We still hear of wars and rumors of wars, but the war against terrorism is making POW status increasingly complex. Islamic fundamentalists behead their captives on website ads, and the United States sweeps "illegal combatants" into an extralegal black hole from which no light - except for a few photos - can escape.
The diplomats meeting in Geneva in 1929 hoped to enshrine protections for prisoners of war, but despite their careful enumerations, the agreement they cobbled together couldn't anticipate the mutations of conflict or the ingenuity of political leaders. Even while another round of diplomats revised the Geneva Conventions amid the ashes of World War II, a new battle was burning on the Korean peninsula, throwing thousands of captured soldiers back into the old, vulnerable limbo.
Several fine journalists, notably Seymour Hersh, are pursuing the legal status of today's POWs, but Ha Jin began his haunting new novel, "War Trash," in 2000 when the issue carried none of its current charge. Told in the quiet voice of a Chinese officer imprisoned by the Americans in Korea, his story is a reminder that for many people snagged on the barbs of history, the fiery rhetoric of battle is merely an abstraction. All they really want, hanging precariously between the victors and the slain, is to get back to their families, to get on with their lives.
In a very brief introduction, the 73-year-old narrator, Yu Yuan, tells us that he's finally going to describe his years as a POW on the islands off the shores of Korea. "I'm going to do it in English," he writes, "in a documentary manner so as to preserve historical accuracy."
This is something of a stylistic sacrifice for an author who won the National Book Award in 1999 for "Waiting." Indeed, there's a muted quality to this narrative that would grow dull from a less talented writer, but here he holds our attention like a whisper. The slightly stilted, temperate tone runs all the way to the last word, and the cumulative effect is deeply moving.
Yuan portrays himself as a thoughtful young man in a culture of deadly, simplistic ideology. When he's a cadet in Chiang Kai-shek's military academy, he welcomes the revolution as a practical matter. "I felt grateful to the Communists, who seemed finally to have brought peace to our war-battered land," he says. "Then the situation changed."
The conflict in Korea seems so far away and he's part of such a poorly equipped division that the call to arms against the Americans surprises him. But, he writes, "I was obligated to go to the front and defend our country." To avoid direct confrontation with the United States, China cynically classifies these fighters as "volunteers." Yuan and his comrades are pumped full of terrifying propaganda about an American germ-warfare program and sent off to battle. Starving and hampered by their officers' deliberative style, they suffer shocking casualties in the mountains of North Korea, and so begins a tragic story of brief, hopeless military engagement followed by long, precarious imprisonment.
Yuan survives this ordeal largely because of his ability to speak English, which he learned as a teenager from an American missionary. Both his captors and his fellow prisoners find him a useful translator, and this role as a quasiofficial mediator perfectly matches his temperament. Though he's naive and idealistic, Yuan has none of the revolutionary zeal of his comrades. How much simpler, he thinks, to be a "genuine Communist, crazed and fanatic." He regards even those he loves or loathes from a strangely disinterested point of view.
But such independence can be a deadly quality in these polarized prison camps. Saddled with thousands of detainees, the Americans cannot quickly discriminate between those with Communist sympathies and those with Nationalist sympathies. Many of the prisoners are terrified of being repatriated to mainland China, where they signed statements promising to die in defense of their country. And many others know they could be tried as Communists in Taiwan.
While diplomats in Panmunjom dither over the prisoners' status, the camps devolve into war zones of coercion, retribution, and punishment between Nationalist and Communist prisoners. Through it all, Yuan struggles merely to survive so that he can return to care for his mother and marry his fiancée.
He takes us through two years of imprisonment, through moments of common decency and bloody skirmishes against the guards or between opposing groups of prisoners. For the most part, the American GIs are honorable and fair, but there are episodes of brutality when the fabric of law is rent by boredom or cruelty. Far more dangerous, though, are the partisan thugs inside the barbwire who are quick to punish suspected traitors or sacrifice their followers for petty gains.
Despite Yuan's claim to "a documentary manner," this is largely a story of quiet disillusionment, of learning to see that Mao regards him and his friends and millions of others as dispensable.
"The Communists treat every person just as a number," he realizes. "This is the crime of war: it reduces real human beings to abstract numbers."
Born in 1956, Jin missed the Korean War, but he lied about his age when he was 14 to join the People's Liberation Army in China, and this novel is steeped in the details of history as much as in the flavor of personal experience. In fact, the voice of "War Trash" is a rebuttal of its title. It's a timely story about discarded survivors whose lives are more complex and more pitiable than the ideology on either side would have us believe.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.