What Makes Us Forget Wars?

When someone mentions the “forgotten war” in the United States, they are usually referring to either the Korean War or World War I. Of all our large conflicts, these two seem to slip through the sieve of our collective national memory and fall into obscurity. Of our “big” wars, the Civil War and World War II take up the majority of our national thought. For simple reasons, really. They got turned into wars “for” something, as TR Fehrenbach writes about in This Kind of War.

World War II dominates our thinking of course, because it was not only a good war – who doesn’t like killing Nazis after all? – but because we got to maneuver with huge armies across vast swathes of territory. The American flag swept across Europe as US armies rushed to rescue the old world from the terror it had incepted. It was some sort of bald eagle-inspired fantasy.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.

The prelude to the break-in to Fortress Europe in 1944 was a bloody slog through North Africa, Sicily, and Italy – the latter hearkening back to the trench days of World War I. And in the Pacific, an unrelenting march through islands whose ecosystems proved to be a horror all on their own, even without the Japanese. It was an ugly fight with seemingly little to redeem it. And consequently, aside from the flag-raising on Iwo in 1945, we’d rather not remember it much. Much like the western campaign in the American Civil War – which proved to be the decisive theater – most people know little about the Soldiers and Marines who wrenched island after island from the Japanese, or the divisions that ground their way through the Italian mountainsides. No, Gettysburg and D-Day are what we want to read about.

But there’s something more.

Unlike Korea, we still remember the conflict in Vietnam. Sure, we don’t remember it as well as we could – or should – but it still registers on our radar. Why? Because it changed things. It ended conscription as a norm, it coincided with a social revolution in the US, and it changed the way that the military and the people of the United States looked at each other. It isn’t a war we want to remember, but we still do – because of change.

We look at World War I and Korea, and it seems like they changed nothing. World War I – with 53,000 US combat deaths in about 9 months of fighting – merely begat World War II. After spending 33,000 US lives in Korea – to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who died defending their country – the situation returned to status quo. It would be easy to say that these wars changed nothing.

But that would be wrong.

Really, the changes these wars wrought are invisible, because we consider them to be the norm now.

World War I changed the way that the Army and the nation fights wars. It saw the first use of the National Guard, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the draft in conjunction to build an army of nearly 4 million by war’s end – from a force that barely numbered 150,000 in 1916. It saw air, armor, and infantry being used together. It saw women wearing uniforms that bore the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. It saw organic divisions of combined arms soldiers and marines fighting alongside Allies from across the world. All this we accept as normal today. But at the time, it was a revolution. No one in the US dreamt we could wield such power, and so we stepped off the world stage and let it be someone else’s problem.

But then Korea changed the way the United States defines conflict. It was the first real political war – waged for limited ends. And it was the first time that the public came face-to-face with such a thing, finding that it didn’t like it. It was the first time that war – the kind of war where platoons and companies get put through a meatgrinder of combat with heavier shelling than even World War I – could be waged while the people at home did not have to change their lives. Where the burden of conflict was carried by a selective few and the remainder of society could afford to bury it after the sports pages in the paper. Korea taught us that to be a superpower, we had to buy it with wars of political expedience that weren’t for anything that the American people cared all that much about. And that if too many people weren’t killed or maimed or inconvenienced, then the US government could wage its wars with little interference from the electorate.

Both wars brought dramatic change – some good, some bad – but it was the sort of change only seen by some in the military and some in politics. There was no great social upheaval, or cause to be celebrated. And so they were forgotten, setting a pattern for the 21st century conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Apparently, what makes us forget wars are the very reasons we should be even more mindful of them.


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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.


Cover Photo: Artillerymen of the 24th Infantry Division fire 155mm howitzers at dusk, Korea. United States Army photo.