A Veteran Remembers the Korean War. . .
by Paul G. Zolbrod
“It sickens me yet, that slaughter….” —Walt Whitman
As a Korean war era draftee and the author of a novel about that conflict—Battle Songs—I failed to see much notice that this summer’s sixtieth anniversary of our entry into it has now come and gone. Still unresolved, it remains our forgotten war. Yet it stands as a bleak benchmark in this nation’s history, since it represents the first in a string of undeclared, winless wars that, appropriately or not, brand us as geopolitical meddlers.
With the perspective I now have, I even question Truman’s decision to send troops toKorea, although I recognize how difficult that choice was. More clearly, though, I find it nothing short of tragic that following our mighty World War II triumph, we were giddy with invincibility and failed to realize that wisdom does not necessarily accompany military power.
Vietnam followed, then Iraq, and nowAfghanistan. In between, a series of quick little military exploits strengthened our mindless faith in raw might–Grenada, Panama, a first Gulf War, Haiti, Bosnia, etc.–that only reinforced a “bring it on” bravado, leading us deeper into national debt, arousing international disfavor, and poisoning our national will.
I don’t claim a historian’s certitude, but sixty years later I know this. A dark gulf of insensitivity separates managers of the macrocosm who send youngsters to fight from the way lives are shattered in the microcosm of combat in ways unimaginable to anyone lacking military experience.
While not having fought in Korea, I live that lesson just the same after sixteen weeks of infantry basic training where I was taught to kill; after sharing a Tokyo Army Hospital ward with wounded soldiers during the aftermath of the war; after weeks of round-the-clock duty as a corporal at Tokyo Quartermaster Depot dispatching emergency supplies to surrounded French troops at Dien Bien Phu; after two stays in a Veterans Administration hospital immediately following my discharge; and even now at the local VA clinic where my disability pales when I meet Vietnam vet comrades still carrying shrapnel in a shoulder or a groin, or a youngster newly returned from Iraq or Afghanistan learning to walk on a prosthetic leg.
For all these years the reality of callow youngsters sent to Korea virtually unnoticed still haunts me. As a boy during World War II, I remember trolley rides to Pittsburgh’s Baltimore and Ohio station to watch newly drafted soldiers board trains while a band played in a cascade of confetti; and how as a young teen we helped greet them back as mothers and wives and girl friends kissed them tearfully. Yet as a newly sworn-in inductee in the early fifties, I was marched after dark with others through alleyways from the Old Post Office Building to the same station; then boarded an Asian bound troop ship from an empty San Francisco pier; and finally returned to an equally deserted one. We too had embarked and returned, but who cared?
Since my discharge in the mid fifties, I have tried to reach an understanding of that conflict from a foot soldier’s viewpoint. In addition to history books, I studied diaries, field reports, battlefield dispatches, front-line hospital records, and even first-hand accounts by Hiroshima survivors. Over that span of time I struggled to complete to my satisfaction a work of fiction that might remind readers of what was being overlooked. It tells the story of four young inductees fromWestern Pennsylvania mining and farming communities into a war they do not understand to face an enemy they know nothing about. Each in his own way must recognize a legacy of conflict of a different sort absorbed through their upbringing, raising the question of whether as Americans they are already predisposed to combat.
On two occasions I actually submitted earlier versions–once while the war in Vietnam escalated, and again after the first Gulf War. The first submission was originally accepted by a trade publisher, but later cancelled when a managing editor declared that nobody would be interested. The second submission was praised but rejected by a publisher uninterested in historical fiction, which apparently it had now become.
Moved to try again as young returnees from Iraq began coming to the local VA hospital, I rewrote it once more, aware by now that Korea had set a precedent for what had become a national addiction to military action, always at the expense of the grunt doing the fighting and the dying. As a member of the Korean era generation, I am now with few World War II surviving exceptions one of the oldsters who sit waiting in the orthopedic department or the blood lab, still questioning war. Perhaps one of the youngsters will tell his or her story, but mine brings a broader perspective.
War is futile not just for the destruction it leaves. Cities can be rebuilt, as nations in Europe and Asia have demonstrated. It is futile because it recurs for reasons an individual soldier may not always fathom as easily as those who fought in the so-called Great Generation did. It is futile because in it so many die so young. And it is futile above all for what those who survive endure for rest of their lives. That’s why the Korean War remains important in the face of forgetfulness.
Paul G. Zolbrod was an English Professor at Allegheny College for thirty years before retiring to New Mexico. He now lives in Albuquerque and teaches at the Navajo Nation’s Diné College. He is the author of several books, including Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing, with Roseann S. Willink, Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page, and Diné bahane: The Navajo Creation Story.
2013: Year of the Korean War Veteran
The Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, authorized in the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, is dedicated to thanking and honoring all the Veterans of the Korean War, their families and especially those who lost loved ones in that war. Through 2013, the Committee will honor the service and sacrifice of Korean War Veterans, commemorate the key events of the war, and educate Americans of all ages about the historical significance of the Korean War.
“The Korean War was the first test of the United Nations’ resolve to stand against tyranny in all its forms. Twenty nations banded together with the United States and South Korea in a remarkable display of solidarity to turn back naked aggression and stem the tide of communism. The Armistice signed in 1953 that remains in effect today reminds us that we must remain vigilant against the forces of tyranny and oppression.
The Korean War also saw the advent of aeronautical, medical and societal change: Helicopters were introduced to transport casualties to field hospital. Jets became the new “standard” for aircraft; leading-edge radio technology allowed better coordination of troop movements. Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) units placed experienced medical personnel closer to the front, improving a wounded Soldier’s chance for survival. Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Korean War was the social change that was manifested to American society. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman had signed Executive Order 9981, implementing the full integration of America’s Armed Services. Thus, America went to war in Korea for the first time in her history with a military that reflected her diversity.
The selfless sacrifices of the Veterans who fought in Korea to ensure the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today must always be remembered. The Veterans who shivered in the trenches, tracked through knee-deep mud, flew combat missions over rugged mountainous terrain, and stood watch over hostile seas set aside their own comfort, safety and aspirations to answer the call to arms at a time when our nation was still exhausted from the horrors of World War II. These patriots halted the tide of communism that threatened to sweep over the Korean peninsula. Today the Republic of Korea stands as a modern, prosperous, vibrant democracy because of their courage and selfless sacrifice. (from Army Live: The Official Blog of the United States Army)