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Sonn: Remembering the Korean War

BY BARRETT SONN | JUNE 30, 2014 5:00 AM

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Today marks the 64th anniversary of American troops being ordered into Korea to counter the North Korean sneak attack of South Korea that would eventually culminate into the Korean War — a war that is technically not over to this day.

While the number 64 isn’t as catchy as 5, 10, 50, or 100, The Daily Iowan doesn’t get a charming and charismatic Korean-American columnist like me (no bias) every day. Thus, now seems like an opportune time to ask an intriguing question: What’s with the underrepresentation of the Korean War in popular culture?

As you may know, the Korean War was sandwiched between the colossal World War II and the extremely polarizing Vietnam War. Both of those have almost been trivialized by the insane amount of pop-culture memorials that have been built in their honor.

Heck, there’s a new WWII movie coming out soon, Fury, starring Brad Pitt. And not too long ago, there was The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, among others. Of course, Vietnam has its fair share of movies, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

There are also countless video games, books, and television programs that focus on those wars. Military events from the past 50 years such as Somalia and the first Gulf War have also been memorialized like with Black Hawk Down and Jarhead, respectively.

So whatever happened to the Korean War?

It seems like Korea is always used as a reference point for character background and development, but the war itself is almost never the focus of a movie. For example, Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino was a Korean War veteran. That type of thing.

The exclusion of the war is not bound within the confines of pop culture. It seems society as a whole has decided to either disregard that particular event or completely forget about it. I mean, I guess it is “The Forgotten War” for a reason.

Really though, can you blame people for that? The Korean War started a mere five years after World War II ended. When the armistice was signed in Korea, we rolled into Vietnam only to be mired in a military and political quicksand for two decades — it was, historically, an exhausting time.

I would argue the war in Korea is underrated. When I was conducting research, I was surprised to learn the number of casualties for American troops was eerily similar in Korea and Vietnam … only Vietnam lasted more than five times longer than Korea. Thanks to popular culture, you would think hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died in Vietnam.

It should be noted that I’m not discrediting what happened in Vietnam, nor am I trying to rank wars like some kind of popularity contest or sports power ranking. I’m simply pointing out two things: The Korean War was bigger than people think, and there’s a general gap between media representations and reality.

Does that mean I want Steven Spielberg to direct a Korean War movie? Yes. There are two ends of the spectrum here: trivialization and neglect. World War II and Vietnam are on one end; the Korean War is on the other. There has to be some kind of balance.

I mean, do we really need more World War II movies? Is Fury going to do something 90 other WWII movies haven’t done for us already? If anything, it will probably just further desensitize us from the horrors of war (even as they’re being conveyed on the big screen).

So yeah, maybe Spielberg should direct a massive Korean War movie. Maybe it could be a sequel to Saving Private Ryan in which Matt Damon needs to be saved again — I’ll leave the ideas to the director.

This is becoming an increasingly common theme in my columns: the idea of remembrance. Let’s remember the United States’ contributions to that war, and let’s be proud those contributions led to a great country like South Korea (no bias).


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