One of the themes of my 9/11 Project is “Don’t Forget a Soldier.” With this post I want to remember the people who served in what’s called “America’s Forgotten War”–the Korean conflict. Next Thursday will be the 64th anniversary of the Armistice that stopped the fighting between United Nations forces, North Korea, and China…
A Quick History of Korea
The rugged, mountainous peninsula became united in the 12th Century under the ancient kingdom of Goryeo, which is where Korea’s modern name comes from. Goryeo gained compete independence from the Mongols in the 13th century after a military coup, becoming Joseon.
Joseon/Choson/Korea would fiercely maintain its independence—its self-imposed isolation earning it the nickname “the hermit kingdom”—until the 19th Century, when a rapidly modernizing Japan began to expand its empire into Asia and the Pacific. Korea was one of its prime targets, being conquered and annexed into the Japanese empire in 1910.
Korea would be liberated with Japan’s defeat in WWII, but at a terrible price. With the surrender of Japanese forces Korea was, by previous agreement, occupied by forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets would occupy the portion north of the 38th Parallel; The United States, the south. Each side had incompatible goals for the development of Korea; the Soviets turned their side into a Communist puppet state; the United States, with UN help, helped install an elected government. Thus, Korea became North and South Korea.
That said, neither side expected Korea to be divided forever; rather, each side expected Korea would eventually reunite—under its government, of course.
The Korean War
On June 25, 1950 the North Korean Korean People’s Army (KPA) under Kim Il-Sung (with Red Chinese and Soviet backing) launched its bid to unite Korea under Kim’s rule.
It almost worked. The North Koreans came south with tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery against a South Korean force entirely lacking tank-killing weapons. The South Korean government fled from Seoul in a panic, destroying highways and bridges as it went, killing its own civilians and stranding parts of its own army to face the KPA alone. Many Southern soldiers simply deserted or even joined the North Koreans. The day the “Norks” attacked, South Korea had 95,000 men under arms. By the time the U.S. and the United Nations arrived to help a couple weeks later, less than 22,000 remained.
The Truman administration was caught by surprise. Military planners had expected that when (not if) Joe Stalin wanted to grab more territory he’d attack Western Europe, not Southeast Asia. They had already seen China fall to the Communists and if Korea fell they feared Japan would be next…
Communism was acting in Korea, just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores. If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threat and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors.
—President Harry S. Truman, from his autobiography.
Furthermore, in the midst of post-WWII reconstruction and the Cold War America already had so many commitments elsewhere…America could not defend South Korea alone.
This is one thing, among so many, people forget abut this war….It was not just the U.S. fighting in Korea. Rather the United States was leading a coalition of forces from 18 nations under the United Nations, enforcing UN resolutions condemning the North Korean invasion and calling on its member states to provide armed assistance in repelling the invaders. (At the time, China was represented in the UN by the government in Taiwan, and the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN altogether because of that.)
Even after US and UN forces arrived, however, the KPA continued to push them back, push them south. Just like the South Koreans, the UN forces arrived without sufficient armor, artillery, or anti-tank weapons to stop the Communist steamroller. By September 1950, our forces were literally backed into a corner—a tiny parcel of land around the city of Pusan on the Korean coast.
But then, the KPA ran right outa luck.
It took a while, but the US/UN forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur got their tanks and artillery, and quickly built up their forces to more than match those of the KPA. At the same time, Navy, Marine and Air Force planes started attacking roads and rail lines and destroying bridges, harbors, oil refineries and supply depots, making the KPA unable to maintain their attack.
With MacArthur’s daring attack and seizure at the port city of Incheon it was the North Koreans’ turn to run, with UN forces dogging their heels right up to the Korean border with China at the Yalu river. By then it was clear the Chinese were providing material support and safe areas for the North Korean army, and MacArthur wanted to take the war into China to destroy those supply depots and safe areas. Truman, who wanted to avoid widening the conflict, said no.
China would, however, intervene whatever either Truman or MacArthur wanted. Heavy US Naval presence near Taiwan thwarted Chairman Mao Zedong’s planned invasion of the last remnants of the old Republic of China on that island, and in retaliation China would involve itself in the Korean Conflict, coming in on North Korea’s side.
China’s First Phase Offensive of October 25, 1950 broke the UN’s advance, and impressed Stalin so much he sent Russian jets to provide air cover. The Chinese/Korean/Soviet forces would push the UN forces back to the 38th Parallel where, after some months of back-and-forth fighting, the lines would stalemate until the Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
The Korean War Ends…for now
The Armistice is generally considered the end of the Korean War, but in truth it merely stopped the fighting. The war never truly ended.
To this day the North Korean government, now under Kim Jong-Un, still considers itself the sole legitimate government of all Korea. Even while the nation crumbled as Communism collapsed worldwide; even as its people starve, the Kim regime presides over a massive (though arguably hollow) military force with chemical and now nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them.
To this day the United States still has Army, Navy and Air Force bases in South Korea to help defend against another surprise attack from the North. Not that the South Koreans lack military strength; they learned their lesson well—South Korea itself has 650,000 active duty troops and another 3.2 million reserves, the greatest concentration of troops per capita in the world (after North Korea) with state-of-the art tanks, artillery and fighter aircraft—and it is generally believed that any future attack by North Korea, US presence or no, would be effectively suicide. (Not that such an attack wouldn’t cause catastrophic casualties to South Korea first.)
Over forty thousand Americans lost their lives in Korea (nothing compared to the loss the Koreans suffered) and more than 100,000 were wounded. Some seven thousand were captured as prisoners of war to suffer brutal treatment and even torture at the hands of their KPA and Chinese captors. Another eight thousand are still missing in action.
Despite the fact there are still some 2.5 million Korean War veterans still alive today, the Korean conflict seems to have left little mark on American society, despite being the setting for the long-running hit black comedy M*A*S*H. The Korean War Veterans National Memorial opened in 1995 seems almost like an afterthought compared to the better known memorials for WWII and Vietnam. In his book, The Coldest Winter: America And The Korean War, author David Halberstram wrote Korea was a war “about which most Americans, save the men who fought there and their immediate families, preferred to know as little as possible…. ‘The Forgotten War‘ was the apt title of one of the best books on it. Korea was a war that sometimes seemed to have been orphaned by history.”
No soldier should be forgotten…
…especially those who fight for us in places we may not know about right now, or that we may not be able to find on a map. All our soldiers, from the French and Indian War to the War on Terror, must be remembered. That’s why I wanted to remember our Korean veterans.
Photo from the Korean Veterans War Memorial courtesy Pixabay
Hidden Figures is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly – the true story of female African American engineers and mathematicians that got America’s space program off the ground – literally – in the early years of the “space race” in the ’60s. This was at a time when “computer” was a job, not a machine, and a job these women did well in the face of Segregation – and though they earned the respect of their White co-workers, their efforts were effectively swept under the rug, until today.
This was also at a time when almost all the successful space missions were from the old Soviet Union; by the time Kennedy promised America would go to the Moon, the Soviets had already launched the first manned spacecraft into orbit, while the best Americans could do was send Alan Shepard on a brief fifteen-minute ride above the atmosphere. Real life heroines Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) helped change that, by doing part of the mathematical “heavy lifting” that made John Glenn’s historic mission possible.
That’s as much as I want to get into this movie – I really don’t want to spoil it!. Whether it wins any Oscars™ or not (fingers crossed!) I’m really looking forward to seeing it myself.
I think it’s safe to talk about this now. The initial passions and anger have cooled down somewhat, people have had time to process, and start to figure out how they’re going to move on from here. Here being the last Presidential Election, and the election – and inauguration – of President Donald Trump.
I’m not here to add my voice to the countless others railing against our new President, why he isn’t fit for this job and so forth; if you voted for his opponent his failings are obvious and if you voted for him they’re irrelevant, and I’m not going to be able to convince anyone either way.
What I want to talk about here, is us – America. The kind of people we are, the kind of people we were, and how remembering some of that history can help us see what happened, and where we can go from here.
Let’s start with a simple, if uncomfortable, fact – the same nation that elected Donald J. Trump in 2016 is the same nation that elected Barack H. Obama in 2008 and the same nation that re-elected him in 2012. You might start to wonder what happened to us during that time and there is no shortage of commentators happy to tell you what did happen in the last eight years to bring us to this sorry state of affairs.
But what I’m saying, here, is maybe not as much changed – for worse or better – as we think. Maybe Trump was elected because when it comes to civil rights, America’s always had a lurching, two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half-steps-back sort of progress – which is to say, progress, just not as much as we’d hope:
- You may have heard of the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in history class. Southern states wanted slaves to count toward their total population, which in turn determines how many seats they would get in the House of Representatives; “free” states objected – they insisted only free citizens should count. The compromise was that slaves and Native Americans would count as three-fifths of a human being for Census purposes.
We can look back now in judgment on the “founding fathers” apparent willingness to look away from the horrors of slavery; but at the time we were a small and weak country, a tempting target for at least two hungry empires – the French and Spanish – and the vengeful British Empire. We needed the support of all the States, both slave and free. That said, the issue of slavery and its consequences would continue to haunt the new nation throughout its history…
- One of the few bright spots in the dark days of the Civil War was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In the wake of the War, Emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, abolishing slavery, establishing American citizenship for all people born on its soil, and guaranteeing equal rights for all races. Alas, in the rush to put the horrors of the Civil War behind them, American society failed to follow through on the promises now enshrined in our Constitution, and were willing to ignore the injustices of lynchings, Sundown Towns, Jim Crow laws and segregation for the next century.
- The struggles and gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s is still living memory for many of us, myself included. We saw the end of Jim Crow and “separate but equal,” but we have since seen the rise of “broken windows” policing, mandatory minimum sentences, “tough on crime” laws and the War on Drugs, with America becoming the nation with the largest prison population in absolute terms, and the second largest per capita (after the Seychelles Republic); with African Americans accounting for 40% of that population despite being only 13% of the U.S. population overall.
So given all this, the election of Trump actually makes sense: we made the the progress of electing Barack Obama; Trump is the backlash. But the fact remains an African-American has been President, and he will not be the last.
There will be times it will seem that the progress we made was just an illusion, that we are on the verge of losing everything so many people have sacrificed so much for. Don’t. Lose. Hope. Trump is not our last President. There’s lots of people fighting out there now to help us hold on to what we gained. America has moved back; but it will move forward again, just a little further, someday.
We’ll make it, you’ll see.
It’s been a long journey but it’s nowhere near over.
Would it be too much to call 9/11 the defining event of the early 21st century?
Perhaps, in that other events of the last decade, like the “Great Recession” of 2008, or the election of Barack Obama – and Donald Trump – can be seen as coming from movements and forces in play long before that September morning.
But that moment – and how America chose to respond to it – defined so much of what came after. We went to war supposedly to overthrow governments we accused of developing weapons of mass destruction, of harboring and supporting terrorists; to find how terrorism flourishes in the absence of governments willing and able to keep order. What was meant to be a quick demonstration of American power and resolve became what is now “The Long War.”
Drone strikes and expanded Government surveillance powers have become a point of controversy – are they unfortunate but necessary tools to fight terrorism, or a betrayal of American core values (or are they both?) Even the fear of Muslims and the feeling America has somehow become weaker as it became more inclusive that played such a part in the last election – it all goes back to that September morning.
I began work on what would become The 9/11 Project shortly after the attacks first as a way of dealing with my feelings of shock and grief. From over a hundred songs that would come over the next ten years I selected thirty-three to at first become a three-part album; but the songs suggested a story – or more accurately, a story of stories, stories of ordinary Americans living and fighting in that roller-coaster of a decade – that would become a three-act musical play, and now this latest iteration. As always, my “mission” with this Project is to inspire Americans to spare some thought, to care what those who go to war go through on their behalf, beyond the usual patriotism and platitudes.
In this latest edition I cut the songs to three but kept all the emotional impact. It’s meant to be easier for school, college, smaller professional and amateur groups to produce. Later this year I want to offer a compete soundtrack for the 9/11 Project.
My current goal is to reach out to theater groups across the country, looking to find some that would help me finally bring this story to the stage. The 9/11 Project is currently for sale here and on Amazon; but if you’re with a legitimate theater group, please contact me for more information.
NOTE: The 9/11 Project script does not come with either production or photocopy rights. For those, you will need to contact me.
I now return you to your regularly scheduled history, LOL.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Sure, the man was an outstanding athlete, taking the world heavyweight championship at only 22, and remains the only three-time world heavyweight champion. But much of what made his life story epic took place outside of the ring. This was a man not afraid to forge his own path in the world, and willing to face the consequences of his decisions.
After he won the world heavyweight championship the first time in 1964, he was drafted into the military service (1967). He refused to go, saying that the war in Vietnam was unjust and he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong” and that to participate in the Vietnam war violated his religious beliefs. For standing for his principles, he was jailed for draft evasion and stripped of his championship title. Then as now, the best years of a professional athlete were few and brief; and he spent many of those sidelined, a convicted felon, banned from boxing in every state in the Union and denied a passport (so he could not fight overseas). He fought his conviction instead, all the way to the Supreme Court—and in 1971, his conviction was overturned. He then regained the heavyweight title in 1974, and successfully defended it in 1978.
During that time—the 70’s—he would embrace Islam. Deciding the name Cassius Clay did not fit who he was, so he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Later, in 2005, he would identify himself more specifically with Sufism—an Islamic mystical discipline; one of its more notable followers was the poet and theologian Rumi.
Another defining struggle would come after he retired from boxing in 1981. Sports physicians have long known that often athletes that walk off the field—or out of the ring—smiling and laughing and looking like a million dollars could still have suffered devastating injuries, whose effects may not become apparent until years later, until after they had left the sport altogether.
When I saw Ali carry the flag at the 2012 Olympics, barely able to stand, the contrast with the quick, frenetic, agile fighter I remembered from my youth was devastating—it hit me like one of his devastating left hook/left hook/right cross combinations. I would learn he was first diagnosed with Parkinsonism back in 1984, the result of repeated, near-invisible brain injuries suffered during Ali’s boxing career. He would spend the next few years of his life suffering from repeated infections; septic shock from the latest one was what took his life last night at 74.
UPDATE (6/7): In a recent statement to the press, Dr. Michael Okun, chairman of the department of neurology and medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, said that right now, it is impossible to say that Ali’s Parkinsonism was a direct result of his boxing career. Other neurologists have gone on record saying while head injuries from violent sports do increase the risk of neurological problems later in life, in many cases, like Ali’s, there is no clear-cut cause-and-effect link.