There is a certain irony in South Korea’s stamp commemorating a Canadian veteran of the Korean War. True, the issue is a bit vague, marking the 100th birthday of the oldest Commonwealth Korean War veteran, but there can be little doubt in the mind of most Canadians that Maj. Campbell Lane represents the hundreds of Canadian soldiers who served in what is often called our forgotten war. For me that phrase has always been a bit confusing, because I see the Korean War recognized on virtually every cenotaph and memorial in Canada. However, I know that most Canadians don’t really think about it as much as they reflect on the “big ones” – the First and Second World Wars – or even Afghanistan and other more recent peacekeeping efforts.
The truth is that many Canadians forget that this nation committed an entire infantry brigade with supporting troops to that war. That is a significantly larger commitment than at any time in Afghanistan, and remains, in fact our largest commitment of military personnel since the Second World War. The irony comes from the fact that Canada Post has no announced plans to issue a stamp next year to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the conflict. It is a symbol of how, to most Canadians, the Korean War seems more about M*A*S*H reruns than about very human sacrifices and suffering. Today, we think about Korea in terms of brand names such as Hyundai and Samsung, or the horrific conditions in the other (North) Korea.
For a generation of Canadian veterans, the name Korea brings up another set of thoughts entirely. What’s more, most Canadians don’t know that even after the war ended, some Canadian troops stayed behind, as part of a United Nations force. For a long time, Korean War veterans were happy just to get back and move on with their lives. However, in the past decade or so there has been a more pronounced effort on the part of some to ensure that their comrades’ sacrifices will be remembered. It may be because the Korean War never had a clear winner. Certainly the survival of South Korea as an independent nation can be seen as a victory or sorts, but the continued hostile stance of North Korea, and its desire to seek union with the South, can be seen as a less than total victory.
Even today the war could flare up since it ended with a ceasefire and the formation of a demilitarized zone. But after the fighting ended and the dust cleared, the country was left in very much the same state it was when the war began in 1950. In that way it is very similar to the War of 1812, in that both sides are able to claim a win of sorts. I’ve never been big on the idea of stamps honouring war; war is sometimes necessary, but always a terrible thing. However, I do think that stamps celebrating the end of war are a very different matter. I suggest that if Canada Post wants to save the day here, it can issue a 2014-dated stamp marking the return to Canada of the last troops sent to Korea. The best way to remember a war is to remember the peace that came afterwards.