Korean War Veterans Memorial

Cooper-Ledecky Architects


Between 1930 and 1970 the monumental landscape of the National Mall changed very little.  The following 40 years changed it decisively, not just visually, but also in terms of the very function of the monuments, bringing both a new relevance and a new partisanship to them.  The Korean War is still called the “forgotten war” despite the geopolitical formation it created, which endures to this day.  It must have seemed particularly forgotten to its many living veterans alive in the 1980’s, after Maya Lin’s memorial had opened to the veterans of the more recent Vietnam war.  So they organized and got theirs in 1995.  About a decade later, in 2004, the veterans of the even farther in the past World War II received their own commemorative monument.  The Korean War Veterans Memorial (KWVM), then, is in the middle of a series of reactions, largely set in motion during the Reagan presidency, which has fundamentally changed the national Mall.   It is perhaps the key monument for understanding the changing dynamic of monuments at the time.

To call a monument “reactionary” is not so much to place it in a political context as a visual/artistic one.  But the two are related.  The nation’s official monument to the Korean War even bears a name parallel to the earlier Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM).  Only these two invoke the veterans themselves in their titles.  It is located directly across the Mall’s reflecting pool from the Vietnam monument itself, and seemingly serves as kind of a counterbalance. It too presents an angular site and contains a long vertical wall of individual soldiers.  The latter is a direct inspiration of the VVM, though individuals are here pictured rather than named.  But as a monument, the KWVM also looks forward, anticipating some of the conventionality and literalism that dominates the WW II memorial.  Both the Korean and WWII monuments contain (unused) “meditative” pools, both attempting to remove the weight of contemplation and mourning from the majority of the site.  This is much unlike the Vietnam monument, which suffuses contemplation throughout its every inch.  Even more, both of these latter monuments lapse into the visual literalism and bombastic explanation for their respective wars that are studiously avoided by the VVM, another key to its remarkable power.

The most visually dominant aspect of the Korean memorial are the 19 full-scale cast metal figures of soldiers on patrol.  This very conception ties it not to the Vietnam monument at all, but the, itself deeply reactionary, realistic bronze grouping of three soldiers across from the VVM, sponsored by the opponents of the approved design, and only later incorporated, by a different administration.  By contrast, Maya Lin’s VVM works resolutely to eschew patriotic sloganeering as a means to justify the massive number of American deaths it documents.  The Korean memorial, like almost all war monuments before and since, instead works hard to make such a justification, pushing the weight of history into a retrospective meaning.  One other thing about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial animates the later monuments as well.  The VVM, especially in its early years, became a gathering place, for veterans, families, political partisans and others to meet and interact.  Rather as the Lincoln Memorial functions in the context of race, the VVM became the center of a community highlighting questions of militarism and its subjects, if not victims.  The establishment of the Vietnam monument thus raised the possibility not only that veterans could receive major, striking monuments, but also that veterans of earlier wars, often appalled at the antiwar protests against Vietnam, deserved their own voice and space.

That the Korean monument was part of a sequence, and countered the Vietnam memorial was pretty clear at the time.  Writing on the eve of its public unveiling, the Washington Post’s architectural critic worked hard to praise the Korean monument, but also explicitly deemed it less than the greatest monuments on the Mall, lacking the “aesthetic grandeur and solemnity” of the Lincoln Memorial, nor meeting the excellences of the VVM or Grant Memorial.  He also called it “a sharp contrast” to the VVM, for being “dedicated to the concepts of service, duty and patriotism.”   In his haste to compare all, though, the critic misses some of what distinguishes the monument.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial itself is surely the most theatrical of any on the Mall.  It is dominated by a group of nineteen American soldiers advancing through a sharply-angled triangular patch.  The viewer must enter from the rear, and thus walks through the monument in the same direction as the soldiers.  One soldier at the very rear one even turns toward the viewer in a direct address.  Cast of stainless-steel, they wear the uniform rain poncho of the time, which strikingly inflates their shapes and hides their bodies. They are differentiated by headgear and weapons, each representing different forces within the military of the time.  This grouping and that of the more than two thousand figures pictured on the adjacent wall have been carefully selected to reflect the racial and cultural makeup of the fighting force as a whole.   Which means in practice that they are predominately Caucasian males.  Much like the wall of the VVM, which the Post critic said it “shamelessly” copies, the wall of the Korean monument also reflects viewers standing before it.   But unlike the VVM, viewers see not only their own faces juxtaposed with the assembled faces of soldiers inscribed in the black granite stone, but also behind them the bright reflections of the statue-soldiers fighting the Korean war.  Viewers thus see themselves sandwiched between effigies and images of those who fought the war, in a kind of image time-machine.  But there is also a symbolic significance to this experience. The 19 soldiers cast 19 shadow-figures on the wall, together making 38, the key number to the monument.  The war lasted 38 months, and centered around the 38thparallel that still separates North and South Korea.  In a way distinct from the conceptual rigor of the VVM (or the bombastic conventionalism of the WWII monument), the Korean memorial is thus a unique monument of both artistic realism and illusionism, in a mode worthy of Baroque sculpture.

Until it isn’t.  One walks in the direction of the soldier’s attentions, turning back to see their vigilant faces.   Beyond the vertex of their triangle is a (predictable) American flag, and meditative pool.  Even more, unlike the unique VVM, the overseers of this monument could not keep themselves from inscriptions to give the war meaning.  The pavement before the soldiers states “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”  Fair enough, though obviously the polar opposite of the non-justifying VVM.  But the monument goes farther, putting in a more prominent place on a vertical wall by the pool a platitude more appropriate to bumper stickers, the paradoxical statement that “Freedom is not free.”  This obviously says nothing particular about the Korean war, its soldiers or its historical moment, though it is particularly popular today and almost official doctrine..

Stranger still, just steps away from this inscription are very specific numbers of military casualties in the Korean war.  They are not quite correct (as was known at the time of the monument’s dedication), and seem to overstate by about twenty thousand the number of battle dead.  Remember the old saying that “Truth is the first casualty in war”?  The number on the inscription could, of course, be changed.   As it stands, however, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, like all monuments, says as much as what is being made of a war today as what transpired almost 70 years ago.