Today I visited the War Memorial of Korea, Seoul's military history museum. It's only a 20 minute walk from my house and I often go past it on my way to the supermarket, so I thought it would make a nice afternoon out on a lazy Sunday. If it wasn't so close by, I don't think I ever would have been interested enough to go there, and that would have been a shame, because it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit.
Outside the memorial building there is a huge collection of military vehicles and large weaponry on display, and so what you see first as you enter the site are various types of aeroplanes, mostly from the 1950s. Even if you're not an aviation enthusiast, seeing these things up close is wonderful, and it made me wish I could try flying one of them! But then something started to feel uncomfortable. I read some of the exhibit descriptions that indicated how these planes were actually used, and I noticed what distinguished them from non-military aircraft - that many of them were equipped to carry weapons.
After walking past the planes, I saw a long row of tanks. It was then that I started to really think about the meaning of these objects. When reading about war in a history textbook, or even seeing images on the news of war in faraway places, it seems very distant, but to see these machines of war immediately before my eyes, and even touch them, I was struck by how very real war suddenly became in my mind. Because here were complex pieces of equipment which had been actually designed and constructed by actual people, for the very purpose of waging war.
As a designer, I started to look at the war memorial as a design museum, showcasing impressive achievements of design and technology from the 20th century. But also as a designer, I started questioning how design is used - How can a human being use design to create something that is intened to kill, or to devastate? - Is there 'good design' and 'bad design'? On the one hand, is there design with ethical intentions, and on the other, design which could be defined as 'evil'? And if so, by what standards do you separate the two? In order to create many of the machines on display at the memorial, somebody had to have started with the thought 'We need something that is capable of killing', and then sat down and designed a machine to do just that. If a designer is driven by their intentions and motivations, then are those intentions what define them as a designer? Not the products of their work, but the intentions that led them to that end. And if that is the case, those very intentions are what decide whether you are a 'good' or 'bad' designer.
More than anything, looking at these machines made me feel sad. The whole place seemed to me to be very sombre, very mournful. But the funny thing was that most of the other tourists walking around were having a great time - laughing, posing on the tanks and taking pictures, standing behind the guns and making firing noises, pretending to shoot them. Were they happy because this was all history, and the war is over? Unfortunately the reality is that Korea is still technically at war, and there have been incidents of military action leading to the deaths of Korean servicemen as recently as 2010. All Korean men are still required by law to serve a minimum of 21 months in the military. And even if war isn't really something that affects daily life here, there are other places in the world where it does. Tanks, warplanes, guns - these are not redundant old artifacts in a museum, they are still being designed, still being made, and are still a main area of technological development. Some of the more modern exhibits in the museum are displayed alongside the logos of the companies who made them - Samsung, LIG, Foosung - on proud little plaques in the display cases. These companies are pouring massive amounts of money into the creation of weapons. The language used to talk about it - words like 'defense', 'protection', and worse - 'pride' and 'glory' - hide the fact that there are huge teams of people out there whose job is really just to think up new ways to kill other people.
When I finally made my way into the main building, I passed a little boy brandishing a plastic sword which he probably got from the gift shop. Why do children play with toy swords, guns, tanks, and plastic soldiers? Why do they love playing shooting games? To reduce something that is so heavy with the purpose of killing to a plastic child's toy is bizarre to me. Is war something we are supposed to enjoy? Is a soldier someone to aspire to? Do we want to perpetuate a culture of violence and conflict by letting our kids play at killing each other? Or is the instinct to fight and kill just an ingrained part of human nature that we can never separate from?
Whatever it is, the waging of war is something which is a large and undeniable part of human history, and it is something which is continuously evolving with the development of technology. And as long as there are people who continue to design things for military use, that's how it will continue.
Attached to the main building was a big memorial hall with a number of large stones engraved with the names of Korean and UN military personnel who were killed in service during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. A total of nearly 400,000 names are inscribed there. At the end of the hall were a few blank, unengraved stones. Space for more?