So I recently finished watching "Korea: The Forgotten War," which is a five-hour series from Timeless Media Group. (Not to be confused with other documentaries having the same title - there seems to be at least one other series with this name out there, which I have not seen.) This popular title is entirely correct, of course, that Korea is a "forgotten war"; but this title may be stretching it a little by calling it "the forgotten war." Many wars have been forgotten, I think; from Ancient Greece's "Peloponnesian War" to the Boer Wars in South Africa. (Many more, I think, will be forgotten in the future.) But there are worse features in a documentary than a little exaggeration for the purpose of creating interest, and this documentary has a number of redeeming features that help to compensate for this weakness. (It has many other weaknesses besides this title, to be sure; but with the dearth of media options on this topic, one hasn't the luxury of being picky about the storytelling quality.)
This series is best entered with low expectations
To be sure, the five-hour length of this documentary is part of what recommended it to me in the first place. After comparing many documentaries on the Korean War (and I searched the Internet for a number of them), I came to the conclusion that this was the longest one that I could find. (I am not aware, at least, of any others on this topic which have a comparable runtime; although if you know of any, I'd appreciate it if you left a comment below about it.) The filmmakers are to be commended for attempting to tell this story for television here, and the amount of time that they're willing to dedicate to this topic is a rarity in the world of documentaries, if not entirely unique. There are problems with this documentary, though, that necessitate going into it with somewhat lower expectations. This documentary doesn't have very high production values, for example, and the music leaves something to be desired. (It is a bit melodramatic at times, as it turns out, and even anti-climactic.) The narration is not very well-written, either, and the delivery of the narrator doesn't really do anything for the series. Viewers used to the high production values of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" or the British series "The World at War" may find this series a disappointment in (at least some) ways.
American soldiers in action near the Ch'ongch'on River, 1950
No interviews with anyone outside the United States ...
The information in this series is good for what it is - a general overview of the war for a television audience. It focuses entirely on the American side, and does not interview North Koreans, South Koreans, or communist Chinese. It interviews no one outside the United States, in short, and thus ignores Allied nations from Britain to Turkey to Thailand (and there are a number of other Allied nations to be found in this war). It does, however, interview American veterans in some depth, and these interviews are the show's greatest strength. In a few short decades, we will no longer be able to interview anyone who lived through this time; and so these efforts of the show are to be commended as a service to history. Their ability to dramatize the veterans' stories doesn't quite measure up to other veteran documentaries like Ken Burns "The War," to be sure, and PBS is definitely better at bringing them to life. Nonetheless, the information in this show is still good despite these things, and you're not likely to find it anywhere else in the world of television. They help to show how the war was fought, with the long periods of stalemate reminiscent of World War One in some ways.
Chinese forces cross the Yalu River, 1950
... and the communist perspective is given only through American historians
When the show references things on the other side of this war, they do so entirely through historians. (And all of them are American historians, incidentally, although they nonetheless give helpful commentary at times about the perspective of the communist side). But if it's a communist perspective you're after, you won't find it in this series; and you'd be better off looking to a different series like "The Cold War" from CNN. CNN interviews generals and politicians on both sides, as it turns out; along with the soldiers, marines, airmen, and local Korean civilians on both sides. Thus, CNN's one-hour episode on Korea provides a few things that Timeless Media Group doesn't; although the interviews with American veterans by Timeless Media Group are still more extensive than those by CNN. The interviews with soldiers, marines, and pilots make up for many a weakness elsewhere. They were interviewed fifty years after the war, as it turns out, and were thus old men at the time that these interviews were filmed. They seem like guys you could have Thanksgiving dinner with, and their "regular Joe" demeanor makes it easier to identify with them in some ways; since they represent the "ordinary soldiers" on the front lines of the war.
Delegates sign the Korean Armistice Agreement in P'anmunjŏm, 1953
But the interviews with American veterans are the great virtue of this series
The first two discs give an overview of the war itself, from how it started to how it ended (and everything in between, as much as possible). You might wonder, then, how the third and final disc adds anything when the previous discs have already gone through the end of the war. As it turns out, though, the third and final disc adds a lot to this series, because it gives bonus interview clips with the surviving veterans. Nowhere in the series itself, for example, do the veterans involved discuss the merits of the war in Korea, but they do in the third disc. Their attitude is generally positive about what the war accomplished, but it's clear that they all went through considerable hell by the time the war ended in 1953. They discuss the psychology of combat and the horrors of losing friends, and their descriptions of the war's terror speak volumes about their experiences. (This becomes evident again, I should mention, in the interviews with the Medal of Honor recipients, which are also contained in the last disc.)
Fighting in the streets of Seoul, 1950
Remembering the horrors that American prisoners of war experienced at this time
The other feature of the third disc may deserve some special commentary here, which is the interviews with the prisoners of war. They interview a handful of Americans who got through the Chinese and North Korean prison camps alive, and the true horror of these communist atrocities becomes clear. It would seem that these atrocities were the rule among the communists, rather than the exception; although they were more rare on the Allied side. One gets the feeling that these POWs suffered even more than the other veterans (which is saying a lot), and my heart goes out to the POWs for the horrors they experienced. The debate about communism is a long and complicated one, I should acknowledge here, and the system has many defenders even in the United States. Nonetheless, the extent of communist atrocities is compelling evidence of the system's true nature, it would seem to me, and in a war filled with forgotten aspects, this may be the most forgotten of them all. Thus, the series' coverage of this aspect would seem to be among its greatest strengths. (It is well that they did not try to whitewash the brutality of the communists in their discussions of the prison camps.)
Two Hill 303 survivors after being rescued by American troops, 1950
This series uses real footage as well as the interviews, and sometimes blends them together
The footage in this documentary adds much to the story, I think, although they don't dramatize it with the same sound re-enactments as some other documentaries I could name. They sometimes use the interviews with veterans as voiceovers for this footage, and it is during these voiceovers that this footage is most compelling. The interviews with these veterans make up for many a weakness in this series, I think, and help you to understand what the guys on the ground went through at this time. They interview fighter pilots, too, who were involved in famous dogfights with Russian MIGs, as well as pilots who supported the ground operations with planes specially designed for front-line bombing (and other planes, such as the Corsairs). But it is the interviews with the men on the ground that the documentary relies on most, and you learn a lot about the Korean War from hearing their eyewitness testimony.
U. S. Corsairs provide close air support to Marines fighting the Chinese on the ground, 1950
Conclusion: This documentary is a good one despite its weaknesses
If you decide to watch this series, I'd still recommend going into it with low expectations; because as noted earlier, the music and the narration are somewhat uninspiring and melodramatic. But if you're all right with just hearing the American side, this is a good documentary to check out despite its weaknesses. For the time being, at least, this may be the best documentary on the Korean War; and its interviews with veterans will stand the test of time.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
CNN's "The Cold War" (includes one Korea episode)
Division of Korea into North and South
"The World at War" (World War II)
Ken Burns' "The War" (World War II)
Timeline of United States military history:
French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Korean War 1950-1953
Other wars to be covered later
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