August 29, 2016

Modern Warfare: The Korean War: 38th Parallel Universe

History isn't just in the telling. It's also in the listening. Each time, I hear the details associated with a famous person, a momentous event or an era, I hear them anew. Parts of the story sound like echoes of what I've heard before, parts of it have the less insistent ring of familiarity, and parts of it clang, stunning me with new information that I wonder if I somehow missed earlier or if it were disturbingly omitted from some earlier version. How much of what I'm hearing now is true, for that matter!

With this Modern Warfare documentary on the Korean war, the footage looks largely familiar: men crowded around cannons twice their size that caused the cameras to shake with each kaboom, a stoic-looking MacArthur at the front of a battleship as if posing for a postcard, the dropping of napalm with brief mention of its devastating side effects — yet none of its harms specified! I recognize the names of Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, the battle of Inchon. I even have a vague recollection that the treaty was signed by an American and a North Korean but no South Korean at all.

What feels new is how the Chinese had better aircraft than the U.S., how the Russians were the ones who liberated Korea from the Japanese months before the Americans arrived, how Communist conspirators were forced to wear hoods on their heads then marched through the streets of Seoul. Somewhere along the way, the justice in the action got lost in the need to win.

Running well under an hour, this doc also left me with a few unanswered questions. When did the Chinese start integrating women into the military? What was Rhee Syng-man doing in the United States for all those years in exile before he became President of South Korea? Who was the military official who said the preposterous line: "We're not retreating, we're advancing in another direction"? Maybe, if I'm lucky, the next documentary fill in those blanks.