(Volume 25 issue 4)
By Meghan Fitzpatrick
Fighting on behalf of four different nations, the troops of the 1st British Commonwealth Division lived and worked side by side during the Korean War (1950-1953). They were a unique and close-knit group. While arguments could arise out of national differences, they succeeded in their goals and were much admired by their allies. The medical team was equally multinational in composition and included Brits, Canadians, Australians and Indians. I set out to write a history of military psychiatry in Korea, principally as practiced by the Commonwealth countries. I did so partly as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of Korean veterans. But as the evidence mounted, the argument for exploring the post-war legacy of Korea became stronger and stronger. So it is that the book as completed includes both a narrative of post-Korea developments in government approaches to the handling of war-time mental trauma, as well as reflections on the connection between those developments and the earlier Korean experience. Due to the multinational scope of this project, it has been a challenge to gather and effectively marshal sources over the past few years. Nevertheless, perseverance has prevailed and Invisible Scars is the result.
Like the Vietnam War, Korea was initially a psychiatric success story. The Commonwealth Division had a low rate of psychiatric illness (1 in 20 wounded or sick). Despite enduring many privations, the division was well known for combat efficiency and high levels of morale. Medical officers excelled in returning men to active duty and return to unit (RTU) rates soared from 50 per cent to 83 per cent. However, both Korea and Vietnam were problematic in the long term. Commonwealth officials failed to put support systems in place and have only recently encouraged veterans to seek compensation or psychological counselling. There was no deliberate mistreatment or abuse on the part of government or pensions’ officials. This failure reflected the medical, cultural and social realities of the period.
The Korean War took place at a time when psychiatry was still young and effective psychopharmaceuticals were just beginning to arrive on the market. There was also a strong stigma surrounding mental illness and seeking treatment. In all of the Commonwealth countries, those who struggled with psychiatric conditions were encouraged to deal with their problems privately. Active employment was the best medicine. The pensions and care system was a product of the era and of a conservative society where rehabilitation and treatment programs centred on returning veterans to work and fostering economic independence. Compensation was believed to have a detrimental rather than a salutary effect upon the mentally ill. Financial aid only worsened or prolonged symptoms that naturally diminish over time. While the modern observer might perceive this approach as callous, it was seen as benevolent and generous at the time.
In addition, Korean War veterans were denied other forms of support that had proved invaluable in the past. Unlike many of their predecessors, they were not greeted with parades and acclaim nor were they universally welcomed by veterans’ organizations like the Royal Legion and the Returned & Services League. Responding to inquiries by the author, Ivan Patrick Ryan of the Korean Veterans Association of Australia expressed disappointment in how veterans were received by these groups. Many veterans from Britain, Canada and New Zealand faced rejection as well. Korean War memorials did not appear until the late 1990s and there were no major memorials to highlight the service of those who fought in the Far East. When the Australian government attempted to secure, “royal messages of condolence to the relatives of service personnel killed in Korea,” they were told that such letters were not issued, “in operations of lesser magnitude than a World War.” As Australian historian Richard Trembeth has underlined, “it appeared that grief, like bravery, was measured in degrees, and some wars, like some acts of courage, only deserve lesser awards.”
Neither the Commonwealth governments nor the public at large acknowledged the sacrifices that veterans had made or gave them a public forum in which to grieve. There are a number of reasons why this was the case. The war did not involve the same level of public involvement as WWII and a far smaller group of men were sent to Korea. Over 6,000,000 soldiers from Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand were enlisted or conscripted into the armed forces from 1939 to 1945. In contrast, only 145,000 were deployed from 1950 to 1953. Moreover, they had primarily volunteered for the task. US Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower both referred to Korea as a, “police action.” The Commonwealth Prime Ministers followed suit. They were afraid that the use of provocative terminology would further escalate hostilities and refused to label Korea as a war.
In downplaying the ferocity of the fighting, they helped perpetuate a misunderstanding. Finally, UN forces neither won nor lost the Korean War. Unlike WWII, there was no great victory to celebrate or loss to help focus commemorative events.
The Korean War brings up important questions as to why we choose to commemorate one conflict over another. No matter how advanced or attentive military medicine may become, how society responds to returning service personnel is pivotal in how veterans process their experiences and reconcile themselves to loss. WWII veterans were feted as heroes and celebrated for their accomplishments. Vietnam veterans were abused and eventually became symbols of an unjust war. Korean War veterans were simply ignored. There is no quantitative way of measuring the impact of this exclusion. Nevertheless, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that veterans were negatively affected. There are countless examples. For instance, Jean Rayner’s husband Louis was a driver with the Australian Army during the war. In an interview with author Joy Damousi, Jean recalled that:
One thing that did annoy Lou was that people called it a pointless action, not a war. Even when I became a war widow, I was asked point blank, ‘How come you’re a war widow?’…And they said, ‘You’re not old enough for the Second World War and you are too old for Vietnam. Now I was asked that point blank. And I said there was such a thing as Korea. And anyway [they said] ‘was that a war?’… If they hadn’t kicked up a stink about Vietnam, would have been the same thing. Put it out of your mind and forget it, it didn’t happen.
Jessie Morland, the wife of another Australian veteran, remembered that, “it was like they tried to wipe it [Korean War] off the earth…no one ever want[ed] to talk about it.” When former Canadian medic Don Leier applied for a home loan in the early 1960s, the veterans’ loan officer refused him, pointing out, “Korea was no war, just a police action. Here’s fifty cents. That’s all you’re getting.”
This widespread lack of public acknowledgement has contributed to why the Korean War has remained neglected as a subject of scholarly debate and interest over the past six decades. Chronologically, Korea is also positioned between two other major wars. As a topic of study, it lacks the scope and scale of WWII or the political controversy of Vietnam. These conflicts have overshadowed and distorted how both academic and popular writers understand Korea. However, the Korean War is historically important for a variety of reasons. In terms of military psychiatry, it represents the last major deployment of Commonwealth forces before a revolution in psychiatric medicine and an example of what practical treatment methods can achieve. It was also the first time that limited tours of duty were uniformly enforced for the purposes of boosting morale. Commonwealth and UN operational goals were constantly evolving and changing from 1950 to 1953. Be that as it may, the Commonwealth Division remained combat effective and morale was high in both periods of rest and intense fighting. As a campaign, Korea shares many similarities with modern operations in Afghanistan and around the world. Working out of static bases, soldiers are called upon to patrol and infiltrate enemy territory on a daily basis. Political necessity dictates the direction of events on the ground and destroying the enemy is not necessarily the end goal. Soldiers, scholars and commentators could all learn a great deal about operations of this nature by studying Korea more closely.