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Beginning to Remember Korea

The recent unveiling in Washington of an elaborate monument to the Korean War - a mere 42 years after the last shots were fired - triggered the inevitable journalistic cliches about ''the forgotten war,'' unremembered and unappreciated, save by its veterans and the families of the 54,000 American soldiers who died there for reasons long forgotten.

The cliche has a certain truth. The real question, however, is why Americans so quickly forgot a war that, after all, lasted 37 months, brought draft calls and military expansion, overthrew both Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Democratic Party, and - don't forget - cost nearly as many young men as did the Vietnam War.

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There is an answer. It is not a matter of public flightiness. It is one of mind-sets and rigidities, and of failures by the press and academics to explain the new facts of life. Korea represented a head-on collision between the traditional American goal of clear-cut victory and the pragmatic reality of a war that permitted, at best, a draw.

General MacArthur expressed the tradition succinctly. ''There is no substitute for victory,'' he insisted, eager to seek it even by detonating all-out war with Communist China. Many Americans agreed. ''Americans love a winner,'' Patton blares out in Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant film biography. But the Korean War brought neither winners, nor heroes, nor impressive novels or films, nor much that Americans could admire save MacArthur's remarkable landing at Inchon and the splendid withdrawal of the Marines from the Chonjin Reservoir. But withdrawal, after all, is just a synonym for retreat.

Americans reacted to a war that contradicted their sense of victory as a God-given right by retreating from its memory, ignoring it, forgetting it, and refusing to think or learn from it. Americans saw the Korean War as shabby, second-rate, unworthy of attention. The few professional military historians of the day kept their distance; the Civil War or World War II sold far better.

Not until 1964 did a substantial history appear, and its author was British. The military, which had elaborate publishing programs for World War II, did very little on Korea. A few academics produced bloodless theoretical texts about the strategy of limited war, but only other academics read them. All the ominous complexities of a war on the Asian mainland - against adversaries who could dig deep and accept huge casualties - went unrecorded.

Meanwhile, Americans persisted in thinking of the Korean War as an aberration and victory as the norm. The classic trajectory of America's major wars had been simple and glorious. First, defeat, be it Bunker Hill, Bull Run, Pearl Harbor, or Kasserine Pass, by a better-led, more professional enemy. Then, a mobilization by Americans of resources and righteous wrath, even as the men in battle stood fast. Finally, a rising tide of victory, an overwhelming fusion of power and moral purpose.

So Korea had begun, as the Communists threw the Americans back into the Pusan perimeter. But MacArthur's imaginative landing at Inchon and the quick drive northward that followed made victory seem inevitable. Then the Chinese intervention of November 1950 upset all calculations, opening a whole new war in which months of offensive and counteroffensive wore both sides down. The two-year stalemate hearkened back to 1917 and ended up on page 16 of the New York Times. Finally, there was an armistice.

The veterans of that grim and inconclusive struggle deserve better than forgetfulness. But Americans too deserve more from themselves than to forget simply because remembering is so painful.

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