[Viewpoint] Sacrifices of our ancestors and allies

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[Viewpoint] Sacrifices of our ancestors and allies

The war children, born in 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean War in the early hours of June 25, are turning 60 this year.

A city of rubble has since become a modern, sophisticated metropolis. A river that once flowed with blood is now rich with life again. In Seoul’s mountains, smoke and fire have been replaced with green once more. We built an economic and industrial powerhouse literally from ashes.

As the war scars quickly faded, so did our memories of the war. Today, less than 20 percent of the population experienced the war, and that will drop further in the next decade. The generations unfamiliar with war will be left behind to debate and deconstruct the tragedy with political and ideological impunity.

In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start of the war, film studios have churned out special features and movies. Reproductions of war scenes dominate newspapers and television channels - neighbors killing neighbors, massacres, bombardment and final farewells. These trigger renewed pain and grief among the generation that lived through the war, but to the postwar generations they are nothing more than well-plotted tales. Unlived history is just a tragic drama. To the younger generations born after the country realized its rags-to-riches miracle, the war of six decades ago is a historical event and turning point they learn about from textbooks.

Modern Koreans have no interest in their war, pointed out Andrew Salmon, who covered the two Koreas for The Times and wrote “To the Last Round,” a vivid account of the bloody battle between the British 29th Infantry Brigade and China’s People’s Liberation Army along the Imjin River. The British journalist, despite being a foreigner, is passionate about reflecting upon and remembering the valiant heroism of his countrymen on Korean soil - something that has been forgotten by the Koreans themselves. His remarkable book takes readers to the steel storm of the battlefield, imprinting in our minds the names of every brave British soldier who fought desperately and died in a stranger’s land.

On the night of April 22, 1951, Britain’s 29th Infantry Brigade formed a perimeter at the lower part of the Imjin River to defend the key route to Seoul from the human tsunami of China’s Red Army. Upstream, the American soldiers barely escaped alive, but the British together with a Belgian battalion kept up the fight against 130,000 Chinese soldiers led by Gen. Peng Dehuai along the Imjin River. The British lost half of their men. Salmon retells the epic tale, chronicling the near-death moments for each of the veterans of the allied forces.

The 29th “Glosters” Brigade exhausted their ammunition after firing all night, despite the awesome, endless flow of Chinese human bombs, each carrying a grenade. The Glosters desperately kept their heads down to avoid the cascade of artillery and soldiers. They had no time to brood about what they were fighting for. The soldiers faced death amid swarms of enemies racing down into the smoke-filled valley, leaving the corpses of their fallen comrades behind on the hilltop. Since that day, these young foreigners have been forever tied to the Korean land.

The British are, of course, not alone. Young men from the United States, Australia, Canada, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Turkey also harbor similar traumatic stories, not to mention our own men of the Korean armed forces. While refugees and families who lost their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers to the war worked to pick up the pieces after the war ended, the veterans had to live every day with the memories of piercing gun fire, bomb flashes, blood and the faces of the enemy soldiers they killed. Yet these veterans say Korea has become a part of their lives and are proud of how their sacrifice has helped the country become what it is today.

The war generation lived through this tragedy, and the postwar generations inherit their memories and tales. To the war generation, war is rage, trauma, fear and suffering, while to the postwar generation, it is no more than an echo in history. We should do our part to repay these elderly veterans before all of their years are exhausted. We must also commit ourselves to see that such a tragic war does not recur, not here or anywhere else in the world.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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