Artspotting: The Memorial to the Korean War

Caption: Photo courtesy of amdougherty on Flickr.

It is hard to get excited about war memorials. There are exceptions: Maya Lin’s memorial to the Vietnam War in Washington DC, for example. But your average war memorial is forgettable. That’s a cruel irony, since the whole point of a war memorial is to create an enduring memory of courage, heroism, tragedy, and loss. The emotions of war are big emotions.

At the same time, the men and women who fight in wars are doing their official duty for the nation. Duty is not about emotion. It is about self-control and restraint. Making a war memorial is thus tricky business. How do you create something that adequately reflects the extreme emotions of war and, at the same time, pays homage to the stoical sense of duty that is the soldier’s greatest asset? Most war memorials fail because they can’t find a balance between emotion and duty.

The Memorial to the Korean War in Philadelphia is one such failure. The Memorial is to be found near Penn’s Landing in Foglietta Plaza. I’d wager that the vast majority of Philadelphians have no idea the memorial exists. Even if you walked through Foglietta Square, you might not notice it. The Memorial consists of several blocks of shiny black granite covered with writing and pictures. It has an overabundance of information describing and showing aspects of the Korean War.

Too much information is never a good thing in memorials. But it is understandable that this memorial would be especially wordy. The Korean War, fought from 1950-53, has often been called “The Forgotten War.” Any memorial to the Korean War is therefore under some obligation to explain the war to the public. This is a difficult task, since the Korean War has to be understood in the context of the complicated Cold War geopolitical situation of the early 1950s. To talk about the Korean War you’ve got to talk about Stalin and Mao and the Pacific theater after the defeat of Japan. You’ve got to talk about the tense relations between President Truman and General MacArthur. Above and beyond the historic information, a Korean War memorial in Philadelphia must recognize the 610 individuals from the greater Philadelphia area who lost their lives in the Korean War. It is too much.

Luckily, there is one extraordinary photograph at the Korean War Memorial. It is worth the effort of going to the memorial just to see it. In the foreground of the photograph, a young soldier holds another distraught soldier in his arms. The caption tells us that the distraught soldier has just seen a friend killed in action. Here is the intimacy of combat that we are often told about, yet rarely get to see. But there is a third soldier in the photograph. He is sitting by himself a few feet away, indifferent to the emotions of the two soldiers nearby. He could be composing a letter. His is the loneliness and alienation of war. Perhaps it is the composure of war, too. The sadness of the picture does not take away from the heroism. It makes the heroism richer, more real. It is strange, though somehow fitting, that a memorial to a forgotten war displays such a truthful image of war’s anguish and ambiguity.