THE 40TH anniversary of SK Day came and went last week, neglected as usual, despite what President Clinton said.
SK Day -- the initials stand for Stalemate in Korea -- is, I'll admit, not as big a deal as VE Day and VJ Day, but it and the war it ended deserve some respect.
That war gets none. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of wars. It was not even called a war while it was being fought. Today, 40 years after its armistice, there is still no Korean War Memorial in the nation's capital. That finally is going to change. A Korean War Memorial design was approved last month and is scheduled to be built on the Mall by 1995.
What President Clinton said, in a statement read for (not by) him to 500 Korean War veterans at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to mark the 40th anniversary of the armistice, was this:
"Your attendance here confirms that the Korean War is not the forgotten War." But it is so forgotten that only one of five daily newspapers that I read thought the anniversary worth reporting.
Probably the only people who remember the war are its veterans. Even some of them find it hard to remember. Joe Goulden ends his history ("Korea: the Untold Story of the War") with an anecdote about an ex-soldier he interviewed about the war at a Veterans Administration hospital in 1979. The man told him, "Korean War? Jesus, you know, I served there for eight months, almost nine, and I have to think awhile to even let you know what outfit I was with."
I met a veteran once who said he couldn't even remember which service he was in in Korea. He may have been putting me on. But he may not have been.
Those who do remember or have studied the Korean War know one thing: It was about as destructive a war as has ever been fought. Almost as many Americans were killed in three years there as in nine and a half years in Vietnam.
The Koreans -- North and South -- suffered extraordinary casualties. Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings in "Korea: the Unknown War" estimate 3 million civilian battle deaths -- about 10 percent of the total population of the two Koreas. In addition North Korea and its Chinese ally lost at least 1.5 million soldiers.
Here's how destructive the war was: In early 1953 the Air Force was asked to launch a massive attack on North Korean civilian populations. It couldn't. Clay Blair explained in "The Forgotten War": "The problem was there were no cities or towns left anywhere in North Korea."
The U.S. claimed we won the war, because we taught Asian Communists not to be aggressive. Yep. Some military and political leaders actually said that at the time.
Career enlisted men had a different and more realistic view. A favorite PX drinking song after the armistice was an update of a World War II favorite. It concluded:
"Put back your pack on, the next stop is Saigon, so come on, boys, bless 'em all."