When Korean Lives Went on Sale
WHITE BADGE by Ahn Jung-hyo, Translated from the Korean by the author,
New York: Soho Press, 337 pp., $19.95
THIS book represents two firsts. It is the first treatment of the Vietnam war by one of the United States' allies, and it is the first Korean novel to be widely distributed in the US. It is essentially a novel about the war, but it explores and elucidates with an engaging offhand seriousness the effect that the United States has had on the people and the culture of South Korea, one of its most devoted friends.
``White Badge'' is the story of the Korean troops who were ``volunteered'' by their government to go and fight alongside the American forces in Vietnam. The logic behind this was even less defensible than the sending of American troops, and hardle any one in Korea believed otherwise.
The president of Korea, Ahn Jung-hyo's narrator says, ``sent us to Vietnam for whatever reasons he deemed right and profitable for his nation. International prestige perhaps, or as an expression of gratitude to the US for their helping us during the Korean war. Or national welfare. Whatever the reasons. The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled modernization and development of the country. And owing to our contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least a higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market. Lives for sale. National mercenaries.''
Which is as bitter a complaint against a government as I've ever seen come out of the war. Makes you want to throw your Gold Star microwave out the window.
But Ahn is right, even if most Americans today don't even remember that other countries fought in Vietnam, for pretty much the same reasons. Australians were volunteered after Lyndon Johnson twisted their prime minister's arm, and the Filipino regiments were donated by loyal American ally Ferdinand Marcos (a chit he called in just recently). The desire to win the war made any sacrifice seem worthwhile, even, in President Johnson's mind, the sacrifice of best friends. Anything to keep American casualties below a politically acceptable level.
But in this book, the Korean army brass doesn't come off much better than the politicians. The Korean troops were treated far worse than the Americans, far worse than even the South Vietnamese, and for little reason. They were sent on dangerous missions in some of the most heavily infested jungles, with less air cover and less artillery. Ahn's characters suffer through all these, and he describes the operations with a perspicuous narrative style that shows he hasn't forgotten a second of his own experience.
Ahn was a private in the Korean army and served with the White Horse Division (from which the book's title is derived). My recollection of the Korean troops in Vietnam was that they had a fearsome reputation. They did not, it was generally believed, concern themselves with the niceties of the Geneva Convention, so far as prisoner treatment was concerned. But Ahn's version is of a much more humane and troubled soldier. The average Korean troop is portrayed as having great sympathy for and understanding of the Vietnamese people.
``White Badge'' is not, however, just a war novel. After the war experiences, Ahn continues to bring his main character up to modern-day Korea. Here he finds the same monomaniacal preoccupation with industrial modernization and the same rage for market share. The Korean national leadership has sacrificed a good deal more than they have gotten, and more than they could afford, to get where they are as an industrial nation. Their readiness to spend young soldiers' lives in Vietnam to gain favor in Washington was a hideous spectacle. But, if I am reading Ahn's version correctly, even if the means have changed, the spirit is the same.
Ahn himself is emerging as a major Korean writer. A second book is slated to be released in the American market next year (also by Soho Press). His style is lucid and without pretense, and since he does his own translation, it is thoroughly genuine. The book has the quality of being fearless. Any serious attempt to understand the Pacific Rim nations, their historic tensions, and the strange familial quality of being Asian, must include his writings.