The Korean War Memorial in Sydney, toppling statues and understanding what we memorialise

In Sydney’s picturesque Moore Park, there is a memorial to those Australians who served in the Korean War. Located at the northernmost tip of the park, it is always a pleasurable experience to visit the memorial. Moore Park is close to the large and cultivated Centennial Parklands, a popular destination for walkers, cyclists, joggers and tourists. This past June 25th marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

A small service was held to mark the occasion, attended by Australian defence force personnel and members of the Korea War Veterans association. The memorial honours those Australians who perished in that conflict, and is a welcome addition to the beautiful surrounds of Moore Park. In the immediate aftermath of the global movement in toppling statues, the primary designer of the memorial was asked for her thoughts.

Jane Cavanough, the designer, stated that she welcomed the debates and histories that have found expression and wider audiences in the context of questioning historical landmarks. To that end, let’s make a contribution to the question of the Korean War, and what we are memorialising. There is no disputing that Australians suffered during that conflict. But let us not allow our own nationalism to blind us to the horrendous suffering endured by the Korean people.

What most Australians do not realise – just like most Americans – is that the United States, during the Korean conflict, demolished the North Korean side in its entirety. Between 1950 and 1953, North Korea was subjected to intensive aerial bombardment by the US Air Force, in which every city and town in North Korea was destroyed.

Under the direction of General Curtis LeMay, the US proceeded to drop more bomb tonnage on North Korea than during the American campaign in the Pacific in World War 2. When all the buildings, hospitals, roads and schools were bombarded, the US proceeded to bomb rice fields, dams, and other civilian infrastructure, bringing North Korea’s population to the brink of starvation. Aid from China and the Soviet Union averted a wider catastrophe.

Napalm, incendiary bombs, and fragmentation weapons were used to kill and vaporise hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. The North Korean countryside was left scorched and poisoned – but yet, after the war’s conclusion, North Korea rebuilt its society house by house, street by street, brick by brick. After World War 2 concluded, the major powers declared that industrialised mass killing would be outlawed and never occur again.

In the early stages of the world, General Douglas MacArthur, renowned American commander in the Pacific during World War 2, requested 34 atomic bombs to be used to create a radioactive belt in northern China to prevent any land invasion of Korea. Planning an aggressive war to achieve predatory war aims was something for which Nazi and Imperial Japanese generals had been convicted.

Surely South Korea is a democracy, a capitalist economic miracle and ally protected by the US and its friends, such as Australia? There is an element of truth to this description, but not in the way that the majority of Americans (and Australians) realise. The South Korean regime, based in Seoul and installed by the US in 1945, has spent most of its life as various military dictatorships. Syngman Rhee, the fanatical Christian and conservative supported by American arms, ruled South Korea with an iron fist, establishing a police-terror state. Thousands of suspected leftists and regime opponents were tortured and killed by 1950.

If South Korea currently implements democratic practices, it is not because of the regime. It is because South Korean people have periodically risen up and ousted widely-despised military dictators. Syngman Rhee, the longtime strongman, was deposed by the 1960 April revolution. He fled to Hawaii. In 1980, the little-known Gwangju uprising overthrew yet another set of military rulers. The Gwangju revolt was not without its casualties; highly trained elite special forces were deployed to suppress the rebellion.

It is very true that South Korea emerged as an economic tiger in the Asia Pacific. In the 1950s and 60s, Seoul pursued a series of policies that boosted its economy and lifted people out of poverty. But let us be clear on the reasons for their success. Contrary to today’s quasi-religious ideology of free-market fundamentalism, it was the state-driven capitalism that accounted for the stunning growth of South Korea’s GDP and export-intensive economy.

Setting out five-year plans, the Korean state elaborated ambitious targets to be achieved in cooperation with the private sector. General Park Chung-hee, the main architect of this government-driven, centrally-planned economic recovery, learned from his experience as an officer in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, and corralled the state’s resources to attain spectacular economic growth. Following Japanese models of state-corporatism, General Park created a resurgent South Korean capitalist class.

The South Korean chaebol, which literally means ‘money clan’, is a corporate-dynastic structure, which involves concentrating wealth in the hands of a few ruling family-dynasties. Samsung, Hyundai, LG – now famous international companies, have their origins in a dynastic clannish structure. The alliance between the authoritarian state and the dynastic chaebols contributed to the stunning success of South Korea’s tiger economy. The chaebols are the cornerstones of the economic and political landscape of that nation.

Should the Korean War memorial in Sydney be demolished? No, it should not. Am I suggesting that an enormous statue of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un be constructed in Sydney and worshipped? No, I am not. We need to have a long-overdue national conversation about what we memorialise whenever we commemorate US imperial wars, and what the Asian nations have to say about those wars.

Commemorative memorials do not compensate for serious historical amnesia.

Toppling statues, Black Lives Matter, and Zionism

Across the world, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against racism and police brutality have compelled countries in Europe (and Australia for that matter) to reconsider their own racist histories. For instance, protesters in Belgium removed the statue of King Leopold II, who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgium’s colonial adventures in that continent. Statues of Confederate generals are being torn down in the United States.

However, not everyone is supportive of BLM.

Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organisation of America and enthusiastic Israel-supporter, denounced the BLM movement in the following words on Twitter:

BLM is a Jew-hating, white-hating, Israel-hating, conservative Black-hating, violence-promoting, dangerous Soros-funded extremist group of haters

Let’s take a look at this stinging attack on BLM, and why prominent Zionist groups find the anti-racism of BLM a strategic threat.

Klein is not alone – numerous Zionist organisations have denounced BLM in similarly vitriolic terms. Israel’s leaders and their supporters have attacked BLM as an anti-Semitic movement, conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. The latter is a frequently deployed tactic to smear critics of the Israeli state as being motivated by irrational prejudice.

Ali Abunimah, cofounder and editor of Electronic Intifada, noted that it is interesting to see Klein incorporate an anti-Semitic trope, the ‘George Soros puppet-master funding protests’, as a legitimate critique. In fact, a number of advisors close to current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recycled this right-wing conspiracy theory. The ‘globalist Jew’ funding revolutionary causes is an old, outdated anti-Semitic slander deployed to discredit social movements as just dupes or pawns in the hands of the ultimate puppeteer, the Jews.

Why is a Zionist circulating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory? Zionism at its core, is a political ideology that accepts the logic – if one can call it that – of the anti-Semite. Jews, according to the ideologues of Zionism, constitute a distinct, unassimilable, fixed entity no matter where they are born and raised. The proponents of Zionism offer a resolution of the Jewish question – building an exclusively Jewish state in their ‘old-new’ ancestral home of Palestine. Zionism has always been a racialist philosophy.

The BLM movement openly supports and cooperates with the Palestinians, not for any anti-Semitic reasons, but precisely because of Zionism’s racist conception of Palestinians and Arabs. The founders of Zionism made no secret of their colonialist and racist attitudes towards the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, and offered their services to various colonial powers – such as Britain – to construct an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. BLM offers its anti-racist solidarity to the Palestinians.

It is no secret that anti-Semitic and far-right parties across the world look to Israel as an example to follow. They in turn provide political support for the objectives of Zionism. Ultranationalist and racist European parties have expressed their admiration for Zionism and Israel, and a number have visited that nation in a show of political solidarity. Netanyahu has been quick to reciprocate.

The United Nations, in 2017, issued a damning report comparing the practices of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians with the policies of the apartheid government in South Africa. The process of ghettoisation and partition of the occupied Palestinian Territories bear striking similarities to those implemented by the white Afrikaners towards the black South African population.

Ronnie Kasrils, a formerly leading activist the African National Congress (ANC) and subsequent government minister, wrote that as a Jewish South African, he saw the fundamental similarities between apartheid in South Africa and the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians. The Afrikaners who settled in South Africa founded states for themselves – Transvaal, Orange Free State – which became the union of South Africa. They were founded on the exclusion of the indigenous Africans. Zionism has produced a similar and parallel outcome in the land of Palestine.

Recognising the colonial-settler project of Zionism is not a product of irrational and fanatical anti-Semitism, but a recognition of the dispossession and exclusion of the Palestinians upon which Zionism is predicated. Indeed, Zionist leaders from the 1920s and 30s admitted that Palestinian resistance to Zionism was based on opposition to the colonising project, and not on any anti-Semitic hatred.

Tearing down statues of racist slave-traders, such as Edward Colston in Bristol, or conquistadors such as Christopher Columbus, is not an exercise in erasing history – far from it. The United States and Britain have been compelled to recognise and understand their histories of slavery and imperialism only because of the collective struggle of non-white peoples. Erecting statues to slavers, or Confederate generals, is an exercise in reasserting white supremacy, and constructing a white nationalist view of history.

The global protests in support of BLM are not motivated by hatred of white people, anymore than anti-Semitic prejudice. Indeed, African Americans and Jews have a long history of cooperation on the issue of civil rights in the United States. Political struggles always involve asking questions that make us uncomfortable about ourselves. Ran Greenstein, writing in 972 magazine, states that anti-Zionism is not a platform for anti-Semitism but rather an opportunity to correct historical wrongs inflicted on the Palestinians.

Black Lives Matter and Palestine form a historic alliance, opposed to all forms of racism. A necessary step towards decolonisation is the removal of historic monuments to the colonisers.

Trump’s racism is part and parcel of everyday mainstream white nationalism

White nationalism remains a flammable poison in the midst of US society.

Any notion that the United States is a post-racial society, or that racism was no longer an important issue, was dispelled by the eruption of anger at the spate of racist police killings in that country. Protesters demanding accountability of the police officers involved have taken to the streets. The mobilisations have been multiracial, reflecting opposition to racism from across the ethnic spectrum of society.

While I will not focus exclusively on this latest upsurge of protest, it is instructive to learn from a related incident just how deeply white supremacy infects every level of American society. The killing of George Floyd was not an aberration, but the latest chapter in a long, painful experience of black America with white supremacy.

Last month, US President Donald Trump, when touring a Ford factory plant in Michigan, made a remark which indicated the depth of his white nationalist outlook. He was at the motor company factory to praise Ford’s cooperation with General Electric, to produce ventilators and face masks. Departing from the prepared script, he declared that the Ford company’s director had ‘good bloodlines‘.

Henry Ford, the historic founder of the company and automaker, was a vicious anti-Semite and racist who used his financial power to promote racist literature and pro-Nazi views in American society. Trump’s remarks were not the first instance of his reference to good genes as evidence of superior intellect and achievement. He has spoken, for instance, of possessing ‘good German blood’ in explaining the reasons for his ostensible success in life.

Such sentiments correspondent to the worldview advocated by the late Henry Ford.

Trump’s words of praise were racist, but not unusual in the context of American white supremacy. In fact, it would be delusional in the extreme to place the entirety of blame for white racism on Trump’s shoulders. His white nationalist views did not arise out of nowhere, but constitute a continuation of white supremacist ideology deep in American society.

Since the end of the American civil war, white supremacist ideology, backed by significant sections of the ruling class, has fought a revanchist war of revenge, seeking to dispossess African Americans through various alternative economic and political measures. Racialised violence has periodically exploded to maintain and extend a functioning capitalist system.

The systemic racial vengefulness of the American capitalist system has manifested itself since the end of the civil war through poverty, degradation and legalised exclusion of the black American community. A neo-Confederate history of white racial terror provides the backdrop for police violence against people of colour. Police and state troopers provided the vector by which the virus of white supremacy spread.

Nostalgia for the Confederacy is not just a harmless, academic exercise in sustaining historical memory. The flag, statues of Confederate generals and soldiers, the symbolism and myths of ‘kindly Southern gentlemen‘, are all part of a campaign to rehabilitate and update white nationalism for modern purposes. The New York Times editorial board stated it plainly – when the US military names its bases after Confederate generals, they are honouring racist traitors.

There is still a statue in honour of Confederate general and racist traitor Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Earlier this year, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves declared April to be Confederate history month. Mississippi was one of the first slave owning states to secede and join the white supremacist Confederacy. Dylann Roof, the white racist killer who shot dead nine black American people in Charleston, South Carolina, was wearing the Confederate flag.

Prior to World War 2, the United States was a world leader in one crucial area, which provided inspiration for European white supremacists – the implementation of race laws. The Nazi party, while objecting to what they perceived as America’s weaknesses, were nevertheless inspired by the system of legalised racial segregation.

Adam Serwer, scholar and expert of race relations, wrote in a thoughtful article that:

The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. 

Black deaths at the hands of the police are not flaws or mistakes, they are the logical end product of racialised white supremacist capitalism. That is the conclusion of an article by Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. Whether it is access to education, employment or housing, or the higher rates of COVID-19 deaths among African Americans, racism is the underlying condition of capitalist America.

The civil rights movement, the election of a black President, and the symbol of Dr King, have been turned into a kind of false finish line under the problem of racism in the United States. The recent spate of racially motivated killings must help us readdress what we do not want to acknowledge – that racism is the norm in American society, not the exception.