Something I wish people on Tumblr would understand is that pro-war propaganda can be critical of the war in question and still work as propaganda. Propaganda doesn’t have to be all jingoism all the time–it can have nuance. It can be realistic about the injustice of the draft, about the trauma that soldiers suffer, about the disillusionment they feel towards their country and their cause. What makes it propaganda is how it encourages people to assume the perspective of the invading forces. We see these characters as complex, sympathetic people; we feel their pain and anger. We experience the war through their eyes. Very rarely, if at all, do the soldiers from the opposing army–or the civilians of the country being invaded, for that matter–receive the same treatment. Sometimes they don’t even appear on the page or screen. This is fine, because at its heart, no war story told by the invaders is ever about the people whose country has been invaded. It’s always about our guys. Our guys can struggle and agonize and writhe with guilt about what they do during the war, but at the end of the day it’s still their story. When we watch or read propaganda, when we adopt the perspective of our guys, we can easily forget that the war ever had an impact on anyone else besides us, let alone what that impact actually was and is. This is exactly what propaganda wants us to forget.
So, if you’re reading this and you are one of the many consumers of propaganda about the Korean War, let me tell you what you are being made to forget. My grandmother is Korean. When I think of the Korean War, I think of the stories she’s told me. I think of how she survived her homeland’s violent invasion by two different imperial forces before she turned sixteen. I think of how she and her family had to ration their rice when they lived in U.S.-occupied Busan. I think of how she had to learn English in her makeshift one-room school run out of an abandoned warehouse, just like she had to learn Japanese in the village where she was born: you’ve got to know the language of your colonizers. I think of how the U.S. dropped more bombs on North Korea alone than on the entire Pacific theater during World War II. I think of how the population of the North was literally decimated: 12 to 15 percent, over a million people dead, many if not most of whom were civilians.
I think of how lucky my grandmother was to get out of South Korea alive, before the U.S. installed a right-wing authoritarian government there that terrorized its citizens for the next several decades. I think of how the war technically never ended, how the U.S. still has military bases on the Korean peninsula, how some of my grandmother’s relatives disappeared and died in the North after the 38th parallel was drawn. I think of how South Korean and U.S. forces collaborated to coerce women into sex work near military bases, how those women are only in the past few years receiving acknowledgment of the cruelty they suffered. I think of how the stigma of simply existing as a Korean woman in the American imagination continues to this day, often with deadly consequences, as we’ve all so recently witnessed.
I think of how the grief and trauma that is the Korean War’s legacy reverberates down through my family and through me, as it does for literally every single Korean person alive on Earth today. I think of how the experiences described above are nowhere near unusual, and in fact my grandmother is incredibly fortunate compared to most Koreans of her generation. I think of how I learned nothing about the Korean War in my high school history classes, because to learn any accurate information about the war at all is to comprehend the full scope of the United States’ depraved brutality. I think of how people my age who think of themselves as intelligent, empathetic, politically aware consumers of media are choosing not only to get their information about the Korean War from a 1970s propaganda television show, but also to be entertained by such propaganda. What a huge gap there must be, between my life experiences and yours, if you can be genuinely entertained by propaganda about the Korean War. If you can look at the propaganda and see shippable twinks or gender envy or relatable humor, instead of a reminder of the horrific violence that the U.S. inflicted and continues to inflict on occupied land all over the world.
It is impossible for me to be entertained by propaganda about the Korean War, because I know what this propaganda wants me to forget. If you are entertained by this same propaganda, I would ask that you think about what makes that possible, and what exactly it is that you don’t know, or that you are choosing to forget.