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The violence of forgetting

On the anniversary of the Korean War armistice, here’s why America finally needs to remember The Forgotten War

People visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang on July 21, 2022, on the occasion of 69th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, which the country celebrates as the day of "Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War."KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

Most Americans might be surprised to learn the war between the United States and North Korea is technically still going on. Sixty-nine years ago, hostilities putatively ended, not in a peace agreement but in an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. Even though the Korean War has long been dubbed The Forgotten War, we need to acknowledge how its bloody legacies — from its extreme violence to the precedent it set for American presidents to wage wars without consent of Congress — affected people like me, born to Korean War survivors who seem outwardly OK but inside, the war still rages.

In 1950, after the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, President Harry S. Truman unilaterally ordered U.S. troops into the Korean peninsula in what he called a “police action.” Although Truman’s terminology suggests a minor law-keeping exercise, in fact 5.8 million Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during the war’s three-year period. According to the federal Defense Casualty Analysis System, 54,246 Americans died (compared with 58,220 service personnel who perished during the Vietnam War).

Far from being a trivial attack “by a bunch of bandits,” as Truman characterized it, the conflict in Korea was, in the words of Yale University historian Samuel Moyn, “the most brutal war of the 20th century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian death,” with 3.5 million Korean dead along with ground and air campaigns that destroyed “every town and even village of note in the north.” In addition, 2 million children were orphaned or separated from their families. (And 200,000 experienced further cultural rupture, being sent to the U.S. for adoption.)

This trauma runs deep for me as the child of Korean War survivors. Both my parents were born in North Korea, experienced the death of friends and relatives during the war, and lived their adult lives separated from their immediate families. I have never met any of my grandparents or most of my cousins. My parents’ reaction as American citizens, like that of many war survivors, is to bury this experience and not talk about it, the exigencies of coping causing them inadvertently to be complicit in the national forgetting of an American war machine that had its part in their so-called American Dream — but also destroyed their families.

Growing up in the rural Midwest, I remember how seriously military actions were memorialized. Veterans Day and Memorial Day meant parades and bunting and fields of American flags planted in cemeteries. My best friend’s wedding reception was held at the local VFW, where I watched her first dance with her husband done against a backdrop of a mural depicting a White American GI shooting a generic yellow Asian soldier.

One fact I did not know about my father was that he was a veteran as well, of the Republic of Korea army, where he served as a liaison officer translating for famous American generals during the war. Despite the esteem given to veterans in our town and the racism we often faced as the one non-White family, he never claimed it as an identity.

Growing up curious about my heritage, I never really understood the whys of the Korean war. I’m seeing as an adult and scholar that in terms of the unified country and people itself, this chain of military actions between Russia and the U.S. was the Cold War played out in a live theater of a third country, and the bloody “civil war” actually had little to do with the country of Korea and its people, who became unwilling casualties of a precedent-setting experiment that would pave the way for our current situation of “forever” wars.

Korea, a colony of Japan since the beginning of the 20th century, was considered by the U.S. to be locationally strategic in the global war on communism. Then-Secretary of State James F. Byrnes said the primary reason for using nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing 200,000 Japanese plus Korean indentured servants and American prisoners of war, among others, was to end the war before Russia could “get so much in on the kill” and keep that country from having influence over northern China, Manchuria, and Korea. The bombing clearly failed to achieve these goals.

At the 1943 Cairo Conference, Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill — leaders from China, the U.S., and the U.K., respectively — convened to decide what was to be done with the former Japanese colonies. Without consulting any Korean experts or Koreans themselves, including various Korean governments that had been operating in exile, the U.S. assigned two young, inexperienced officers (without even giving them a map) to divide Korea into two sectors: One part would be given to Joseph Stalin’s Russia, while the United States would militarily occupy the south.

This partition created the U.S.-occupied Republic of Korea and the Russia-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Now with two “opposing” sides was followed quickly by the Korean War. The conflict and the imposed (and shifting) borders ruptured 10 million families, a number so large that there is a separate term in Korean for these families: i-san gajok, “separated and divided families,” which includes both my parents.

In my parents’ case, trying to simply forget the past harms of history only moved the harms forward, not made them go away.

On the face of it, given that the war happened so long ago, what might be the harm of forgetting all those details? The writer Lewis Hyde has drawn on history, myth, and even Asian koans to posit that there may be salutary aspects to “getting past the past,” as he calls it, for not only individuals but also a nation to move into the future. He calls intentional forgetting the “programmed cell death of mental life.”

Forgetting can also be an act of violence. The Vietnam Memorial has a permanent place in our culture, but most Americans, me included, do not know where the Korean War memorial is located or what it looks like. I know only that it was created years after Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (It’s in Washington, D.C.)

What has been documented beyond doubt was that the U.S. and its allies murdered innocent civilians. In the No Gun Ri massacre, U.S. troops cornered and methodically murdered helpless South Korean civilians fleeing the war, who were trapped under a bridge. Over three days, with the only water available from blood-riven puddles rotten from all the corpses, hundreds were killed. The Seventh Cavalry veterans recalled the near-constant screams of women and children. Estimates range from 100 to upward of 300 deaths, which makes it one of the deadliest military acts by the U.S. on the ground of innocent civilians, mostly women and children. And yet while most people can identify My Lai as a massacre, No Gun Ri does not have that same place in the American public’s consciousness.

In my parents’ case, trying to simply forget the past harms of history only moved the harms forward, not made them go away. When I was growing up, my father was prone to moody silences and solitary alcohol use, my mother to unexplainable combustible moods that devolved into hitting. I know my childhood experience isn’t unique, and for us as the next generation of children of Korean war survivors, war refugees, and immigrants who came to American for a “better life,” much of our parents’ behavior, often passed off as mental illness, addiction, or even child abuse, probably also springs at least in part from trauma and PTSD.

But it doesn’t end there; an increasing number of scientific studies suggest that even a country away, trauma is heritable via epigenetics. Thus, for the future of the country, the cost of mental displacement and harm on subsequent generations has to be taken into account if we choose to continue to forget.

Throughout my childhood, my mother was “depressed.” We kids learned how to make instant ramen, which my father bought by the case. He showed us how to add an egg to it for protein before he rushed off for his long day (and often night) at the hospital. When not in her darkened room, my mother could fly into rages, have meltdowns in public over decisions like which apple to buy. What I did not know then was that in the 1940s, my mother as a teen was sent to help an aunt cross over the 38th parallel — the line those two young American men had decided on in their allotted half-hour — with her family planning to cross the next day. The militarily fortified border closed the very next day, which meant that for my mother, going on an errand on one day rather than another caused the forever separation from her family. Only later did I even begin to understand why such seemingly minor decisions in the supermarket proved so paralyzing for her.

But the effects of this go far beyond any one Korean American family. As a nation, we have for too long accepted vaguely known war after vaguely known war. The U.S. story of the Korean War could only conjure the thinnest veneer of valor over an unconvincing story about fighting communism in Asia, and only by ignoring that it was the United States itself that diplomatically handed Korea over to Russia as part of a containment strategy that had nothing to do with the Korean people themselves, who had already suffered through decades of brutal Japanese colonialism and, with Japan’s defeat, thought that meant freedom and independence.

The Korean War also was America’s first war without a clear binary win-lose story, neither a victory like World War II nor a defeat and potential object lesson like Vietnam. Too hard to understand it; so why not, then, with it having begun more than 70 years ago, as Hyde suggests, get past the past?

However, our tendency as a nation to outsource our thinking to fit into our “global policeman/good guy with a gun” narrative, conveniently for forever-war planners, makes us miss the story completely.

However, our tendency as a nation to outsource our thinking to fit into our “global policeman/good guy with a gun” narrative, conveniently for forever-war planners, makes us miss the story completely. The Military Intervention Project at Tufts University has revealed that since World War II, the United States has undertaken more than 200 military interventions, with more than 25% occurring during the post-Cold War era.

In this new millennium alone, we have had Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Inherent Resolve. Wars have relocated from specific geographic locations — i.e., gone at last from George H.W. Bush’s Axis of Evil (North Korea, Iran, and Iraq) to a looser concept linked together by Operation Global War on Terror. Without even a place to fight, endless wars can be even more endless, a continuous chain of wars “that has lasted so long, and at such a low ebb that most Americans can pretend it isn’t happening,” as Marine Corps veteran and author Phil Klay has written.

The scope of our national capability of ignoring hard truths is apparent when you learn that the Korean conflict was dubbed “the forgotten war” by U.S. News and World Report in 1951 — a year into the war. The evidence of our ferocious forgetting is vividly apparent in the new wave of interest in Korea that makes the country seem cool, a model minority country of BTS and skin-care products. But then cultural output like “Squid Game” and “Train to Busan,” and Bong Joon-ho’s oeuvre, are criticized by Americans for their onscreen brutality with no understanding that many of them are parables about the violence of the Korean War and U.S. occupation, that the Korean memory of the brutality of U.S.-led massacres such as No Gun Ri has produced precisely this expression of violence and zombies that Americans eagerly, unknowingly consume as pure entertainment, not knowing the enemies are them.

Participants wave yellow balloons reading "End the Korean War" during a peace festival to mark the 69th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement, at Imjingak park near the Demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas in Paju on July 23, 2022.JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

What we need now is a national unforgetting of the Korean partition and the ensuing war. Ancient Greeks invented the concept of alethia, which roughly translates to unhiding or rescuing truths from oblivion. It functions as the opposite or reversal of lethe (forgetfulness). My father continued to rarely mention the 6.25 war (as they call it in Korea, for the day it started, like we have 9/11; or they call it just “war”), except obliquely when, for instance, his college alumni association mailed him a commemoration yearbook, and I asked him why his class was so small. He found me a picture from 1950 and pointed out, “This woman was very beautiful and a good student,” “This guy was the class joker” and other nostalgic descriptions that devolved into “He died in a bombing; he died; he disappeared; the class joker was drafted and died; I don’t know what happened to the others who are missing.”

My father overcame overwhelming odds. He was injured but survived the war and the year of the armistice, with my mother leaving their ruined country for the United States at a time Asian immigration was banned by law. He still managed to escape deportation and went on to a successful career as a physician, and he had four healthy children. And while my mother’s moodiness and rages eventually lessened, but only because she has sunk into dementia, my father eventually took his own life, his incompletely healed wounds continuing to rage inside him.

There is a Korean proverb: “When the whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt.” My American family, as well as millions of Korean families, have suffered collateral damage from the United States’ global cold war. But as an American, it’s my responsibility to make sure the chain of military events that caused so much pain for my parents’ generation doesn’t continue here in America to my child’s generation and the next.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her novel, “The Evening Hero,” has just been published by Simon & Schuster. Find her on Twitter @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.