(Artvoice  29 June 2000)
The Necessary Evil:
Thoughts on Time and War

by Bruce Jackson


You perhaps noticed all the hoopla about last Sunday being the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Nearly all the TV and newspaper stories referred to it as “The Forgotten War,” but it’s hard to figure why they call it that, given the stories on prime time tv and page one of the papers. Maybe it was forgotten once, but it’s surely remembered now.

Maybe what that really means is the Korean War doesn’t have a monument like the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Well, I think everybody’s a little jealous of the Vietnam Wall, even people from wars that already have good monuments. You have a monument like the Wall and nobody ever forgets your war, you can bet on that.

I was at the UN the day Korea became our war, the day we formally got into it. North Korea had crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the South on June 25, 1950, a Sunday. The UN Security Council met the same day in New York and voted to send troops in support of the South. The UN had been set up after World War II to keep peace in the world and this was, I think, the first major international conflict between the Bad Commies and the Good Democracies.

The North Koreans never said they were acting on behalf of the International Communist Conspiracy. Korea, they argued,  hadn’t been two countries before the end of World War II and from their point of view there was no reason it should be now, but I don’t remember anyone taking that claim the least bit seriously back then. North Korea was communist, South Korea was not, of COURSE they were two countries. (Sound familiar? The same rhetoric, the same externally-imposed partition, the same mess would come back to haunt us not much more than a decade later in Vietnam.)  It’s only lately, with the release of documents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that military historians are seeing the start of that war as a battle between North Korean president Kim Il-sung and South Korean President Syngman Rhee, rather than the United States and the Russians going head to head on someone else’s territory.

It was my habit then to take the subway from where we lived in Brooklyn out to Flushing Meadow, which is where the United Nations General Assembly was headquartered while the huge complex they presently occupy on Manhattan’s east side (most of it a six-block gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.)  was being built. I went there to listen to the French translations of what was going on.

I don’t know how it works now, but back then you could just show up at the door and they’d admit you into the auditorium. The armrest of every seat had headsets and a rotary switch that would let you listen to simultaneous translations in any of the UN’s official languages of whoever was speaking. Sometimes when I got bored with trying to keep up with the rapid French translations I’d switch to Chinese and Russian. I didn’t know a word of either, but I’d sit there and would listen to them for long periods of time pretending I did. No one knew what channel my headphones were on, or cared, but I’d sit there looking interested anyway. Kids do things like that–act in dramas of which the rest of the world is perfectly unaware.

When I did listen to the French translators it wasn’t for the substance. I was just trying to follow the sentences. I’d done badly in French at Stuyvesant High School that year and one of my teachers had said that a few afternoons a week listening to the simultaneous translations at Flushing Meadow might tune my ear. Sometimes I could follow the French, most of the time I could not.

The day I’m telling you about was not like the others. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was different. The huge chamber was almost full. I got a seat only because I’d arrived there early. All the delegates’ seats were occupied. Usually, the delegates who were there moved in and out and around a lot. This day they were mostly glued in place.

A member of the American delegation—I remember it being Henry Cabot Lodge, who would become our ambassador to the UN three years later–said this incursion could not be tolerated and the UN could not stand idly by. There was far more heat than I remember on any other of those early summer days. By the end of that day or the next the United Nations had voted to undertake what would be called a “police action” in Korea.

I didn’t know anything about politics, but I knew perfectly well that I was watching the world go back to war. The other war, the big one, was barely five years over, hardly any time at all I now realize, but then, with the time sense of a fourteen-year-old, it was a very long time ago.

Several times in the past few years I’ve had occasion to remember Henry Cabot Lodge that day with his powerful words, his charts and diagrams and pictures. He was terrific.


But now, thinking about it on this fiftieth anniversary, I realize Lodge had only his powerful words and needed nothing more. In our high-tech world, pictures of an event reach us as part of our first information about that event, but back in 1950 the pictures lagged the words by days, sometimes weeks. Lodge couldn’t possibly have had charts and pictures of what had happened in Korea on Sunday to display in Flushing Meadow less than 24 hours later.

The charts and diagrams and pictures were from another military event. That day when Henry Cabot Lodge got up and spoke with great eloquence has gotten linked in my memory with the day twelve years later when our ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, in a cool rage displayed high altitude spy photograph showing the deployment of Russian intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. I saw Lodge from maybe fifty feet away; I saw Stevenson on television. Lodge spoke in Flushing Meadow, Stevenson spoke in midtown Manhattan. Memory decided they had more in common than not and let them leak into one another.

This is the problem with the things you remember well: the fact that you remember them well doesn’t mean that they happened, it means only that you remember them. Memory melts things, tunes things up, softens the rough edges, provides connections.

There was a time when the invasion of South Korea by the North and the placement in Cuba of intermediate range nuclear missiles by the Soviet Union seemed a huge space of time apart and events with only marginal connections. Now, a half-century later, they seem kindred events, which in fact they were. They were both key moments in that curious sinkhole of wealth and imagination we call The Cold War.

Three years after that day at the UN in Flushing Meadow I was in the Marines. Luckily, I never had to shoot at anyone and luckier still, no one ever got to shoot at me. When I went in the Marines I thought it would be just great to be a hero, and pretty easy, too. I’d seen a lot of war movies, you see. By the time I got out I had a far more rational perspective on the arithmetic: in order for some guys to be heroes other guys had to be shot to death or horribly maimed, and those guys probably wanted to be heroes too. For most people with a personal interest in the subject, the hero business was likely to end badly.


I was at far greater risk, as was everyone else on the planet, in the fall of 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union were just a soupçon of ego this side of blowing everyone into cosmic dust. We really were that close. The further away we get from that moment in time, the more personal memoirs come out, the more precipitous that encounter turns out to have been. At the time it was scary; in retrospect it is positively horrifying.

I was then living in Bloomington, Indiana. It was very strange, thinking yourself perhaps getting to see Armageddon first hand, however briefly, in Bloomington, Indiana, in the fall. That’s because the primo news story in Indiana, as the rest of the Midwest, in the fall is high school basketball. Nothing supercedes it. Nothing. Not then, not now. Not quintuplets, not a stock market surge or crash, not a presidential election, and certainly not the possible end of the world as you know it. During every single day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Indianapolis Star, Indiana’s only state-wide newspaper, ran high school basketball scores above the banner on page one. That drove everything else so low that the Missile Crisis stories ran below the fold, which means you didn’t see them until you opened the paper up.

All the New Yorkers I knew in Bloomington were at the market–Von’s Super Duper I think it was–stocking up on canned and dried foodstuffs, bottled water, matches, Band-Aids. Every Midwesterner we met at the market wanted to talk about how Terre Haute had kicked French Lick’s ass. Things were as surreal as they get.

The whole Cold War, in retrospect, seems more and more an international fit of madness, something only a few wise (and generally ignored) folks knew for what it was while it was going on. I remember one old guy saying to me, “You want to know what was great about World War II?” I thought he was going to say seeing the world or getting laid in Paris or surviving it. None of that. “It was so damned specific,” he said. “We knew exactly what we were doing ,and we were right.”

We never, as Jim Webb put it in his flaky 1968 classic “MacArthur Park,” had that recipe again. Did or do you know exactly what we were doing in Beirut, Grenada, Nicaragua, the Persian Gulf–or the Cold War? Me neither.


I never saw the huge boost to our economy that was supposed to come when the Cold War ended. I looked for it, but I couldn’t find it. The Defense Department never really got any smaller. The CIA is as big and busy and costly as ever, tracking terrorists and foreign business activities now rather than Commies. Clinton is pushing ahead on Reagan’s cockamamie Star Wars anti-missile plan, not against Soviet missiles taking the great circle route across the Arctic but to defend us against any missile from any terrorist anywhere. This is an age when you can carry a fully-operable atomic weapon in a suitcase and enough chemical warfare devices to wipe out New York City in your pockets, and he’s pouring billions into Star Wars.

I’m not saying the economy hasn’t gotten better. Of course it has. But it hasn’t gotten better because of end-of-Cold-War-savings., It’s gotten better in spite of the fact that the government never delivered them.

The commies are gone, but that doesn’t mean we’ve run out of enemies. We can’t spend billions keeping commies in their place? Okay, we’ll spend billions keeping Americans in their place.

The largest growth industry in New York State over the past 20 years hasn’t been electronics or information or education or biotechnology research. It hasn’t been any of those institutions that are driving the economy in the rest of the country. Rather it has been prisons. The bulk of new jobs in New York state haven’t resulted from putting to work people who were out of work; it’s resulted from locking them up and keeping them locked up. It takes a huge number of employees to keep a huge number of convicts locked up.

What legislator says No to a new prison in Fred’s district when he knows perfectly well that two weeks or months or years from now Fred will in all likelihood be voting on a new prison in that legislator’s district? Prison is jobs, lots of them, not only for guards but for the people who run bus stations and lunch counters and taxicabs and gas stations. Prison replaces those factory jobs that went south or far east or never made it to the rural counties at all.

This year the nation’s prison population will reach two million. That’s just people who are under lock and key—add all the people in controlled programs and the number doubles or triples. Two million in prison in the year two thousand. I recently heard Jonathan Kozol say that New York City spends $8,000 per year to educate kids. It spends $93,000 per year to keep a kid in jail.

The primary reason for the explosion of prison population in New York is the Rockefeller Drug Laws. These prescribe very long, sometimes no-parole sentences for offenders who may have done nothing else but pass some drugs along to another addict. No previous felony, no current crime of violence, just having too much of a bad thing at the wrong time. The irony is, the only reason the Rockefeller drug laws were proposed and passed in the first place was because Nelson Rockefeller was fighting to get the Republican presidential nomination and he had been charged by the right wing of the Republican party with being too liberal. The drug laws and the unnecessary assault at Attica on September 13, 1971, were his responses to that: you think I’m liberal, well take a look at this and tell me if you think I’m liberal.

Neither the Attica assault nor the drug laws did Rockefeller any good. The end of the line was as Gerald Ford’s named (not elected) vice president after vice president Spiro Agnew and president Richard Nixon both resigned their offices in disgrace. Ford didn’t die in office, so Rockefeller never got closer than the vice president’s mansion, which is about two miles up Connecticut Avenue from the office he coveted. He retired to play with his art collection and died, some say in rather indelicate circumstances, while presumably cataloging that art collection with a young and attractive anthropologist.


Billions to push back an enemy from the north, billions to defend against an enemy across the pole. Billions to punish users of drugs. What would have happened if we’d used half that war money to buy peace? What would have happened if we’d used half that law enforcement and prison money to provide education, rehabilitation, jobs?

You know the answer as well as I. But it didn’t happen, and it probably never will. Because it is so much easier to justify money for fighting evil than it is for doing good. Fighting evil is much more visible: there’s an enemy, let’s go fight him, hi-yo Silver away-y-y. Doing good is almost invisible, almost transparent. It’s marked by things that don’t happen, by lives that aren’t destroyed, by national wealth that isn’t squandered, by people who carry on every day just like everyone else, by disease that doesn’t get a chance to happen.

How do you count things that don't happen? How do you take credit for them? Politicians don't have words with which to say such things.

It seems like through my entire adult life I’ve heard middle-aged guys and old guys argue over which was the best war: the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War on Poverty, the Islamic Jihad, the War on Drugs.

“My war was a better war than your war.” Isn’t that just the dumbest thing you ever heard?

What if we stopped fighting wars and only did good things? Would people vote for an assemblyman who argued for that, a state senator, a congressman, a United States senator, a president? Would people vote for a legislator who said, “All the reliable evidence shows that the death penalty does nothing that a long prison sentence doesn’t do better, except the death penalty brutalizes us too and why would we want to do that?” What if we opted out of the rhetoric of death and instead pursued the rhetoric of doing what’s right? Could anyone get elected on that platform? Would you vote for someone who ran on that platform? Someone who saw the world not in terms of this or that enemy who had to be beaten into the earth forever but rather just doing the things we all know perfectly well need doing? Someone who didn’t need a real or imagined bad guy to get his passion cranked up but who was instead capable of looking around and seeing what’s really here?

Could Jesus or Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu get elected to a single one of those American offices I just listed? If not, what good is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean war? If not, what right do we have to celebrate the anniversary of any of our bloody wars?

For a great list of web sources on the Cold War, visit Vincent Ferraro’s source page, ww.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/coldwar.htm. For an excellent article on the politics leading up to the Korean War, see James I. Matray’s review essay, “Korea’s Partition: Soviet American Pursuit of Reunification, 1945-1948,” which is available on the web at www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/korpart.htm. My thanks to Heather Schuster for pointing out that this was the year American prison population would reach two million.

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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