Sunday, November 06, 2005
Freedom is Not Free
My second trip to the War Memorial in Seoul was as sobering as the first visit. The museum does an impressive task of presenting how war shaped a country slightly larger than New Brunswick. On either side of the entrance are the halls of the dead. To the right is the hall for the Korean dead- thousands of names of men who died for a homeland separated long before they could taste freedom from the then-tyrannical Japanese (the North Korean and Chinese losses run into the millions, victims all of lies from fat, horrible dictators who ordered men in waves against better-armed enemies). On the left side is the hall for the Allied dead. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians were killed in the Korean War. The war dead list for the Americans is so great that it is divided by state (just over 33,000).
Upon entering the museum, one is surrounded by busts of famous warriors of current conflicts (the Korean War and the Vietnam War). Most of these men were killed and awarded posthumously for their service. Further in are the exhibits of warcraft prior to the twentieth century, most notably Admiral Yi Sun Shin's Geobukson- turtle ship- an innovative sea craft that kept Korean soldiers in and the Japanese invaders out. This historical figure is almost mythical in proportion. Even the youngest kindergarten student knows him. The man's boldness and innovation saved a country- for a time. The visitor to the museum is treated to an impressive exhibit with moving models and sinking ships (reminds me of the sea battle in Ben-Hur).
The Korean War exhibits prove to be the most sobering. Carefully crafted and organised, one sees the photographs of war, models of sea and air battles, documents detailing everything from war reports to instructions from Moscow on how best to proceed, mess tins, tubes of toothpaste, uniforms- any relic from the war is preserved. One exhibit leads the visitor through a neighbourhood in Seoul. Seoul now is a sprawling morass of concrete, high-rises, signage and well-off professionals with the latest model of cell phones. Seoul then was a little better than a Third-World country ravaged by war and years of colonial rule. One can only imagine the abject poverty- the huts of straw and plywood, gruel-like rice burnt at the bottom of a dolsot pot (a stone pot still used today), children hungrily accepting a Hershey's bar from an American soldier, classrooms of tarpaulin and straw because the school building either does not exist or was shelled to the ground. It's hard to imagine Seoul ever being like that. You could not convince the current generation of such poverty or conflict because it has never been known. Not two hours from Seoul is one of the most dangerous places on Earth- the DMZ- a border of landmines, firefights and distrust. Yet beyond the demarcation line is the wealth and success of South Korea, something that could not have been possible had it not been for the sacrifice of others.
So what price should be paid for the luxury of eating when one wants or believing or voting how one pleases or the warmth and security of a home? What price would one ask for the thousands of South Korean dead or the Canadians or the vast number of American dead (and, it should be added, the financial and continued help)?
The dead would not ask for a price but should be entitled to do so should we forget.