Local & State Voices

The Korean War and its lessons

Sunday is the 61st anniversary of the end of the Korean War – sort of.

The Korean War ended in an armistice on July 27, 1953 – a truce that seemed to cement the division of Korea into two parts, a logistical move that happened after World War II ended.

But when I visited South Korea on a fellowship three years ago, I stood at the DMZ in Panmunjom and gazed across to North Korea and at guns aimed my way. Over the six decades since the “end” of the war, the North has continued to engage in hostile acts. Hundreds of South Korean soldiers have died as well as more than 50 U.S. soldiers.

The Korean War is called The Forgotten War – its place in history obscured by the great war that occurred before it (WWII) and the controversial war (Vietnam) that took place after it.

Yet, it’s not forgotten by two important groups – the Americans who fought it and the Koreans whose lives remain affected by it. I have known both, and each anniversary of that conflict reminds me of them.

I met Rhee Beyoung-Gyu and his family when we were both Nieman Fellows at Harvard in 1999. Rhee was a long-time political journalist in South Korea and headed the Korean Unification Institute. He and his wife, visual design teacher Nah Seoung-Sook, had two young daughters.

Rhee died a few years after our fellowship ended but I saw Nah last fall at a reunion of fellows, with her now grown-up daughter Hyungjoo Rhee. Nah enveloped me in a warm hug and chatted about her university job and art studio. We drank a toast to Rhee.

Rhee and Nah and their daughters of course got the benefits of the war. They live in the prosperous South, which is a vibrant and thriving democracy. But they were well aware of the beleaguered North where millions lived under – and continue to live under – the thumb of despots whose nuclear saber-rattling and threats spawned economic sanctions that helped push many into near starvation.

The results of this partition stand as a blinking red-light warning for present-day conflicts.

The Korean War has other potential lessons for today, not the least being that wars without clear goals, exit strategies and broad public support present problems. Wars in Vietnam and Iraq attest to that.

Part of the problem with learning from the Korean conflict is that too few of us know what happened in those 37 months. It will no doubt surprise some that nearly 1.8 million Americans served in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and 36,574 died there. In fact more Americans were killed in the three months near the start of the conflict in the summer and fall of 1950 – 8,182 – than in 12 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Atlantic Monthly.

By the end of the war, 103,236 American soldiers were wounded; 8,099 are still missing in action.

A decade ago, I got to hear a personal account of what happened in Korea from two brothers, Tom and Paul McGee.

I have rarely spent a more profound and insightful afternoon than I did with those two. Both have since died – Paul in 2009 and Tom in 2012. I cherish a note from them, which said in part “we know you really care about Korean War veterans. We both were sold on you the moment you walked in and started talking. You warmed our hearts.”

They warmed mine as well.

Paul played a seminal role in the crucial battle of Chipyongni in February of 1951. It was considered a turning point in the war, one that lead to the cease fire in 1953.

As a platoon leader, a young Lt. Paul McGee and his men were able to repel numerous attacks over two days and hold back approaching Chinese troops – who had come in droves to help North Korea. His steely fortitude and calm, decisive leadership are recounted in combat documents.

Paul was awarded a Silver Star. And if Paul’s story sounds familiar, you might have read it in David Halberstam’s 2007 book, “The Coldest Winter.” Halberstam showcased Paul McGee’s exploits in the book, and called meeting and talking to McGee “a thrilling moment for me, nothing less than a reminder of why I do what I do.”

That didn’t surprise me. When I interviewed both McGees, a year before Halberstam had his visit, I was mesmerized as well. I was entranced by their humility in talking about their war years, and their matter-of-fact explanation for going to Korea. “We were soldiers,” said Paul. “We wanted to defend the United States.”

But they also recognized the tremendous toll the Korean War wrought. They hoped the tensions coming from North Korea didn’t draw the United States back into a conflict: “I don’t want to see a bunch of young men lose their lives, and that’s what will happen,” said Paul. “We lost too many before.”

And that’s another worthy lesson from the Korean War to contemplate. Soldiers will do their duty. But in the calculus of war, their lives matter. The fight should always be worth the cost.