[FORUM]School ties and the war deadAn acquaintance of mine who made a trip to the United States last summer told me a story. Stopping in Hawaii with his family, he hoped to see the Arizona Memorial, the battleship sunk during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
The admission to the memorial was free, but his family was not free to enter. Because visitors thronged there from across the nation, even making reservations was not easy. Regulations on appearance were strict and there were many instructions, including that they should not wear caps. Finally, his family’s turn came, but that didn’t mean they could go straight to the battleship. They could not enter until they watched a video which showed the significance of this war, which paved the way for the United States to join World War II.
He said he was very impressed with an aged veteran in combat uniform who came forward after the video and said, “We owe what we are today to this history.” Of course, this live appearance had the effect of maintaining a solemn atmosphere all through the tour. My friend said he was moved to admiration by the significance of the war, not stuffed in the spotlights of memorials, but vividly alive. He added, “In the United States, we often see war memorials even in high schools as well as in universities whose graduates were killed in action for their country.
Since the Korean War ended, half a century has passed. Our poor households became better off so that almost every family can afford a car. Our economy is the world’s 11th largest and our per capita national income is $11,400. We owe this comfortable life we enjoy under the name of the Republic of Korea to our ancestors who protected our country from foreign invaders during about 930 small or big wars over 5,000 years, and to the fallen soldiers who preserved liberal democracy during the ravages of the Korean War.
In the clam-shaped long corridor of the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul, stone monuments keep alive the memory of 170,000 Korean soldiers killed in action in the Korean War and the Vietnam War and of 38,000 foreign soldiers who fought beside our troops during the Korean War.
Would it be impossible for us to honor the memories of these soldiers in our daily lives? The Korean Army headquarters recently built a hall of honor in its corridors and dedicated the nameplates of 164,998 soldiers from 130 regiments killed in action since its foundation. This was, it is said, to remind those soldiers who do office work at headquarters of the sacrificial spirit of their predecessors and renew their resolution. This is a wonderful way to revive the spirit of the war heroes.
A growing number of people just walk on when the siren blows to cherish the memories of our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. We should not just blame the younger generation for being ungrateful; it is mainly due to our indifference to infusing the new generation ― which didn’t even come in contact with the vestiges of the war ― with the spirit of the patriots.
We have to honor the spirit of the heroes in our everyday lives. The answer may be in the schools. Our particularly strong sense of unity based on school ties could motivate the well-off post-war generation to vividly remember the spirit of those who fought and died for our country.
In the exhibition hall of the War Memorial of Korea, there are nameplates that record the numbers of student soldiers who died in the Korean War by school. Even if we cannot find the names of the dead graduates as the United States does, it would not be hard to set up nameplates somewhere on the school grounds of those who as students died a heroic death in battle to protect our country.
As part of commemorating its 50th anniversary, Seoul National University found the names of 23 graduates killed in action and placed their nameplates in the grand hall of the university’s Culture Building in 1996. So my suggestion does not seem altogether impossible. It would be even easier to identify those alumni who fought and died in the recent wars, such as the Vietnam War.
Nothing is more heart-rending than to see the silent gravestones. It’s always the cruel history of war that brings home the necessity of peace to us.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Hong Eun-hee