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Monday, August 25, 2003

Politics

Greece & Turkey: Forgetting & Remembering the Korean War


“My father served in the Korean War with the Greek Expeditionary Forces. I would appreciate any information on him or the Greek Forces in general. He was wounded and spent time in an army hospital in Japan. I have a picture of him at the hospital with General Mark W. Clark. Thank you. [Vasilios ‘Kirk’ Tzanides]”

“My dad served in Korea for the full extent of the war, and left without a scratch. Only 5 years later, he was to die in a fire, leaving behind his young wife and two children aged 2 & 4. If anybody remembers Apostolos Floros I would be very grateful for any feedback. Best regards, Michael.”

These messages, posted on www.koreanwar.org/html/units/un/greek.htm, a Korean War website, offer a poignant reminder of how the experiences of the Greek unit that fought in Korea are in danger of being forgotten. To be sure, a handful of military histories record the military operations of the Greeks, but what the relatives and friends of the combatants wish for are insights into the daily life and personalities that made up the Greek contingent. One can only wonder whether these requests have come too late.

For Americans, at least, the Korean War can no longer be described as the forgotten war. While it was ignored for decades, lingering in the shadows of the Second World War (which glorified the American imagination) and the Vietnam War (which haunted it), the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War’s outbreak in 1950, and this year’s commemoration of the truce, signaled its steady rehabilitation in American memory. Meanwhile, Greece and Turkey’s commemorations of their own participation in the war has been correspondingly modest over the years. The army contingents sent by the two countries to Korea were relatively small. Yet, unlike Greece, Turkey appears to be falling in step with the increased remembrance of the war, albeit on a panegyric level, which culminated in this year’s fiftieth anniversary of the armistice, signed on July 27, 1953.

Greece and Turkey were two of sixteen countries that agreed to send troops as part of a United Nations gesture to support the United States’s engagement in the war between the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (the Soviet-backed North) and the Republic of Korea (the US-backed South) that broke out in June 1950, two years after the Korean peninsula had been divided politically following years of Japanese occupation. Acting upon a request by the United States, the United Nations Security Council appealed to the nations of the world to rally in support of the South, which had been attacked by the North. Eventually, a combined UN force of almost half a million troops came to the aid of the Republic of Korea, the largest part, just over 300,000, being US troops. The other countries that also sent units, ranging from about 14 to 1,000 men, listed according to the size of their forces, were the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Philippines, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Greece, Thailand, France, Colombia, Belgium, South Africa, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The People’s Republic of China responded by sending troops to support the People’s Democratic Republic’s attempt to reunite the country by force.

Greece and Turkey were inevitably involved in the American-led UN force. They had been anointed US allies in 1947 by the Truman Doctrine, which pledged US military support to combat the communist threat in both countries. Now that South Korea was facing the same danger, and their respective militaries were beholden to the United States, the Greek and Turkish response to the UN appeal was predictable. The main body of the Turkish Brigade numbering 5,190 troops arrived in Korea on October 17, 1950. After undergoing training and receiving US equipment, it was attached to the US 25th infantry division. Two months later, on December 9, 1950, 840 infantrymen of the Royal Hellenic Battalion arrived and, again, after training and equipping by the Americans, were assigned to the US First Cavalry Division’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment; another smaller battalion of about 400 men arrived from Greece shortly before the end of the war in 1953. Initially, the Greeks had prepared to send a force of 3,500 men, but the Americans requested a smaller number; many of those who made the final cut volunteered. During the course of the war, both Greece and Turkey would join NATO at the same time, in February 1952.

The difference in the respective sizes of the Greek and Turkish contingents naturally influenced their roles in the battles fought on and around the 38th parallel. The timing of their arrival was also crucial, because the Turks were involved in the Kunuri battle in late November 1950, before the Greeks had set foot on the peninsula. Chinese forces ultimately succeeded in pushing back the UN forces, a retreat made safer by the Turks holding the line. It was a bloody battle, which led to domestic critics of Turkey’s involvement claiming that the Turkish Brigade was used “as a pawn” by the Americans. The official Turkish response is that the battle demonstrated the bravery and fighting abilities of Turkish soldiers.

The Greeks, nonetheless, were in place for the American-led counteroffensive in January 1951 after Chinese forces crossed the 38th parallel. The Greeks completed the first of a series of successful missions by defending “Hill 381” from an assault by the Chinese army. In doing so, they relied on their experience from the Greek Civil War, but they also had to deal with novel conditions. Their inability to dig foxholes in the frozen ground was complicated by enemy tactics they had never encountered before: heavy fire followed by attacks of very large numbers of lightly armed infantry. To cite the Greek army’s blasé official history, that situation demonstrated the usefulness of hand grenades as a defensive weapon. The Greeks earned plaudits from US army General Mathew B. Ridgeway, who led the counteroffensive. Many more were to follow as the war unfolded.

The differences in size and time of arrival in Korea of the Greeks and Turks were reflected in the numbers of dead and wounded. The blue line on the Korean battlefields was thinner than the red one. The figures show that, by the end of the war, 194 Greeks were killed in action and 459 wounded, while Turkish troops suffered 721 killed, 168 missing in action, and 2,111 wounded. Thus, the Turkish total of combined casualties and MIAs was almost 58 percent, although the Greeks were not far behind, with casualties of almost 53 percent. (Indeed, the original Greek contingent of 840 men suffered a staggering casualty rate of almost 78 percent, which undoubtedly explains the dispatch of the second unit of 400 men.)

An even more striking comparison between the Greek and Turkish roles in the Korean War, however, is the difference in the ways the two allies reflect back on the war, both officially and in terms of public perceptions. The Greeks appear to be continuing the tradition of the Korean War as the forgotten war, while the Turkish side appears to be eagerly commemorating the war — and, crucially, its alliance with the US. There are evident political strategies at work in both cases. What drives Greek and Turkish attitudes toward the Korean War is the countries’ respective relationship with the United States — and the 1950s.

Both major Greek parties have their own reasons for treating the 1950s as the forgotten decade. For the governing PASOK, its recent pro-Western posture cannot tolerate further outbursts of anti-Americanism — or, to be more precise about Greek public sentiment, anti-imperialism. As far as the majority of the Greek electorate is concerned, the 1950s represent an era in which Greek right-wing governments mortgaged the country’s independence by hitching Greece to the chariot of American imperialism. The Marshall Plan, joining NATO, providing military facilities to the Americans, and allowing US ambassadors such as John Peurifoy to run roughshod over Greek politics, were the worst examples of that relationship of dependence. Participating in the war in Korea, according to this line of thought, was yet another example. It is no coincidence that there have been no significant commemorations of the Korean War under a PASOK government.

But now that the war and the truce are being remembered, could Greece show a little more interest in its participation? There could, conceivably, be a critique of the decision to participate, questioning the wisdom of toeing the American line in the 1950s. This could, however, also involve a corresponding defense of North Korea and its military strategy of reunification. Yet that would not sit well with the government’s pro-Western policy or its international image. Although the US’s Cold War rhetoric of liberating the Koreans was precisely that — Cold War rhetoric — one cannot portray North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, who ruled through 1994, as an anti-imperialist in the Fidel Castro mode, as some in the Greek left would like us to believe. South Korea may not have been a Western democratic paradise, but famine-ridden North Korea worked diligently toward its present status: an approximation of a communist hell on earth.

New Democracy’s reasons for not wanting to return to the 1950s are much more complicated. The supposedly major pro-Western Greek political party is concerned with the public’s negative perceptions of anything related to US foreign policy. The US attitude toward the colonels’ dictatorship and the Cyprus crisis has caused seemingly permanent damage to its image in Greece; in addition, a certain kneejerk solidarity on the part of the Greek public with all small nations fighting the United States make any hint of justification of the Korean War ruinous for New Democracy. It is leading comfortably in the opinion polls tracking the next election, so why risk anything by trying to revise Greek conventional wisdom about the Korean War?

Leaving aside the thorny ideological issue, however, remembering the war could involve focus on the Greek troops themselves. This is what is lacking from available accounts, and what Kirk Tzanides and Michael Floros are asking for, as are all the others who have posted messages on the Korean War website. They inquire about other Greeks who fought in Korea, such as Achilles Emanouil or Patroclos Moumousis; in the case of John Colonias, who was a member of the Greek contingent, he just wants to get in touch with other Greek Korean War veterans. Next to the personal stories, there are interesting questions to ask. For example, one can be certain that an examination of the way the Greek contingent was assembled would reveal that few of its members were well-connected with the army’s and government’s power-brokers.

Turkey, by contrast, is not riven by such feelings of ambiguity toward the Korean War, thanks to the active (and decades-long) role its army has played in the country’s public life. The army has been happy to manage the ways the war is commemorated in Turkey, and has made sure they fit in with the military’s public relations. In November 2000, Turkish Korean War veterans held a ceremony at the US consulate in Istanbul to mark the beginning of the war. A similar gathering was held in January 2001 at the US embassy in Ankara. American and Turkish generals spoke on both occasions about the bonds of friendship and respect forged by the two militaries during the war. In October 2002, American veterans joined Turkish veterans to lay a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Monument in Ankara in honor of the war’s fiftieth anniversary. During their visit, the Americans also laid a wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Last month’s commemorations — in South Korea, Washington, DC, and elsewhere — of the fiftieth anniversary of the truce that ended the war could have been an occasion when the forgetting and remembering of the conflict on either side of the Aegean turned a new page. Both governments could have turned public attention to the reasons why the countries decided to participate, or they could have focused on the ordinary soldiers themselves, many of whom never returned. Instead, it was business as usual. The Greek media ignored the occasion, while the Turkish media referred to it as it had in the past. Those looking for a new perspective on the Korean War’s Greek and Turkish veterans should start looking elsewhere.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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