Amnesia: From Barbarossa to Kapyong to Kabul

Let’s guess … how many Canadians noticed, or remembered or celebrated or mourned or commemorated the anniversary a few days ago of a great historic event in which Canada was a serious player?

Sixty-one years this past June 25, the Korean War began when North Koreans  stormed into South Korea, launching a three-year long bloodbath in which more than 500 Canadian soldiers were killed.

So back to the question: How many Canadians took note of this milestone? How many ceremonies, editorials, tributes, articles, commemorations or commentaries did you notice? Zero, would be my rough guess.

This was the war that stopped a clear-cut Communist land grab of an independent country.  This tiny nation that we and about 20 other countries under a UN banner, helped save from destruction, has become a prosperous, innovative Asian economic wunderkind that now makes automobiles and hi-tech computer gizmos while its anaemic, arthritic
Stalinist friendless cousin makes mostly famines and is ruled by firing squad.

A half century later “our” Korea is thriving and democratic. The other Korea meantime is an economic black hole; a human black hole also, to push the astronomy comparison, where people simply vanish. The Korean War was fought by Canada and its allies in part to give South Korea a fighting chance to make it. It seems to have been worth the fight. How often can you say that about various other recent military interventions?  Libya, anyone?

You’d think some major public official, an MP say, or a Mayor somewhere would have noted the Korean  anniversary that’s just passed.  Think again.

As usual, the Australians, who take the their history seriously, took notice of the Korean anniversary:

http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20110626000256

The story points out Australia’s state radio broadcaster was there … you know, state broadcaster as in public broadcaster, whose job,  is to “inform, educate and entertain all Australians  …” what a concept.

The 60th anniversary of  Kapyong, Canada’s defining battle in Korea, was just this past April.

I’m naturally flattered by the media attention to my own account of Kapyong. Most recently, on TVO, Ontario’s own public broadcaster, Steve Paikin’s “The Agenda
recently noted this Canadian military milestone:

http://www.tvo.org/cfmx/tvoorg/theagenda/index.cfm?page_id=7&bpn=109171&ts=2011-05-3020:00:00.0

And this fall, around November 11th, also on TVO, “Allan Gregg in Conversation” is scheduled to deal with Kapyong.

But you can bet your last pfennig that neither the April 24th  anniversary of Kapyong nor the June 25th anniversary of the Korean War were mentioned in any Canadian classroom. Please: someone prove me wrong.

Not every battle or war, of course, merits eternal commemoration. But some do. At least for a while. Korea and Kapyong, I would argue, were dramatic and important events and should be remembered for at least a few decades. But it seems impossible to generate much public interest in the significance of  the military events that shape history.

Just a few days ago,  June 22, was the 70th anniversary of  a truly epochal event: Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR.

Pearl Harbor’s 70th  anniversary is also coming up this December 7th and it will be much commemorated in the US. But Pearl Harbor’s significance is vital in comprehending the course the entire war would suddenly take. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor inexplicably prompted Hitler to declare war on America. Suddenly America was in the fight against the Nazis. If America remained out, Hitler may have been able to fend off the Soviets. But he had not a hope with America in. But don’t hold your breath waiting to see much mentioned in this country this December about Pearl Harbor.

December 7, 1941

December 7, 1941

And certainly – if you’ve any pfennigs left – don’t bet on much attention being paid to another December anniversary, the 70th  of the fall of Hong Kong, which was attacked by the Japanese only eight hours after Pearl Harbour. More than 500 Canadians died in the fighting or were later murdered by the Japanese.

During the valiant but hopeless battle, John Robert Osborne of Winnipeg threw himself on a hand grenade to save his buddies, just like Smiley Douglas did at Kapyong. Douglas survived but lost an arm. Osborne lost his life. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only VC in the entire battle.

John Osborne VC

John Osborne VC

This December, don’t expect Hong Kong or John Osborne to be mentioned in any schools, even in Winnipeg.

Ah, but Afghanistan, you say. Now that will be different; who will ever forget our sacrifices there? Who indeed? … almost everyone. We’ve lost almost 160 Canadians in Afghanistan in roughly a decade of  commitment. Not to diminish the agony of the family and friends of the Afghan slain, but our loses in Korea were around three times as great, in one third the time. And who remembers our Korean dead now, except for a dwindling number of heartbroken buddies and family? It is called the Forgotten War for good reason, and in fact it was being forgotten as it was being fought.

If our track record for amnesia holds its course, in a couple of decades, Afghanistan will be as misty and forgotten as Korea and Hong Kong.

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About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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