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FROM WORLD WAR II TO KOREA TO VIETNAM, WARS OF THE PAST HAUNT AMERICANS STILL

SHARE FROM WORLD WAR II TO KOREA TO VIETNAM, WARS OF THE PAST HAUNT AMERICANS STILL

Americans have war on their minds. Not real war, like the one in Bosnia, for which we have only sporadic interest, but long-ago wars whose memories haunt us still.

We are now in the midst of a nationwide orgy of revisionism regarding the dropping of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima guilt, coupled with a desire not to bruise the feelings of the modern Japanese, who have never come to terms with their own past and resent those who insist they do, has led to the muting of upcoming V-J Day celebrations.Indeed, the very term V-J (Victory in Japan) is in disfavor, giving way to the politically correct End of the War in the Pacific (or EOWP - I kid you not - in the official listing of the events the president will attend in Hawaii, Sept. 1-3) - as if the whole thing just ended with some let's-call-it-off handshake between MacArthur and Hirohito on Okinawa.

In the midst of this depressing demonstration of a generation that lacks even the nerve to honor the nerve of its fathers, came, by coincidence and in pleasant contrast, the dedication of the Korean War Memorial. On July 27, the 42nd anniversary of the Korean armistice, Washington hosted a heartfelt and respectful recognition of the forgotten veterans and victims of the first Cold War war.

The memorial is measured and deeply moving. Set on the Mall at the foot, as it were, of the Lincoln Memorial, its principal feature is a triangular field on which stand 19 slightly larger-than-life sculptures, Korean War grunts in full gear, traversing some uncertain terrain in staggered, harmonious array. Tensely they scan, listening for danger; some are gesturing, hollering, warning one another. Their faces betray the gaunt, weary urgency of the foot soldier of a war that swept back and forth over unforgiving land and ended exactly where it began on the 38th parallel.

Nearby is a long, polished granite wall in which are etched faces - real faces culled from Korean War archives - of the many others, the gunners and fliers and nurses and drivers, who stood behind the men on the dangerous ground.

Standing alone, the memorial is highly evocative. But it is doubly evocative for its placement just a few hundred yards away and directly across the Reflecting Pool from its Cold War twin, the Vietnam Memorial, with which it shares an odd and imperfect symmetry. Together the two represent a single - the only - memorial to the Cold War. Here, side by side, lie the two terrible eruptions of the long, twilight struggle. When you visit the one, you must visit the other.

Mark the differences. At the Vietnam Memorial, foreground and background are reversed. The wall is dominant, the figures (Frederick Hart's three beautifully rendered soldiers) are complement. At the Korean Memorial, the figures are central; the wall, complement.

The Vietnam Memorial envelopes you in war's aftermath, its legacy of loss; the Korean Memorial thrusts you into war's actuality, its crucible of fear and courage. The one memorializes death, numberlessly multiplied; the other: struggle, faithfully rendered.

At the Vietnam Memorial, the flag is peripheral. At the Korean Memorial, it is central. And the Korean Memorial does not flinch about purpose. Its inscription reads: "Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." One could say exactly the same about the Vietnam dead. But we do not.

The inscription at the Vietnam Memorial reads instead: "Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans." And "In honor of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War." Served whom? Served why? Failure to achieve our purpose does not mean we never had one.

Naturally, these differences reflect the different natures and outcomes of the two wars. One would expect a memorial to tragedy and waste for a war that ended in defeat, and a memorial to grit and endurance for a war that ended in partial victory, that fell short of its goals but did secure the freedom of an otherwise lost people.

However, the two memorials reflect not just a difference in history. They reflect, above all, a difference in us. The Vietnam Memorial was a vessel for saying: This is war. Never again. The Korean Memorial, dedicated 13 years later, reflects a different sensibility. In the interim, the horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia have made even those once most adamantly anti-war rethink and indeed reverse themselves.