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For Canadians, the Korean War was an Adventure

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This week, 62 years ago, the Korean War started.

Over the years, Korea has been dubbed the "Forgotten War," even though some 26,000 Canadians served there, along with 63 other nations which mostly provided support, while 17 countries contributed fighting soldiers.

Korea is still a misunderstood war. For a long time, Canadian politicians called it a "police action," which is a term once preferred by the UN which foolishly tries to avoid anything that might be viewed as "warfare."

To mark ceremonies held in South Korea, Canada's ambassador David Chatterson (who likely wasn't born when the war was on), reflected that most of the Canadian soldiers who joined the Korean War "were 18 or 19 years old, 60 years ago."

He added that what "tipped the scales towards our involvement" in defending South Korea against the invasion by the North was our support of the UN. And recognition that with the Cold War, "there were issues much bigger than Korea at play."

While true, there were other factors involved which historians tend to overlook.

Often unmentioned is that the Korean War appealed to the generation of Canadian youths who were marginally too young for World War II. Korea was their chance to experience what other Canadians young men had endured in the war.

What tends to be forgotten today -- assuming it was ever known -- is that joining the army (or navy or air force) in World War II was as popular as, say, dodging the draft was in the Vietnam war. One was a war of survival, the other seen as unnecessary.

It WWII we would either win against Hitler (and Hirohito), or our way of life would be forever changed. During Vietnam, oddly, roughly as many Canadians enlisted in U.S. forces, as U.S. draft dodgers and deserters sought sanctuary in Canada.

To the young Canadians of 1950, Korea started out as an adventure.

As one of the volunteers in that war, I harboured no animosity towards communism per se, but felt it had no business being forced on a people who didn't want it. My naive approach was that communism may be okay for Russians, but not us.

I can't recall any soldiers who understood the malevolent and ruthless lust of the communist ideology as practiced by Russia and China.

I think where Ambassador Chatterson misses the boat is not recognizing that as well as 18 and 19 year olds volunteering for adventure in Korea, many WWII veterans who'd left the military, also re-joined for various reasons.

I doubt many studies have been made of wartime veterans who, in civilian life, missed the comradeship and routine of army life. Also there were many WWII veterans who found they couldn't hack it in civilian life, or found it too mundane and monotonous. Or who had broken marriages, with wife and husband too changed for reconciliation. That sort of thing.

The mixture of veterans and rookies in the Korean War, proved more effective than many expected. In general, Canadian soldiers in the Korean War never lost an inch of ground; it became a matter of pride, when attacked, to never retreat. Witness Kapyong and Hills 355 and 187. This theme was especially prevalent in the latter days of the war when the fluidity of the first year settled down to trench warfare.

Canadians were spared the casualties inflicted on the Americans in the early stages of the war -- something approaching 50,000 killed when the Chinese entered the war and routed U.S. forces at the Yalu river on the border of China.

What frustrated many Canadian soldiers in Korea was always being on the defensive, and no one in Canada giving a damn. What was the point in a stalemate?

Subsequently, with Korea sponsoring yearly return visists of those who fought there, the now-aging 18 and 19-year-olds invariably are awed by the progress made in that ravaged country they helped save as young men. And the appreciation showered on them by Koreans too young to have known war.

It may be true that the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953. It's equally true that the peace has been decisively won by the South.

Canadians who were there, now recognize that their contribution was worthwhile.