. However, in a long, fraught process, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Korean War Memorial Advisory Board, and various commissions in Washington charged with getting the memorial built sought to use what they understood as the "blind devotion" of soldiers from a "simpler time" in a national recovery project. The veterans who wanted a memorial sought to see their service valued; the builders of the memorial wanted to rewrite the social position of soldiers and soldiering in quite specific terms: they wanted to foreground the service of manly, heroic soldiers. They were not interested in the details of the war in which these soldiers had fought; they were, in fact, invested in obscuring the details of the war with larger-than-life figures of soldiers. These desires played out in a complicated memorial process and produced looming gunmetal gray figures that haunt the landscape of the National Mall.
The war waged on the Korean peninsula from June 1950 through July 1953 has come to be called "the Forgotten War" in the United States. In this usage forgotten means "not remembered" in a domestic context. It is a war to which people in the U.S. have paid little attention since it ended. This is different from a war not remembered in terms of why it was fought and what happened in the world as a result. Both kinds of forgetting are relevant in the United States, but only the former is a cause of concern. In the discussions about building a Korean War memorial on the National Mall, the term forgotten war appeared everywhere. It was often used with the unselfconscious implication that the sacrifice of American soldiers was what had been forgotten and should be remembered. There was a remarkable silence, however, on the question of why the war was waged. Remembering "the Forgotten War," in fact, involved vigorous forgetting of the details of the war itself. Instead, the conversations turned on the problem of how the sacrificing soldier should be remembered. For this reason, it is important to begin this exploration of the Korean War Veterans Memorial with a few details about the war and what the war meant in the world.
South Koreans often call this "the 6/25 War" because it started on June 25, 1950. This makes sense in the context of Korean history; it marks the war as another event in a long series of struggles against colonial rule. The 6/25 War grew out of the problem posed by former Japanese colonies in the post–World War II period. Korea had been essentially under Japanese rule since the Sino-Japanese War ended in 1895. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, both the United States and the USSR had troops and interests in Korea. Following Japan's surrender, Korea was hastily split in two at the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States stayed in the south and the Soviet Union stayed in the north. The country was to be run by a joint U.S.-USSR commission for four years, at the end of which Korea would reunify and govern itself independently.
Not surprisingly, this plan was not popular with Koreans. Political agitation emerged in both North Korea and South Korea. Eventually, the United States and the Soviets backed competing reunification efforts, as both countries came to see the thirty-eighth parallel as a significant front in the Cold War. In 1950, an odd sort of civil war broke out when the Soviet-supported North Korean Army crossed the thirty-eighth parallel into South Korea. President Truman expressed anxiety about a new phase in the spread of communism. In a June 27 statement, he claimed, "The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war." Truman, significantly, did not respond by asking the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war. Instead, he turned to the United Nations. He continued, "I know that all members of the United Nations will consider carefully the consequences of this latest aggression in Korea in defiance of the Charter of the United Nations. A return to the rule of force in international affairs would have far-reaching effects. The United States will continue to uphold the rule of law." Truman understood the war as a response to communist aggression, and he turned to the UN to fight for the rule of law rather than the rule of force. It was a Cold War conflict.
Truman's framing of the war was accurate to an extent, but it crucially neglected the colonial origins of the conflict and therefore oversimplified the status of South Korea as an independent nation seeking freedom from communist rule of force. This enabled an oversimplified understanding of the war as an attempt to bring freedom to people threatened by communist aggression. This is important to note because the war's memorializers would look back with nostalgia on what they wanted to see as a simpler time, but the Cold War was not simple. Historian Penny Von Eschen's description of the Cold War as "a far more tangled, and far more violent, jockeying for power and control of global resources than that glimpsed through the lens of the U.S.-Soviet conflict" makes this point. Both the problematic details of Korean history and the violence of this Cold War conflict disappear in the memorial process.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 82 called for North Korea to withdraw and supported a UN effort to defend the South. U.S. and South Korean troops did most of the fighting and dying. They were, however, joined over the course of the war by soldiers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, France, the Philippines, Turkey, the Netherlands, Thailand, Ethiopia, Greece, Colombia, Belgium, South Africa, and Luxembourg. When the mostly U.S. and South Korean forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel into North Korea in October 1950, the Chinese entered the war to support the North Koreans and their interest in maintaining communism in Korea. The war lasted three years, during which 273,127 South Korean soldiers and an estimated 520,000 North Korean soldiers were killed. A total of 114,000 Chinese soldiers and 54,246 American soldiers were killed. Roughly three million Korean civilians lost their lives. The war ended in a stalemate that has lasted fifty-five years. A demilitarized zone—2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long—was established at the thirty-eighth parallel. Uninhabited by humans for so long, the DMZ now holds interest for wildlife biologists. (Species of birds struggling in other parts of Korea—ruddy kingfishers, watercocks, and von Shrenck's bitterns—thrive in the DMZ.) But it is not abandoned. The length of the DMZ is vigilantly policed on both sides, keeping the war on the Korean peninsula very much alive. This gives the term forgotten war an awkward resonance. It was the first hot front in the Cold War. It was the first proxy war of the Cold War, the first war in which the superpowers used the bodies and territories of others to wage war. Given the way that the tensions in Korea have heightened rather than abated in the post–Cold War era, "the war that stays alive" might be a more accurate description. But this is not what is remembered at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
ON THE MALL
At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Ash Woods, hulking figures stand on the National Mall. These figures are surrounded by a quiet body of still water and broad expanses of granite carved with aphorisms and images. The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a tangle of competing design elements that are not easy to describe or decipher.
The memorial has three central design elements, each with multiple dimensions. The largest and most striking element is the triangular Field of Service, which slopes slightly upward and is populated by nineteen statues of seven-foot-tall soldiers clad in ponchos and helmets. Made of stainless steel with a rough, deeply textured, unfinished patina, they have exaggerated, oversized facial features with great, hollow, empty eyes. Like a battle-ready combat troop, they appear to be marching up a gentle incline on the Mall. They are armed, but their weapons, which are not raised, are partially obscured by the bulky ponchos. The soldiers seem to move forward by steady plodding, rather than with speed or determination. The field through which they walk is planted with low shrubs and divided by nineteen long, low, black granite slabs, which carve up the field and mark it as off-limits to visitors. Although their attention is scattered—some face forward, some turn to engage another figure, others look wearily over their shoulders—they appear to be marching together toward the enormous American flag at the top of the incline.
The second major design element of the memorial is the black granite Mural Wall that runs parallel to the Field of Service. It resembles the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in that both are long, black, reflective expanses similarly situated at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. But, in several crucial ways, the wall of the Korean War Veterans Memorial is quite different. It is not carved with the names of those killed in the war, but etched with images of more than 2,400 soldiers and military workers. Photographs from the National Archives emerge from the dark stone in varying sizes and degrees of clarity. Crowded together in some places and separated by expanses of black in others, they seemed to be placed randomly. They are, in fact, placed in a pattern designed to evoke the mountainous terrain of Korea, but this is nearly impossible to see. The images themselves also are not clearly visible, but must always be deciphered through the reflections of the nineteen figures and the reflection of the viewer looking into the granite. It is a murky wall, but also a living wall—its figures are very much alive and engaged in the business of war; they are not inert, tragic, named dead.
The final major design element is the Pool of Remembrance, which sits beyond the flagpole at the top of the incline. This pool of still water is penetrated by an extension of the Mural Wall. Above the pool, this thick wall is carved with striking white letters that read, "Freedom Is Not Free." The pool is surrounded by benches useful for contemplating this claim and its context. This inscription is suggestive, asserting that the war was fought for freedom, that a price was paid, and that this is what needs to be remembered. Obliquely, this refers to what the war was supposed to be about but, in the same breath, turns that meaning inward. It implies that what the United States does in the world is to bring freedom and that the importance of this is not the success, the terms, or the context of the effort, but the price paid in the name of this freedom by the figures marching toward the flag.
The memorial also includes other design elements. Just in front of the lead soldier in the Field of Service is a flagpole, at the base of which is an eight-ton triangular stone inlaid with the following text: "Our Nation Honors Her Uniformed Sons and Daughters Who Answered Their Country's Call to Defend a Country They Did Not Know and a People They Had Never Met." This language also requires contemplation. The nation is feminized. The soldier is uniformed, and referred to as the child of the state. "Sons and daughters" answered the call, but only sons are represented in the memorial. Most strikingly, these sons were asked to sacrifice their lives in a situation of which they had no knowledge. The country and the people remain unnamed and therefore unknown. This language is oblique. The words Korea, communism, containment, and Cold War are not used. This is odd, given the history of the war and the fact that the Cold War had so recently been won. The memorial seems a logical place for celebrating that triumph. But as memorial scholars Barry Schwartz and Todd Bayma write, "The Korean War Memorial's slogan reasserts idealism by leaving vital interests undefined."
U.S. vital interests in Korea were certainly complicated, but leaving them undefined leads to further complication. Writing about the Cold War in Asia, Christina Klein contends that "the political and cultural problem for Americans was, how can we define our nation as a nonimperial world power in the age of decolonization?" The language of the memorial is stunningly generic; the only substance it offers is the soldiers' service. Domesticating the war in this way—focusing on the soldier rather than what he or she did in the world—avoids the problem posed by Klein. At the same time, it provides the answer to her question. Emphasizing the soldier and evading the war's context allow the nation to be defined as a "nonimperial world power in the age of decolonization." This strategy is used throughout the memorial. Shifting the emphasis from the war to the soldier also speaks to the needs of the military of the moment—the thorny problem of recruiting for an all-volunteer military. More information about the Korean War might have complicated the memorial's statement that "Freedom Is Not Free." The shift to the soldier avoids the vital interests of the past to address the vital interests of the present.
There is more. The north side of the path on the north side of the Field of Service is marked by low granite panels bearing the names of the nations that made up the United Nations force in Korea. And a granite panel at the edge of the Pool of Remembrance is carved with the death tolls ("USA 54,246, UN 628,833") and numbers of MIAs and POWs. (The millions of Korean civilians killed are not explicitly remembered here or anywhere else in the memorial.) Finally, at the entrance to the memorial, a kiosk provides an interactive computer that displays photographs and allows visitors to search for names and service records of those who served.
This is an awful lot for visitors to contend with as they move through the memorial. It marks the remembering as both fraught and resolute; after all, the memorial occupies a great deal of the most sacred symbolic real estate in the United States, and it does so in a manner that seems determined to fill the space as densely as possible. It asserts quite clearly that no single symbolic gesture would suffice for those wanting to remember. Most crucially, it insistently foregrounds the service of larger-than-life soldiers to deal with the problem of the kind of war being remembered.
If you are not too distracted by the confusingly competing elements of the design, if you simply stand still before the figures of the soldiers and look at their faces for a while, the commemoration of the soldier is further complicated. The figures' faces are not uniform, like the language of the inscriptions, and they are not generic. They are hollow-eyed, tense, and often contorted. They are, in fact, painful to look at. The rough finish, the blank eyes, the sheer bulk of them, the distracted scatter of their postures—all make the figures both powerfully present and hard to read. Their ghostly, sometimes twisted faces are remarkably moving—they seem to express not platitudes but something of the anguish of the soldier's experience.
Excerpted from Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall by Kristin Ann Hass. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Forgetting the Remembered War at the Korean War Veterans Memorial
2. Legitimating the National Family with the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial
3. The Nearly Invisible Women in Military Service for America Memorial
4. Impossible Soldiers and the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II
5. "We Leave You Our Deaths, Give Them Their Meaning": Triumph and Tragedy at the National World War II Memorial