War Museum Controversy

About a year ago, whilst traveling in Canada, I happened on a news report about a display at the Canadian War Museum being altered because some soldiers were embarrassed at the statistics about STD rates among Canadian soldiers serving during the Korean War. I clipped the article, intending to blog it, but then misplaced it and only found it again just now.

It was a slightly different version of the text quoted below, but by the same author; the below is copied from a forum discussion of the same controversy mentioned in the following:

Atrocities OK for war museum, but sex is out
Statistics that 414 out of 1,000 Canadian soldiers got VD during Korean War edited out of exhibit
Alex Hutchinson
Ottawa Citizen
July 16, 2005

OTTAWA – Wartime atrocities are an inescapable part of the history told at the Canadian War Museum, but apparently sex can be edited out.

After meeting with members of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada last month, curators at the museum quietly changed an exhibit containing the statistic that 414 out of every 1,000 Canadians who served in Korea contracted venereal disease while overseas.

“We tried to balance historical fact with the concerns of veterans,” museum spokesman Pierre Leduc said.

Earlier protests from veterans about paintings relating to the torture and death of Somali teen Shidane Arone by members of the Canadian military didn’t result in any changes to the museum’s display.

The altered panel is situated at the entry to the museum’s exhibit on the Korean War, and contains a series of statistics about the soldiers who served in Korea, including average age, level of education and work experience. The statistic on venereal disease was changed to state that the ratio of disease and accident cases versus battle injuries was 5-to-1 for Canadians in Korea, with no reference to venereal disease.

“Korea was an unhealthy place to serve,” said Les Peate, head of the Korea veterans’ group. The exhibit is still able to make that point without needing to mention venereal disease, he said.

“It’s not a very nice thing for a guy to take his family and his grandkids along and have them confronted with that statistic.”

Since the message of the exhibit about the hazards of service in Korea wasn’t altered, the museum was willing to make the change, Leduc said. The paintings of the Somali incident, on the other hand, were central to that exhibit. “You have this very successful mission, which the UN thanked us for,” he said. “And as a consequence of the actions of a very small group of soldiers, an entire regiment was disbanded and it brought the military to the forefront of public discussion. That is the story we’re trying to tell.”

Peate said he doesn’t believe the paintings of the Somali incident belong in the museum either, and he supports the efforts of Clifford Chadderton of the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada to have them removed. But in his own dealings with the museum, he found them very reasonable.

“When we heard it was there, I gave a call to Dean Oliver, who is the director of exhibits there, and we discussed it on a rational basis,” Peate said. “We didn’t start screaming and hollering like they did over the Somalia thing.”

Chadderton has been sharply critical of the exhibits in the new museum, which opened in May.

It’s odd that the fact that at least 40% of soldiers having (a) fraternized sexually with locals and (b) gotten sick as a result of it is something that gets edited out of history because some guy might turn up with his grandchildren and they might realize that grandpa might have had some fun with Korean girls while serving overseas.

I believe that it’s important to respect the sacrifices made by soldiers who, after all, certainly didn’t choose for themselves to go and fight some war on the other side of the world. The boys in the UN Forces who ended up in Korea faced death, danger, loneliness. They did so in a social environment in which all kinds of things we blush at were acceptable: sleeping with local girls, either prostitutes or women poor enough to sell themselves for the benefits of food, a little comfort, a little more pull with the foreigners, that was one of those things that obviously was acceptable then.

Acknowledging this doesn’t excuse the whole military attitude towards prostitution — one that, according to friends of mine, lingers to this day in places like A-Town, a near-base funzone for soldiers which is apparently rife with prostitutes. But deleting it from historical memory does, in a sense, enfranchise soldiers’ whoring in the past. Blanking the unsavory out enfranchises the unsavory.

I agree, it’s probably embarrassing that these guys are confronted with the facts about went on besides fighting off the North Korean and Chinese forces. I agree, it’s probably not the kind of thing they want their grandkids to know about the War. But on the other hand, the operative word in the above is “facts”. It’s a fact that 40% of troops who served came down with some kind of sexually transmitted disease. It’s a fact that for every six soldiers who were treated during the Korean conflict, five out of six were treated for illness (general illness, not just STDs), while only one out of six for battle injuries.

Les Peate says it’s “not a very nice thing” when one’s grandkids are confronted with such a fact, but this overlooks the reality that it is a fact. Surely more than 41% of UN soldiers had sexual relations with Korean women, if only 41% got STDs. Does lurking memory of this also contribute to the kind of distrust and characterization that is sometimes attributed to white foreigners? While I assume that at least most of the sex was voluntary, albeit desperate, there’s still an uneasy blurring of the line between outright sex-slavery as is remembered among Japan’s war crimes, and sex-exploitation by the UN troops that surely went on during the Korean War.

I’m not saying that the soldiers deserve to be publically embarrassed. But then again, there is a degree to which too-careful observation of the shame of others can lead to the covering-up of history. Soldiers portrayed as having “saved” a society aren’t shining and pure heroes, they’re people, and their relationship with the people they’re sent to fight alongside/for is complex and nuanced. The politics of nation-states, and the politics of polite society alike, shouldn’t block out basic facts about what it meant when soldiers were sent abroad. To deny this is just disingenuous, and given the nature of war and soldiering in human history, it’s rather unbelievable.

Do I think the museum ought to include a plaque with this statistic mentioned? Well, I certainly doubt that the plaque was removed for sensible reasons, and I do think its removal raises very interesting questions about how carefully we need to, and ought to, tread when reviewing history that includes the still-living. I for one do not think that facts should be edited out just to please those embarrassed by reality, no matter how much we Canadians ought to respect our war veterans.

One thought on “War Museum Controversy

  1. That was a very interesting post, Gord. I think that there are few societies more hung up, if you’ll pardon the pun, about sexual issues than Canada’s. The ghost of Puritanism is everywhere, and I don’t see why any grandchild should be ashamed that his veteran grandfather contacted VD while risking his life in a war in a faraway place.

    Frankly, I wish I could have had such a normal grandfather, rather than the fundamentalist control-freak who raised my mother with one of the strictest and stupidest versions of Christianity on the market. (My dad’s dad died when he was 10, so I have no feelings about him.)

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