It is often said – perhaps not often enough – that war accomplishes nothing. It is true, mostly, but as I was reminded recently, not always.
My friend and longtime co-worker Pat Breen dropped by recently to show me a glossy coffee-table book he had received through the American Legion called “Korea Reborn: A Grateful Nation Honors War Veterans for 60 Years of Growth.” The book was issued as a gift to Korean War veterans, financed by sources in the Republic of Korea. It commemorates the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict, on July 27, 1953. And so, Breen reminds me, we just passed the 61st anniversary.
Of course, the anniversary is little noted here, in the nation that lost 36,500 men and women to the conflict of less than three years. It remains among the most brutal episodes in our history, but rarely mentioned outside of “M*A*S*H” reruns. The forgotten war, some call it.
Breen hasn’t forgotten. He served with the 1st Marine Division for 14 months at the height of the conflict. His personal experience is something he does not discuss, but he showed genuine pride in the topic of this gift book. It depicts not just the war and its horror, but the aftermath and the transition of South Korea from a battered, poor and suffering nation into a thriving democracy and a world economic powerhouse. The war, and the sacrifice, made possible a nation’s peace and prosperity.
As sad and bloody and horrible as that war was, something was accomplished. Cause and effect is not difficult to establish.
In the book’s appendix is a photo from the NASA Earth Observatory. It shows the Korean Peninsula at night. The book says it is a “famous photo,” but not famous enough in the United States.
South of the armistice line are the blazing lights of a thriving nation. South Korea from space looks on fire, until you reach the 38th Parallel. Suddenly, to the north is the utter darkness of a prison state, starving and isolated, every aspect of life controlled, ruled by dictator “dear leader” Kim Jung-Un, grandson of the Stalinist Kim Il-Sung. The fighting and dying of 1950-53, which Breen experienced, made the difference between the light and descending into darkness.
“Sixty years ago, those veterans risked their lives to safeguard freedom in the Republic of Korea. In subsequent years, Korea emerged from the ranks of the poorest countries in the world and has made the unprecedented achievement of both economic development and democratization,” writes Republic of Korea President Park Geun-hye in the book’s forward. “The Republic of Korea, which was once dependent on international aid, is now well-positioned to contribute to others around the world. The blood, sweat and tears shed by veterans of the Korean War sowed the seeds of today’s freedom, peace, prosperity and plenty.”
The Korean War was a bloody frustration most Americans forget or don’t want to remember. Technically, it never ended. The armistice of 1953 was only a cease-fire, not a peace document. The north still threatens war and builds its horrific arsenal. Still, 28,000 Americans troops guard the south. War provided no final answer. That they never do. But a free nation remains grateful for the sacrifice that made its peace and prosperity possible. Breen, who I will always picture at the helm of The World’s press, appreciates the accomplishment.
Reach Tracy Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org.