The air of this Washington July is humid and presses on me. The sun beats down on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Ahead, I see the Washington Monument, the blue sky brilliantly reflected on the calm surface of the Reflecting Pool. To my left, a green lawn, trees and the black granite wall of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
To my right I see the statues of the Korean War veterans passing a long gray granite wall of faces, portraits of the men and women of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard supporting them … The Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Seventy-three years ago, in June 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States quickly came to the assistance of the South to repel the invasion. Korea became America’s first war to engage with the new United Nations, a historic event as our country was pulled from its peace-time growth after the Second World War. Strategic changes vibrated in the Soviet Union.
Korea was the first war the United States fought against the Chinese Communists. It is the first war in the past century that we didn’t win.* Yet, it became the most successful event for the growth and development of the South Korean people, their government and economy.
Over a million Americans fought in the Korean War … 33,739 were killed in combat, 104,284 were wounded. In total, counting the military and civilian men and woman of the United States, South and North Korea, Red China and our Allied Forces … almost a million people were killed each year during the 3 years of the Korean War. A terrible price to pay. Today, 500,000 living American veterans are growing older, some 150,000 or more dying each year. Soon they will all be gone.
In 1990, I was asked to design the Korean War Veterans Memorial Mural on the Mall in Washington, DC.
The memorial tells the public about the men and women in this war and our need to remember. It hooks us to the core of what happened in those days in Korea, to the essence of our fighting forces, and prompts questions as to “why” and “how.” As we remember, we are linked together, each bringing our own sense of the grimness of the war—the shooting and fighting of the battles, or at home, supporting or worrying about our loved ones. Collectively, we better understand this specialness—and how that moment long ago has skipped to this day, vibrating with unanticipated consequences in a new world of technological threats, challenging an unsettling peace.
Much of the cycle of war and redemption is written into the simple story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel … leading Cain and God to work out a deal. They negotiated a settlement … a negotiation with God … as that’s the way the scribes of old wrote it and others translated the story. That deal proceeds to this day. Abel takes on the mantle of the good for us all … for those who have worked hard to provide a life for their children. Here then is a memorial for the innocent ones who served. Yet, the toll mounts. Comrades and loved ones grieve. A remembrance emerges. A memorial is designed and built.
With the men who brought us war and death, we commemorate their war. And our loss.
During the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Lincoln said, “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world …. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Monuments and memorials have the power to change lives. I trust many of our leaders have come here and experienced those moments, bringing their own thoughts of conflict and unease to Lincoln, Vietnam and Korea. Perhaps in them they see some form of hope to stop a war.
There is magic in the light of the night … and magic in this mural as the light glows on the faces. With the darkness of night, the granite wall disappears, and the portraits of the veterans become real … as if ghosts from the past now appearing to the visitor.
Time can suffocate a silent public. History has charted the timelines as many are killed. We write songs, make plays, dance dances. And build memorials. Names of the American and KATUSA soldiers who died are listed here. This story is not about the memorial, but about the people of the memorial. Not about the stone and bronze, but about the blood. Not about the moment, but about endurance. Not of yesterday, but of tomorrow. Not of what happened, nor why it happened, but how we have changed and grown because of it. For in struggle is growth, lest we stay in the past seeking revenge and retribution. In struggle we seek wisdom and hope. The process of war and death moves on and on, through centuries, hooked in its own thread.
This is the time to look forward, not over our shoulder. To look through the mirror for the promise of this new era forced upon us. This is the time to cherish and protect this fragile thread of connections linking us to new acquaintances we had not known—a colored multifaceted mosaic of pieces that seem to fit and tell a story. These new tentative steps will tell us more about ourselves, about each person, each family, each community. Constant in all, looking through the mirror at the interconnected places we see, the man-on-a-horse sits astride his steed, silent, resolute and waiting, never looking back, always looking steadfastly … resolutely to our horizon.
We gain the future when we remember the past.
*The 1991 Gulf War ended with a ceasefire after 100 hours of intense and devastating combat. Kuwait was liberated. General Schwarzkopf did not carry the war to Baghdad’s surrender, nor disarm the Iraq army because of concerns of fracturing the coalition. Iraqi forces retained their arms to be used another day. And, they were used another day against the Kurds. Further, this 1991 Gulf War would, with the erroneous discovery of “weapons of mass destruction” erupting into the 2003 Iraq War, ending with the capture of Saddam Hussein and years of ongoing insurgency, sectarian violence and internal unrest if not war.
Portions of this article were published by the author in 2021 as part of the book MOSAIC War Monument Mystery.