At last, a fitting tribute to a forgotten war

WASHINGTON DAYS

I have but one quarrel with the new Korean War memorial here. They should have opened it in winter. Summers in Seoul and Pyongyang may be as sweltering as they routinely are in this city - like the other day, when two Korean ladies of a certain age walked slowly around the complex as workmen were putting up the review stands for this week's opening ceremonies. Delicate as porcelain miniatures, they were carrying cream-coloured parasols against the sticky, searing heat. You couldn't blame them. But it just looked wrong.

Korea was a cold war: not metaphorically of course, but literally: fought across icy mountains and wind-lashed valleys which belong on a different planet from Washington in July. That, however, is a minor quibble. My main question is, why did they wait so long?

True, the project has been in the works since 1988, when Congress approved a site on the Mall exactly across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. America being America, design squabbles and lawsuits have done nothing to speed matters along. But by the time President Bill Clinton and President Kim Young Sam of South Korea formally dedicate the Korea memorial tomorrow afternoon, it will be 42 years to the day since the United Nations and North Korea signed the Panmunjon armistice that brought hostilities to an end.

In a sense, the delay has been worth it. Hauntingly simple, despairingly stark, the Vietnam memorial conveys the tragedy of a futile and misbegotten war. In its own way, the Korean equivalent is no less of a masterpiece.

The centrepiece is a tableau of 19 infantrymen, cast in rough steel and a mite larger than life, trudging up a slope, wrapped in ponchos against the chill. The first sight of the gaunt, grey figures takes your breath away. For a second they seem alive, and the green grass of an American summer becomes the clinging mud of an Asian battlefield. The illusion vanishes but the deeper reality of war remains, and the stubborn, all too quickly forgotten bravery of the men who actually do the fighting.

And Korea, more than any other, is the forgotten war. Perhaps because it was so remote and so out of harmony with America's perceived golden age of the 1950s, or perhaps because the outcome was inconclusive - neither the triumph of the Gulf nor the humiliation of Vietnam - its place in our collective consciousness is tiny.

Babyboomers like me remember the odd strange place name like Pork Chop Hill. There are the antics of M*A*S*H, John Frankenheimer's stunning film The Manchurian Candidate and, for students of US presidential history, Harry Truman's sacking of General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951. But what else? Yet 54,246 American soldiers died there, almost as many as in the Vietnam war, which lasted four times as long.

In truth, of course, the Korean conflict never ended. Armistice has not turned into peace. As US airmen periodically discover, you still stray across the DMZ at risk to your life. Just a year ago, amid the panic over North Korea's nuclear programme, and as the Pyongyang government moved hundreds of thousands of troops close to the 38th parallel, newspapers here were publishing deadly serious war games of the Korean War of 1994, noting the similarities and differences of a North Korean strike now and the real invasion of the South, on 25 June 1950.

The Korean peninsula ranks on everyone's list of places where a war could go nuclear. Indeed, Washington keeps 35,000 men permanently in the South, a human tripwire to ensure that it doesn't.

Visit the memorial too, and you cannot help thinking of the differences with another war -- the one that is being fought right now in Bosnia. Mesmerised by the dictates of the zero-casualty war, Mr Clinton promises no more than airpower to repel the aggressor.

No such shilly-shallying 45 years ago, however. Within five days of the launch of the invasion, Truman had dispatched US ground troops (yes, ground troops) to Korea. In 1950 America assembled and led a UN coalition, which drove the North back and withstood a colossal Chinese counter-offensive, to stabilise the front lines astride the pre-invasion frontier. Korea was the crucible that forged America's resolve to contain Communism and never again to be caught off guard in Europe or Asia. From the Korean experience, Nato was honed, and US security guarantees born behind which every free Asian country has prospered. Now that the Cold War is over, security guarantees are superfluous and the Balkans are where Nato may yet come asunder. As for Bosnian memorials here, the most likely one, on current trends, is an additional exhibit at the last major monument to open here, a couple of years ago. The Holocaust museum.

RUPERT CORNWELL

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