To commemorate the 56th anniversary of D-Day, old soldiers gathered in New Orleans for the opening of a museum dedicated to the morning of June 6, 1944, when Americans, Britons and Canadians stormed ashore in Normandy. (The Britons and Canadians didn’t quite make it into the final cut of Saving Private Ryan . Those who get their history from Hollywood are advised to rent The Longest Day , which courageously points out that not all D-Day heroes were American.)
The ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the Big Easy gave Tom Brokaw and others an opportunity to reprise the themes Mr. Brokaw struck in his book, The Greatest Generation . New interviews and old footage were rolled out to remind us of the deprivations and sacrifices of the men and women who suffered through depression and war to make the world safe for the irony and self-absorption of their children.
The story of the greatest generation, of course, is one of ultimate victory. They helped save the world from the Nazis and Japanese militarists in World War II, then presided over what John F. Kennedy called a “hard and bitter peace”-the Cold War-to defeat communism. In their 70’s now, the men and women born in the 1920’s are taking their bows to the applause of a grateful nation.
Unremarked upon, except by those few who have reason to notice, is a subset of the greatest generation whose biography differs from that told by Mr. Brokaw and others. These men and women lived through the terrible years of the Depression, but they were just a little too young to serve, whether in uniform or at home, during World War II. Their war, their crucible, was Korea.
The Korean War surely is a forgotten chapter in the greatest generation’s saga and in the narrative of the American Century, a conflict that killed nearly 40,000 American soldiers in three years of fighting. The Truman administration didn’t call it a war-the President hadn’t asked Congress for its approval before deploying U.S. forces to Korea under a United Nations flag. Instead, the politicians called it a “police action,” which, to paraphrase the words of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (“Hawkeye”) Pierce, sounded as though American conscripts were simply arresting people instead of fighting and dying. The conflict ended in a substitute for victory, a truce as hard and bitter as the peace that followed. But, as a reader can learn from James Brady’s new novel, The Marines of Autumn , the sacrifice and courage of the U.N. armies in Korea were every bit as worthy of celebration and remembrance as those of the Allies in World War II.
It has been a half-century since American troops were rushed to the Korean peninsula to protect the Cold War partition of the country into the communist north and the capitalist south. Fifty years ago this September, General Douglas MacArthur won a victory so spectacular it reigned as America’s greatest post–World War II feat of arms until General Norman Schwartzkopf’s “Hail Mary” offensive in the Persian Gulf a decade ago. MacArthur’s behind-the-lines landing at Inchon inspired talk that the cliché of bringing the boys home for Christmas might, in 1950, actually come true.
It didn’t. The Chinese entered the war on North Korea’s side in the fall of 1950; by winter, American Marines were fighting a rearguard action near the Chosin Reservoir, bitterly condemning MacArthur’s reckless taunting of Mao Zedong and company.
Mr. Brady, best known as a veteran journalist, man about town and author of a trilogy of Hamptons novels, was a Marine officer who landed in Korea a short time after the horrors of the Chosin Reservoir. Like my father, who was in Korea at about the same time, Mr. Brady is in his early 70’s, old enough to have firsthand knowledge of the Great Depression, too young to have served in World War II, but part of the greatest generation all the same. His novel, set in Korea during the Chosin campaign, is a reminder that, long before the first boomers landed in Vietnam, some members of the World War II generation were all too familiar with ambiguously defined battles .
In an interview, Mr. Brady acknowledged that the Korean War ended, in essence, in a frustrating and embittering tie. Nevertheless, he said, he believed it was a necessary war: “Here was an independent country [South Korea] that was nakedly attacked, and it was the first time the United Nations tried to mount a military operation. And remember,” he said, “it worked. It saved South Korea, made possible that country’s economic miracle, took pressure off Japan, which might have gone communist if Korea fell, and perhaps told the Russians that they couldn’t get away with aggression.”
Viewed in such terms, the Korean War clearly deserves a place in the telling of the greatest generation’s story. It has been left to James Brady to remind us of those who have been forgotten.