It is no longer quite the "Forgotten War." But for years, the bloody conflict in Korea was consigned a kind of second-tier status in the story of America’s struggle to bend the history of the 20th century away from the path of totalitarian dictatorship.
Korea was, and remains, a misunderstood United Nations "police action" sandwiched between the cataclysm that was World War II and the tragedy that was Vietnam. It was not a war in the official sense because none was ever declared. But it had all the hallmarks of total war, right down to the casualty figures, which were horrendous on both sides.
Irish Americans were well represented in the U.S. Armed forces during the 1950-53 conflict. Ireland itself was not a party to the UN action. The Republic was not yet a member of the world body, largely as a result of Soviet opposition. But Irish-born soldiers nevertheless fought and died on the Korean peninsula under the UN flag. Though a number fought in U.S. uniforms, they fought not as Americans but as "alien" draftees.
Back in February 1952, this paper reported on a solemn requiem Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for nine young Irishman — all under the age of 23 — who had died in fighting the previous year in an area that became known as Korea’s "Iron Triangle." Despite their ultimate sacrifice, none were accorded the honor of U.S. citizenship, even in death. But it was that kind of time in many ways. The world was seemingly a less complicated place, divided starkly between the good guys and the bad guys. Our world is a more shaded place now. The idea of noble sacrifice on the battlefield has been replaced with a more realistic assessment of war’s ultimate cost.
An ironic twist to the story of Irish and Irish Americans in Korea came in recent years from the pen of Irish-American military historian John Toland. Toland sees strong similarities in the national character of Koreans and Irish even though both lands are widely separated by the vast Eurasian landmass. Both countries of course, are divided into North and South and given the events of recent days, Korea might be on the verge of its very own peace process. We can only hope. A conflict as costly as the Korean War — which broke out 50 years ago this week — should not be forgotten.
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