Korean War vets missing from popular culture: America's prime transmitter of cultural "values" has ignored the 1.8 million Americans who served in the 1950-53 war even during the 50th anniversary years.(portrayal of Korean War veterans in literature, film, television, media )
| From: VFW Magazine | Date: August 1, 2003 | Author: Van Ells, Mark D.


The Korean War was a crucial moment in American history. When the United States sent troops to stop Communist North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June 1950, it signaled the nation's determination to check the spread of communism. It was the first war fought under the authority of the United Nations. American troops remain in Korea today.

But sandwiched between the titanic scope of World War II and the vitriolic debate over Vietnam, the Korean War never really captured the public imagination. The year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the armistice ending the fighting in Korea. In that half century, the image of the Korean War veteran at the movies and on television remains vague, imprecise and influenced by the experiences of other wars. The Korean War is the "Forgotten War" in popular culture, too.

Korean War films of the 1950s and early 1960s were much like the scores of WWII movies popular at the time, but modified to meet the realities of Korea. The typical "melting pot" platoon, for example, now included black Americans and those of Japanese ancestry, acknowledging the racial integration of the armed forces.

New technologies also made appearances, such as helicopters in Battle Taxi (1955) and jet aircraft in films like Sabre Jet (1953), Jet Attack (1958) and most notably The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1954) based on the novel by James Michener.

In reality, the Korean War differed from WWII in many respects. For one, it was not nearly as large. The war directly involved 1.8 million Americans, as opposed to the 16 million who served in WWII. Indeed, Korea was often referred to as a "police action" and not a war at all. Korea was a remote country unknown to most Americans.

Although most Americans accepted the logic of Cold War containment, the primary adversary in their minds was the Soviet Union; Korea seemed to be merely a sideshow or prelude to a larger war. Its ambiguous conclusion--a cease-fire remarkably close to the prewar boundaries--also lacked the decisiveness of WWII. To Americans, the Korean War was an uncertain and unsatisfying affair.

Hollywood Takes the Dark Side

Hollywood dealt with the ambiguities of the war by sidestepping them or ignoring them altogether. Korean War films tended to avoid the war's "big picture" and focused instead on small groups of fighting men--often lost or isolated units--in films such as Fixed Bayonets (1951), Combat Squad (1953) and Hold Back the Night (1956).

In Pork Chop Hill (1959), Gregory Peck stars as a junior officer fighting the military bureaucracy, as well as the Communists, in a seemingly meaningless battle late in the war. During the battle one young officer asks pointedly, "Is this hill worth it?" The men agree that it is, but only because they had fought so hard to take it, and not for any larger goals.

Many Korean War films fall into the film-noir style that was popular after WWII. Film-noir is characterized by dark psychological dramas in which the motives and morals of the protagonists are unclear and troubling. These films often take place in exotic settings, and contain shadowy lighting and uncomfortable camera angles that elicit feelings of anxiety, loneliness and vulnerability.

In the 1951 film The Steel Helmet, for example, Gene Evans stars as Sgt. Zach, a battle-hardened WWII "retread" who teams up with some inexperienced soldiers to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. But beneath Zach's tough-as-nails exterior is a softhearted man who befriends a Korean boy, removes his helmet before a gigantic statue of Buddha and orders that the temple not be damaged.

In the midst of battle, Zach breaks down, flashing back to D-Day. Zach is bitterly critical of a green lieutenant. When the lieutenant is killed, Zach mournfully places his lucky steel helmet (it has stopped a bullet in a previous engagement) on his grave.

The Korean War also took place at a time when fears of disloyalty and domestic subversion had reached hysterical proportions. The war fueled such fears. During the war, the Communists beat and tortured American POWs, and then pressured them to sign "confessions" denouncing the American cause.

Only a small fraction of POWs "confessed," but news reports and political opportunists seemed to suggest that Korean War soldiers routinely collaborated with the Communists, perhaps contributing to the war's uncertain conclusion.

The concern that Korean War veterans might have been "brainwashed" by the Communists was the subject of several films, most notably The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Frank Sinatra plays Capt. Marco, a Korean War officer who leads a patrol and is taken prisoner. The Communists brainwash Marco and his men, erasing any memory of their captivity. One of the men, Staff Sgt. Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), is programmed to carry out political assassinations back home. Marco unravels the plot after the true nature of his captivity comes back in his dreams.

The Manchurian Candidate has been acclaimed as one of the best political thrillers ever made. However, Korean War veterans have charged that the film only reinforced the erroneous public notion that Korean War veterans were collaborators. Portrayals of the war's veterans as weak-minded and psychologically unbalanced came to symbolize the war for many Americans and anticipated public perceptions of Vietnam veterans.

Influence of M*A*S*H

The Vietnam War also has shaped popular images of the Korean War. The 1970 comedy classic M*A*S*H focused on the exploits of undisciplined Army surgeons near the front lines. Though set in Korea, the language and looks of the hospital staff are reminiscent of Vietnam. In fact, the film is an impressionistic journey into the behavior of men and women under the unusual circumstances of war. It reflected the growing public cynicism about military authority in the Vietnam years.

The television program M*A*S*H, which aired from 1972 to 1983, was the most extensive look at the Korean War in American popular culture. The TV show did a better job of portraying the war than the film. For example, several episodes dealt with issues like McCarthyism and fears of subversion.

However, most of the program's storylines could have come from the Vietnam War, or from any war--boredom punctuated by intense activity, the tragic tales of the wounded, the absurdities of bureaucracy, the gulf between soldiers and civilians. Anyone who has ever been associated with the military can appreciate the humor of M*A*S*H. But once again, the audience learns precious little about the Korean War.

In the decades since Vietnam, the American entertainment industry has devoted considerable time and money to portrayals of war. As a nation, we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of WWII (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers) and reexamined our painful experience in Vietnam (most recently, We Were Soldiers) on both the big and small screens. Korea is once again missing in action.

Since Vietnam, Hollywood has released no more than a dozen films related to the Korean War. In some films, like MacArthur (1977) and For the Boys (1991), Korea is just one of many conflicts depicted. Inchon (1981), a portrayal of the brilliant 1950 amphibious invasion, was a box office flop and labeled by one critic "quite possibly the worst movie ever made." With no clear public images of the Korean War, both Hollywood and the American public barely acknowledge it.

The lack of public recognition for their sacrifices has rankled many Korean War veterans. "I know teachers who never knew there was a Korean War," complained one Missouri veteran. As the nation marks the Korean War's 50th anniversary, Hollywood continues to churn out movies about WWII and Vietnam. Perhaps one day the Korean War will be the subject of an insightful, widely circulated film that does justice to the significance of the conflict and to those who served in it. As one veteran from Florida noted, "It's nice to be remembered."
MARK D. VAN ELLS, author of To Hear Only Thunder Again, is an assistant history professor at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, N.Y.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States