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Memories of a South Korean Vietnam War Veteran : WHITE BADGE A Novel of Korea by Ahn Junghyo; translated from the original Korean by the author (Soho Press: $19.95; 347 pp.; 0-939149-16-8)

September 10, 1989|Karl Schoenberger | Schoenberger is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Tokyo who covers South Korea. and

The word gook is an old sore in the American language many of us would like to forget, along with the racist overtones of an ignoble war we fought against small rice-eating men and lost.

But the fact that the term had its origins in Korea, and not Vietnam, might come as a surprise to all but the most inveterate war buffs. This potent--if perhaps debatable--fragment of trivia comes in an extraordinary novel by a Korean author who earned his white badge of terror in wars that convulsed both Asian nations.

Ahn Junghyo offers an etymology as he recalls the deprivations of his boyhood during the fratricidal Korean War, when American GIs called the local populace "gooks" in a distortion of the name South Koreans gave their country: Hanguk . Ahn also provides samples, in dialogue, of how his Korean comrades-in-arms adopted the more recent usage as they went about killing "gooks" in the jungles of Vietnam.

"White Badge: A Novel of Korea" is about cultural crisis, war guilt and self-loathing.

Ahn, as his hero, Sgt. Han Kiju, is a veteran of the 9th Infantry "White Horse" Division, part of an expeditionary force of nearly 50,000 South Korean troops who fought for the American cause--and American dollars--in Vietnam.

In history, these obscure mercenaries contributed to the war effort by helping perpetrate the myth that U.S. intervention was based on an allied response to Saigon's plea for support. The Koreans earned their pay with heavy casualties, which were hidden from the public by a military dictatorship in Seoul, much as their mercenary status was kept secret from the U.S. Congress by the war's American architects.

In fiction, these men come alive as real, breathing people. Ahn conveys how the Daihan soldiers of Vietnam experienced the war uniquely as Asians, yet felt the same nightmare of fear and meaningless sacrifice that tormented their "Yankee" counterparts.

As Sgt. Han's platoon is being decimated by an unseen Viet Cong enemy during a long-range reconnaissance mission, one of his fellow grunts demands to know why the government is keeping people back home ignorant of their hardships.

"They don't know that this war is tearing us into a thousand pieces, destroying our youth, heart, soul and everything else we have," the soldier complains. "They have buried us alive in this jungle and completely forgotten us."

Sgt. Han, a brooding intellectual, suffers a textbook case of Vietnam syndrome on his return to civilian life. The burdens of guilt and alienation make his marriage barren and sabotage his career with a publishing house, where he is in charge of an encyclopedia of trivia.

Throughout flashbacks to combat and tedium and a dry narrative on his post-Vietnam skid into desperation, the story hangs on the hero's efforts to come to terms with his two doppelgangers: a wily Vietnamese urchin, the image of his young self during the Korean War, and a fellow soldier who slips into insanity, consumed by his cowardice.

Ahn, who rendered his own translation into the English, may not be a Joseph Conrad or a Jerzy Kosinski, but his vivid prose is distinguished. A reader hears the burping of automatic weapons, sees the scarred, defoliated landscape and believes the banter between the enlisted men. Perhaps the author can be forgiven for flogging the adjective "white" in his descriptions of everything from sand to bones and bandages--it is the color of mourning in Asia, as well as of his regimental horse.

The novel was a best seller when it was published in Ahn's native tongue in 1983, most certainly because it flirts with some political taboos that remained deeply ingrained in South Korean society. Censorship still prevailed at the time, four years before the country embarked on a tenuous path toward democracy, and the military's mercenary role in Vietnam had been given little honest scrutiny.

Ahn had deleted from the Korean-language version, however, the phrase "national mercenaries" in a passage in which Sgt. Han muses over what motivated former President Park Chung Hee to deploy troops in Vietnam, where the Americans boosted a Korean private's pay about 23-fold--to $37.50 a month.

"The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the modernization and development of the country," the translation version goes. "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."

Such prudence may appear timid, or even cowardly, like the simpering character of Pvt. Pyon Chinsu, but it should be noted that South Korea was ruled from 1980 to 1987 by a dictator named Chun Doo Hwan, a former general whose soldiering career was made in Vietnam. Chun's successor as president, former Gen. Roh Tae Woo, also served in the Vietnam expeditionary force.

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