The Forgotten War Remembered

July 27, 1995

Forty-two years after it ended, the Korean War is finally getting its monument in Washington.

United States troops still stationed in South Korea -- 37,000 strong today -- serve as a constant reminder of "America's forgotten war." Yet there has been no memorial in our nation's capital to that terrible conflict in which a generation of Americans paid a dreadful price.

In three years in Korea, there were 137,000 American casualties (compared to 200,000 in eight-and-a-half years in Vietnam; more than 8,000 Americans are still listed as missing in action in Korea, five times the number for Vietnam). They deserve their monument.

The memorial in Washington is a dramatic recreation of a wintry battlefield, with larger-than-life statues of 14 armed soldiers in foul-weather dress (and three Marines, a Navy medic and an Air Force forward observer; a nearby mural wall displays etchings of support personnel of the war). It is fitting that this is disproportionately a common soldier's memorial: the Korean War was disproportionately an infantryman's war: the Army accounted for 86 percent of all American casualties.

A PBS special called the Korean conflict "an unknown war" -- and "the most important war ever fought between the West and communism." Technically it was "the West" -- the war against North Korea and China was waged under the United Nations flag. But the 16 armies from all five continents fought under U.S. command. South Korea and the U.S. sacrificed the most.

The Korean War is "forgotten" and "unknown" in part because it was a static war with few Page One battles. During the first year after North Korea invaded South Korea (1950) in an attempt to unite the two nations under a Communist government, there was a frightening American-South Korean retreat, then a dramatic and successful U.N. amphibious landing at Inchon and a sweep north (to reunite the country under a democratic government); but then after Communist China entered the war on the side of the North Koreans, the adversaries settled down to two years of almost World War I-like stalemated trench warfare, along the 38th parallel that divided -- and still divides -- North Korea and South Korea.

We would not be surprised if the Korean War memorial in Washington becomes as popular as the nearby Vietnam "wall." Not only is it a fitting and humbling reminder of the hell of a forgotten and unknown war, whose surviving veterans and whose dead deserve remembrance, it is also an inspiring, effective tribute to the common soldiers who always pay the price and bear the burden whenever and wherever war comes.

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