Word Choice

Recently went to the Korean War Memorial and Museum in Seoul. It is without a doubt the most thorough museum I have ever been to. The first exhibit starts with prehistoric war heads and the last exhibit ends with a piece-by-piece breakdown of the Korean Army’s most recent artillery shells. In between there are four floors full of tanks and jet fighters, recreated battle scenes, and massive relics devoted to seemingly every military engagement Korea has ever faced. Perhaps then it’s no surprised that in a place dedicated to war, there is what can only be called “information overkill.” If you want to feel what it’s like to be bludgeoned in the face by statistics and dates, then this is the place for you.

As I plodded my way the endless slog of battle recreations and strategic maps and old guns, one sight in particular managed to catch my eye, not because of what it looked like, but because of what it said. Located in the middle of one of the many rooms dedicated to the North/South Korean conflict, stood a statue of three massive bronze soldiers all holding grenades, their bodies charging ahead, their faces frozen in defiance. The plaque beneath them read, “Three Human Bombs at the White Horse Hill.”

I stood their thinking about that phrase for while. Three Human Bombs. The words seem hang around in the air after you say them, like black exhaust fumes spat out from a broken down semi truck. Three Human Bombs. What’s so human about a bomb? This phrase is of course a clumsy military euphemism for “suicide bombers,” but everyone knows that that phrase doesn’t sell entry tickets or mugs at the museum gift shop, so Three Human Bombs will have to do.

As I was looking at the statue, I couldn’t help but wonder about the back story for that trio of men. Did they choose to blow themselves up? Did they draw straws? Were they assigned the task by their superiors. If it’s the later I can just imagine how that conversation might have unfolded:

The commander calls three soldiers into his tent

COMMANDER: Remember when I told you men that if we wanted to win this war we were going to need more live ammunition?

SOLDIER: Yes, of course. But what does that have to do with us? [Long pause as reality slowly sets in]

COMMANDER with a somber, knowing look, hands the men a box of grenades, then walks out of the tent.

The three Soldiers stand together in silence…

[End Scene]

Regardless of how that night unfolded, I think it sets a low standard to celebrate people who blow themselves up to kill other people, regardless of how much “bravery” that must have required. The word “human” is really stripped of all meaning when placed next to the word “bomb.” The same type of thing happens when you put the words “vegetarian” and “hot dog” together, or “soft” and “rock.” It just doesn’t add up.  Anyway you slice it, the human race is in a sad state when we start exalting praise onto what amounts to little more than glorified weaponry.

In the end, it makes you question if we aren’t paying attention to the wrong thing entirely. I could easily do a quick Internet search and find thousands of museums dedicated to nothing but war, but the real question is: where are all the museums dedicated to peace?

Related Listening:

“Masters of War” – Pearl Jam

“Weapon of Choice” – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

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5 responses to “Word Choice

  1. I’ve always hated the glorification of war and all the dehumanization that seem to come along part and parcel every time people start using wars to promote their nation’s myths.

    “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” = Oscar Wilde

  2. A few years ago I went to a POW camp in Goje Island and I noticed the same sort of thing there. The English explanations/descriptions were bit ‘off’ in the same disturbing way, and I noticed the statuary and life sized models they used were really graphic too. They showed big paper mache men bloodily impaled on wire fences and – in one particulary graphic cave – I came across moving replica of a soldier who held a large gun in his hand. His arm was moving up and down to demonstrate how the butt of his gun was perpetually smashing into the face of another soldier, lying in front of him. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. It was ridiculous and terrible, at the same time.

    It was such a serious place, but then they also had those silly wooden pictures where visitors could put their heads through holes in a painting and pose as prisoners, complete with chains and shackles.

    Hmmm. K. Maybe NOT really the same thing that you’re talking about but your post made me think of Gojedo anyway. ..

    Take care!~

  3. My students are studying the Korean War now. As I was searching for information from blogs, I read your narrative. It really struck a cord with me. I am planning for my history students to discuss your message and write a response to your idea about “human bombs”. This should provide fodder for a good discussion. Thanks, and where are the Peace Museums?

  4. Unfortunately, the South Korean memories of the Korean War is full of narratives like this. South Koreans lacked the most basic machinery for war, such as armored cars or machine guns. Grenades were the strongest explosives they had, so fighting against superior machinery of North Korea and China, South Korea essentially had to resort to suicide bombing. It reinforces the fact that the war was not a just one, and South Koreans were the (heroic) victims.

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