This Thursday, July 27, we’ll commemorate an important part of our American history by flying our flags at half-mast and laying wreaths at memorials around the country. Most won’t notice it at all, while others will wonder what the fuss is all about. Few will remember it’s National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day.
It’s scary to realize how easily we can forget a war that, according to the U.S. Defense Casualty Analysis System, left 36,574 U.S. servicemen dead; 103,284 wounded; and more than 7,800 unaccounted-for. It seems more people remember it as the birthday of former Yankee Alex Rodriguez or golfer Jordan Spieth.
This day, and the people who fought for it, deserve better. Last year, President Obama proclaimed July 27 as a day “we pay tribute to the American patriots who fought for freedom and democracy throughout the Korean War, leaving behind everyone they loved to secure the blessings of liberty for a country they never knew and a people they had never met. For the heavy price they paid, we will forever honor the legacy of their service and uphold the ideals they secured through this hard-won victory.”
Growing up, everything I knew about the war I learned from M*A*S*H, the television series that ran eight years longer than the actual conflict. Despite the fact that North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons often leads the news, I fear that few of my middle school students know much about a war that killed more than five million people in just three short years.
For instance, not only wasn’t it officially a “war” at all (it remains a police action because President Truman never asked Congress for an official declaration of war), it wasn’t even the first American military action in Korea. That occurred in June of 1871 when an American diplomatic mission sent to assure aid to shipwrecked sailors accidentally triggered a military confrontation. After demanding an apology and receiving none, the U.S. sent a small force of 650 soldiers that captured five forts and 20 Koreans. Hoping to use these prisoners to bargain their way to the agreements they’d originally sought, they quietly left with nothing after the Korean government refused to even entertain negotiations.
On June 25, 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel from the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north to the pro-Western Republic of Korea of the south. Two days later, American troops entered the war on the south’s behalf to prevent what some feared would be a wider war with Russia and China. It wasn’t until July 27, 1953, that hostilities finally ceased with the signing of an armistice meant to stop the bloodshed “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”
That “final peaceful settlement” never materialized, leaving the two countries to contend with a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone that is among the most heavily fortified on the planet today. Known on our shores as “The Forgotten War” because it occurred between World War II and the Vietnam War, it nonetheless stands as a blueprint for stemming ideological aggression overseas. One cannot separate our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan from this costly lesson in foreign intervention, so this important date deserves more prominent mention in our yearly observances.
Or at least a better publicist.
Take a moment to thank the men and women who sacrificed for strangers in a foreign land so that everyone might be free to live a better life. That’s a blueprint we should follow for all our soldiers who continue to make those sacrifices today.