A gentle wind on a sunny day created the perfect atmosphere for visiting monuments on the National Mall in Washington honoring America’s war dead on Memorial Day.
Staring at the names etched in the shiny black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, as a journalist who covered the war I looked for those whom I might have known among the 58,000 who died. On the other side of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, wandering past the stainless-steel statues of 19 troops on patrol, I gazed at the mural, also in black granite, portraying U.S. forces against a backdrop of the forbidding terrain over which they fought the Korean War’s bloodiest battles.
It comes as a shock to realize the Korean War, having ended in 1953, a dozen years before the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, was so forgotten that its memorial did not open until 1995, 13 years after the debut of the Vietnam memorial. It was as though Americans had wanted to obliterate from memory the trauma of a conflict in which 36,574 U.S. troops were killed, including 8,177 forever missing. American losses in both the Vietnam and Korean wars were far less than the millions of Vietnamese and Koreans, military and civilian, who lost their lives, yet both conflicts burn into the American psyche as enduring tragedies.
Vietnam, judging from the crowds visiting the Memorial Wall, forms the more bitter, ineradicable memory. That’s because the war for the U.S. was a futile crusade on behalf of a regime that would never rule effectively, much less democratically. The realization that all those killed in that war died in vain makes it an enduring stain on the national consciousness. Korea was quite different. The invaders from the North were repulsed, a great society arose in the South, the economy flourished and eventually democracy, however imperfect, won out over dictatorship.
The Korean War Memorial, though, is changing. Construction has just begun on building it all over again. Incredibly, following the example of the Vietnam War Memorial, the plan is to etch on black granite the names of all the American troops killed in the war.
The number, though, will go well beyond those who were in U.S. uniforms. They also will include the names of 7,200 Koreans who served as Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, known by the rather awkward acronym, KATUSA. For the first time, those Koreans who died while in U.S. military units, under the command not of Koreans but American officers, will be getting the recognition they deserve as having fought as members of the U.S. armed forces.
A U.S. park ranger told me reconstruction of the Korean War Memorial will 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 linden trees will be replanted. The list of names of those who died, whether American or Korean, is expected to attract many more visitors to a memorial that is often overlooked, forgotten, 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 is ordering construction of long-range missiles needed to carry them to targets in the U.S. has done much to increase American awareness of Korea.
In fact, if the Vietnam and Korean memorials were competing with one another for the award for which is the best, the Korean memorial would win.
The Vietnam memorial, after all, consists of a list of names of those who were killed in the war. That concept is original 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 sense that at last the memories and lessons of that war are penetrating the minds of those to whom it’s otherwise bereft of real meaning.
The fact that the Korean story is ongoing, unresolved and volatile, adds to the impact of the memorial as it now stands and as it will look with the roll of the dead going up on the wall beyond the soldiers on patrol. The Korean War, as often noted, remains unresolved. Talks, and talks about talks, involving North Korea’s nuclear program are off and on and off again.
The Vietnam War is history. There will be no more names to carve on the wall. The Korean War remains in flux, the changing memorial a reminder of a war without end.
Donald Kirk is the author of 10 books on Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines and the Vietnam War.