22nd Oct 2014 5:00pm-7:00pm
‘The Korean War Never Happened’: Experience in the Life-Narratives of British Servicemen of the ‘Forgotten War’
Dr Grace Huxford, University of Warwick
This paper explores the variety of ways in which British servicemen narrated their experiences of the Korean War (1950–1953). Although over 1,000 British servicemen died during this conflict, it is seldom remembered in either historical writing or popular culture, with a direct impact on the narratives of those who served. In 1993, one former National Service conscript even noted that ‘the Korean War never happened’ and many more dismissed their own experiences as insignificant, particularly when compared with their fathers’ memories of the Second World War. Using the under-researched letters, diaries, poetry and memoirs of British servicemen from a range of social and military backgrounds, this paper (and the larger research project upon which it is based) argues that soldiers used the category of ‘experience’ to either validate or dismiss their role in the Korean War. This paper also shows that in using experience as the prime marker of their subjectivity, British servicemen were often ambivalent to the models of selfhood promoted to them by military authorities; few saw themselves as Cold War warriors and defenders of British democracy. The second half of this paper examines how Korean War narratives changed over time and explains why veterans’ stories were largely ignored within Cold War Britain. In doing so, it examines the role of collective memory and history-writing in shaping the legacy of the Korean War in Britain. This paper concludes by reflecting on the potentially uneasy position of the researcher in writing a forgotten war and in using personal narrative in general.
Grace Huxford is Research Fellow in Oral History at the University of Warwick and an Early Career Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis (supervised by Professor Carolyn Steedman) entitled: ‘Thinking Soldiers: the Construction of Subjectivity in the Era of the Korean War’ which uses the life-narratives of British servicemen from the Korean War as a case study through which to examine subjectivity in mid-twentieth century Britain. In September, she took over managing the University of Warwick’s oral history project, Voices of the University. Her next research project concerns opposition to the Korean War.