From Portraits to Puddles, 5: Korean War Memorial

NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I point out the lessons we can learn from half a dozen memorials in Battery Park. Click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud to see all the posts. The illustrations are from the video, available here. The complete series is also available in print and as a Kindle book: details in this post.

Let’s move on to the Korean War Memorial.  From the East Coast Memorial, retrace your steps northwest along the Dewey Promenade. After you’ve passed Castle Clinton, bear right, away from the water. The Korean War Memorial will be on your left: a 15-foot-tall silhouette of a soldier on a five-foot-tall pedestal. The paved approach to it is on the north side.

This memorial honors those who fought in the Korean War, 1950 to 1953. A Parks Department sign to the left of the approach recounts the major events of the Korean War, also known as “the Forgotten War.” Don’t read the sign right now. One way or another it will affect how you look at this sculpture, and as I said when we looked at Ericsson, it’s better to approach a sculpture without preconceptions.

The sculpture is a trapezoid of polished gray granite. Cut through the granite is a silhouette of a soldier outlined in stainless steel. He wears a helmet, fatigues, and boots, and carries a backpack and rifle. His head is turned so we can’t see the bone structure of his face.

The army gear obscures the shape of his body. As a result, this soldier is completely anonymous – even more so than the figures in many World War I memorials, who were low-ranking but whose faces we could see.

What’s the significance of this utter anonymity? To find out, let’s look at the memorial’s subsidiary details.

On the north side, facing the paved approach and flanking the inscription “Korean War 1950-1953,” are mosaic flags of the United States and South Korea.

Below, 20 smaller mosaic flags encircle the pedestal. Carved into the pavement around the pedestal are the names of 22 countries, each with numbers of dead, wounded and missing in action.

The clue to this multitude of nationalities is the symbol that appears above the “Korean War” inscription. It’s the emblem of the United Nations.

The opposite side of the sculpture (facing south) bears the inscription, “The Universal Soldier.”

Unlike the other memorials we’ve looked at, this one doesn’t only honor American soldiers. It honors soldiers of all nationalities who participated in the UN mission to Korea, from Americans and South Koreans to Danish, Canadians and Thai.

Aside from the inscriptions, there is an even less visual message embodied in the Korean War Memorial. According to the sculptor’s website, at 10 a.m. on July 27, the sun slants through the soldier’s empty head and falls in the shape of a small flame on the segment for Greece. This is to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953.

Unless you happen to know the date and time of the armistice and also happen to be visiting the Memorial at that moment, you couldn’t possibly catch that reference. I’ve been visiting outdoor sculpture in New York for almost two decades, and I haven’t yet managed to be there at the right time. Nor have I ever seen an image of the effect.

Lesson #5

It’s not wrong to honor every nationality, but the way it’s done here creates a problem. “Getting the message” in this case means reading the flags and the pavement rather than looking at the soldier’s figure. This memorial is verbal as much as visual. And because the focus is on nations and statistics, it’s difficult to get emotionally involved. It’s like reading a list of quotes from the New York Stock Exchange. There’s a lot there to rouse passions, but you have to bring a great deal of knowledge to the party before you’ll feel any strong emotions. The lesson for the World Trade Center Memorial is: in visual art, visuals rule.


  • If you haven’t yet read the Parks Department sign on the Korean War yet, stop and do that before we move on. The Korean War deserves to be remembered: it’s the first military action taken to enforce the United States’ Cold War policy of containing Communism, and the first military action to involve troops raised by the United Nations (established in 1945). Fears of similar Communist invasions in Europe led to the arms race of the 1950s-1980s. And of course this war foreshadows the whole tangled mess of Vietnam. If you’re an utter novice to the period, see my entry on the Korean War in Internationalism – but before you rush to buy it, read my reservations about the published form of this book.
  • This essay was provoked in 2003 by the competition for the World Trade Center memorial. I originally gave it as a walking tour of sculptures in Battery Park and the southern end of Manhattan. Since 2012, it’s been available as a Kindle book: From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (Reflecting Absence). The end of the book has an illustrated, annotated list of 30 memorials in Manhattan dedicated to people whose job is to keep us safe: soldiers, policemen, firemen, and so on. If you want to see other memorials that are both effective and memorable, it’s a great place to start.
  • The parts of the essay will appear as a series of blog posts: click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud at right to find them.
  • This blog post is available as a video to my Patreon subscribers. (Thank you!)
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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