With the rising tensions (once again) between North Korea and the West, I got to thinking ...
June 25th is a date I know well because my father would remind me every year of its significance. It was the day in 1950 that the 300,000 troops of the North Korean People’s Army, supported by Russian-built tanks and artillery, smashed across the 38th parallel (the latitudinal border) to invade and overrun most of the South, prompting our country’s first major military action since Okinawa. For three years the fighting first see-sawed up and down the peninsula then settled into a brutal stalemate along a battered demilitarized zone (DMZ) line that mimicked the original pre-war border. When the war ended with an uneasy armistice on July 27, 1953, it left in its wake millions of military and civilian casualties, including 37,000 Americans dead and another 100,000 wounded. South Korea would suffer almost one million casualties, the other U.N. nations a combined 17,000 as well. Although no one will ever know for sure, an estimated 520,000 North Koreans and another 900,000 Chinese were killed, wounded or captured. The Korean War was, in fact, one of the most violent and bloody conflicts in the annals of military history.
One of the wounded Americans who returned home from that war was a young 2nd Lieutenant: Jack Schaeffer of the 1st US Marine Division. In his more somber and reflective moments, my dad would tell me bits and pieces of what he saw and did there. Needless to say, they were disturbing stories, all pretense of glory stripped away to reveal the naked truth of what war is: grotesque, primitive, obscene, ghastly. But sometimes, at critical moments in history, the crucible of war has not just been a necessary resort, but the only option available, as “coexist” stickers prove quite impotent against tanks and artillery. Korea in 1950 was such an example.
When I see the little psychopath Kim Jong Un rattling his saber, I find myself reflecting on the Korean War and I ask: was the sacrifice made by my father and his fellow Cold Warriors worth it?
To answer this question, one must fast-forward 67 years and consider the horrors that 23 million North Koreans are still forced to endure every day. The starvation, disease, torture, executions, the slave labor camps, and general privations these isolated and terrorized people suffer have been well documented. When you compare this dismal picture with the vibrant and modern South, the true value of the Allies’ actions in 1950-53 reveals itself. Conversely, I could list all of South Korea’s accomplishments, including its economic prowess, its high standard of living, and its relatively free and open society, and juxtapose that against the hermit kingdom north of the DMZ, but I think the famous satellite photo says it all:
Guess where South Korea ends and North Korea begins?
So here, then, in black-and-white is the legacy of the U.S.-led military action to beat back flagrant communist aggression and protect a vibrant society so that it could develop unmolested by the jackbooted thugs of Pyongyang. Like all wars, Korea had its ugly moments as my father’s stories made all too clear. And no one will put Syngman Rhee, our Princeton-educated but anti-democratic wartime puppet leader in the South, on the pantheon of noble statesmen. But there are in fact 48 million souls living in sunlight today thanks to men like my father.
There is an old expression: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” My dad was one of those rough men. The Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C. is their muted voice: the 19 stainless steel figures, and 38 haunting faces reflected on granite, offer a testament of Plato’s warning: only the dead have seen the end of war.
In my leafy New Jersey town, we have a memorial honoring three of our own — two soldiers, one Marine — who died fighting in Korea. The words carved into their marker ask that we “… always remember and pay tribute to those who have given their lives for our country.” But really these men gave their lives for someone else’s country. This is an even more sublime sacrifice. It is one thing to place yourself in harm’s way to protect your home and hearth. It is quite another to give that last full measure of devotion for a foreign people so they and their children and grandchildren may have a better life. It is the epitome of the Christian tenet: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.” Such selflessness should never be forgotten.
The generation that served in Korea is fast fading. The most appropriate way to honor their memory is to simply reflect upon what would have become of generations of South Koreans if the United States had not stepped in over six decades ago and shed its blood and treasure to keep that nation free from the yolk of totalitarian oppression that so torments the sad people of the North to this day. If we take anything away from these latest threats, empty or not, by Kim and his brutal regime, it is that in North Korea we continue to witness the misery that great swaths of the world would be subjected to without our nation’s imprint.
In my mind’s eye I envision a classroom of American children on a nighttime flight over the sprawling South Korean capital city of Seoul with its soaring skyscrapers, bright lights, vibrant, colorful streets, and teeming masses of free people … then the teacher encourages everyone to cast a collective gaze northward to peer into the void of sorrow beyond the DMZ. The teacher then impresses upon these young Americans the fact that the United States made this contrast possible. That their country has been an overall force for good in the world. And that proud Americans like 2nd Lt. Jack Schaeffer, USMC, and hundreds of thousands of his fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, living and dead, left the gift of freedom and prosperity to the South Koreans as their legacy — giving meaning to their grim suffering far from home, in a foreign land, for people and generations to follow whom they would never know.