This week marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the ceasefire agreement that ended the active phase of the Korean War on July 27, 1953. Canada took part in the three-year conflict, sending destroyers to patrol Korean waters, transport aircraft to ferry men and supplies from the west coast of the United States to Japan and Korea, and a brigade group of more than 8,000 soldiers who fought on the ground from February, 1951, to the end of the war.
In all, more than 25,000 Canadians served in Korea, most in heavy combat alongside other United Nations and South Korean troops. More than 1,500 were casualties, including 506 dead on active service.
The Korean conflict has long been known as the “forgotten war” even though thousands of books and hundreds of documentary and feature films have been produced about it by citizens from virtually all the nations that took part, including Canadians. But it was a forgotten war, nonetheless, because Canadians rapidly lost interest in the fighting soon after it started and because the outcome, unlike the result of the Second World War, produced neither a clear-cut victory nor a satisfactory political outcome, at least at the time. In that, the Canadian war in Korea was very much like the Canadian war in Afghanistan.
Canadians have not been involved in a major war in 68 years, since the Second World War, when they were heavily involved. Soldiers left home for years before seeing wives and families. Casualties in large battles numbered in the thousands. At home, almost all of Canadian society was tied up in the war, from children who collected metal scrap for airplanes to wives who struggled with food rationing to women working in war plants. The government went more heavily into debt to pay for the Second World War than at any time in Canadian history, before or since. Sacrifice and dedication were the order of the day in most of the countries involved.
Canadians did all this because the cause was so clear and the goal so defined. The Nazis were evil and the goal was to defeat them. And at the end of the day, we did defeat them, in a clear and uncontestable victory. The sacrifice had been worth it.
Korea was different. The war there was a stalemate from the fall of 1951 to the armistice in July, 1953, meaning there were no significant battles and very few headlines for nearly 20 months. At home, Canadians were not called upon to sacrifice anything. In fact, the nation grew even more prosperous while the troops endured in Korea. When the fighting ended, the result was only to re-establish the political boundaries that had existed at the start of the war with a communist North and an anti-communist South. There was no victory in any real sense of the word. Many Canadians wondered why Canada had been there at all.
To make matters worse, as it turned out, Canadian and other UN troops had bled for a dictatorship. First it was the authoritarian Syngman Rhee, a solid anti-communist but a virtual dictator. He was followed by a succession of dictators, most of them army generals, with a few civilian rulers who tried unsuccessfully to begin to liberalize the country until the late 1980s.
But in the past 30 years, the Republic of Korea – South Korea – has become an economic powerhouse and a bastion of liberal democracy. Thus, on this anniversary of the armistice, Canadians should not wonder whether the sacrifice was worth it because, by any measure, the military defence of South Korea gave its people a chance to evolve that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. The marked contrast between the two Koreas today is proof enough of that.
Canada’s war in Afghanistan is almost over; Canadians are asking themselves whether the sacrifice of our troops was worth it. Today, it appears to many that it was not. But like South Korea, Afghanistan just might evolve into something much better than the brutal religious autocracy it was under the Taliban. If that happens, the war in Afghanistan will be judged much differently tomorrow.
David Bercuson is a senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and director of international programs at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.