‘White Badge’ of Courage : Writing About Combat in Vietnam, Ahn Junghyo Finds Insights Into Changes in His Native S. Korea
In another country, South Korean novelist Ahn Junghyo could have been a peaceful sort of couch potato, watching vintage American films on television, spending undisturbed days casting a fishing line into a quiet lake.
But, as the writer laments, South Korea is small--a fourth the size of California--and is easily suffused with politics. Following a series of repressive regimes, President Roh Tae Woo has instituted democratic reform, but liberalization is precarious. Roh has ties to former strong man Chun Doo Hwan and obligations to military friends remain; anti-American sentiment runs high among dissidents, as does anti-establishmentarianism.
And so the author of “White Badge,” who intended his sixth book as a heavily autobiographical account of his experience as a soldier fighting in Vietnam, has found himself and his book drawn into the prevailing political currents.
Politics for Survival
“In Korea you’ve got to know about politics. Your survival depends on it,” says Ahn, 47, here to promote his book, published last month by SoHo Press.
A noted translator, Ahn has translated 130 books into Korean, ranging from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” to John Irving’s “The World According to Garp,” and rewrote “White Badge” in English himself.
With it, he provides a significant contribution to a tiny pool of Korean literature to appear commercially in this country.
In Korea, “White Badge,” which refers both to the White Horse Division of the Republic of Korea in which Ahn served and to the Asian color for mourning, was hailed as the first major book about Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, and, as such, has been something of a weather vane for the changing political climate.
When segments of “White Badge” appeared in 1983 in the radical Korean journal “Literature in Action,” it was considered politically dangerous.
Opposition to Korea’s Vietnam involvement was suppressed under President Park Chung Hee and continued under Chun. Although about 300,000 Korean soldiers fought as American allies, with more than 4,000 killed and 8,000 wounded, it was a largely unknown war, unremembered by memorials or literature.
“Writers weren’t free to write about the Vietnam War,” Ahn says. “And in my book, Koreans are losing battles. You couldn’t imagine Koreans losing.”
When the manuscript version of “White Badge” won a literary competition sponsored by Hakwon, a large-circulation magazine, the publisher renounced the contest. “He said, ‘If this is published I’ll get arrested, so forget it,’ ” Ahn says. It was three more years before the story came out in book form.
Ironically, in the newly liberalized environment, reaction to the book has been the contrary. Dissidents and literary critics, says Ahn, feel he should have said more.
“They wanted me to have politically slanted views and write more about the mercenary issue. But I didn’t have those opinions. That wasn’t my idea in writing the book. I wanted to tell the human stories of fighting the war.”
‘Lives for Sale’
In a single politically loaded passage, added for the American version, Ahn expresses a commonly held view of Korea’s military participation.
“The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the 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.”
“Many Koreans still feel that way,” Ahn says. “We fought in Vietnam because the Americans asked us. So we were fighting for the Americans and against Asians who look like us. And we were paid by the American government.”
In Ahn’s novel, the narrator, a book editor in Seoul, Han Kiju, joins the army full of soldierly fervor, only to return home from the killing as predictably disillusioned as his American counterparts. But Han’s disorientation is all the more unsettling, for part of his own childhood has been spent as a refugee in the Korean War.
Thus, in Vietnam, Han is depicted not only in combat, but also befriending “the beautiful beggar children,” a gentle widow, an elderly rural politician hopelessly trying to save his village from a fatal evacuation. And Han, like Ahn, recalls how he and his family previously survived by rummaging for scraps in American military garbage pails to prepare their meals of “piggie” soup.
The most poignant scene drawn from Ahn’s childhood describes the family’s mid-winter retreat south from Seoul amid the flow of refugees fleeing advancing Chinese troops.
Unable to carry his 4-year-old sister, his mother was obliged to abandon her in a snowy field. She spread discarded layers of bedding on the snow, “set Kija upright on them like an image of Buddha . . . wrapped her tiny hands with woolen mufflers and put a rice ball on her right palm . . .” and, weeping, plodded on, Ahn writes.
The story, like much of the author’s life, has a happy finish; Ahn’s sister was retrieved by her mother and now lives in Texas with her American husband and son. It was at her house that Ahn translated “White Badge” into English. And here too luck held.
Ahn had been writing the book off and on for 13 years. He also had sent three other novels to American publishers and had collected a discouraging sheaf of rejection slips. “I realized there was no hope for me to get published and maybe I had no talent for writing, I thought,” he says. When he packed up and went to Texas to translate his book he promised himself, “If I fail, I’ll give up.”
Sudden Change in Fortune
This time around, Ahn recognized that obtaining a literary agent was essential to getting his manuscript published. Using the list of author’s agents in “Writer’s Market,” he found the name of David Meth, with the mention that he was interested in Asian affairs. Ahn sent him two book chapters and the sort of lengthy life-recounting letter that agents often are wont to file in the wastepaper basket. But Meth responded, and from then on, says Ahn, “Everything worked out so easily. I couldn’t believe it.”
But long before then, Ahn’s American associations had developed, and, like his feelings for Korea, become emotionally complex. The son of a carpenter, he grew up in war-scarred Seoul, his childhood imagination nourished by the symbols of Hollywood glamour.
“Many Korean children lived with the inspirations that came from American movies,” he says. “For us it was a dreamland. Cowboys were like old legendary generals on horseback going out to beat the bad guys. The movies were so fancy, and our reality in Korea was so miserable.”
Later, Ahn attended the American Sogang Jesuit University in Seoul, and after graduation many of his classmates, as well as much of his family, moved to the United States. Besides his sister in Texas, Ahn has a sister in Detroit and a brother who lives in Hawaii.
His mental index of American cultural memorabilia, which informs “White Badge,” has been accumulated during hours of watching American movies and news shows on Seoul’s television station operated by the U.S. military.
“I understand American life quite well,” Ahn says proudly, though this is only his third visit to the United States.
At Home in Texas
Sitting in a coffee shop in Koreatown, he wears a white safari jacket and a buttoned-down striped sports shirt, and speaks a casual American English. In both looks and gestures he seems remarkably more Westernized than many of the enclave of his compatriots.
“For them, they say, it’s a town in Korea,” he says of the neighborhood seen from the window. “I think it’s the Oriental character to stay together in a very big family. Stay in one place and grow old. In some villages in Korea, the whole village is of the same family name.”
If there are frustrations with slow-moving traditions, however, the Korean view of Americans is also multifaceted.
During the three years of the Korean War, says Ahn, “America was like a savior. We had so little at the time while America had so much. We used to say, ‘Everything American is good.’ ”
But with greater affluency and growing trade rivalry, the image of the United States has changed.
“When you are a young child, your big brother is everything,” says Ahn. “But when you grow up and your big brother tries to bash you, you resist.”
The catalyst for anti-American sentiment was, Ahn believes, a media event, following the Kwangju massacre. Under the government of Chun Doo Hwan, hundreds of citizens were killed and injured during the 1980 uprising, protesting the institution of martial law and the arrest of the country’s leading dissident leader, Kim Dae Jung. “For Koreans that incident was everything at the time,” says Ahn.
When five years later Chun visited Washington, Korean TV beamed pictures of him sharing cocktails with President Reagan. “I think Chun wanted to show the people he was approved by the American government,” Ahn says. “You can imagine the kind of impact that had. Many Koreans began to believe Americans supported Chun even in the Kwangju incident.”
The presence of 43,000 American troops in South Korea perpetuates the negative sentiment, he adds.
An avid fisherman, Ahn was minding his line on a lake bank one day when a rowboat with two U.S. soldiers and two Korean prostitutes approached. After Ahn waved them away from his fishing waters, the soldiers shouted profanities. “It was a very small thing,” he says. “But for Koreans, when we hear something like that from a stranger it is a very, very strong insult. It really angers us.
“Americans are carefree . . . they forget. But Koreans don’t. Orientals have slower reactions, but our reactions are long and steady.” Oddly, Ahn has never discussed Vietnam with American veterans, but here too there were differences as well as similarities in fighting the same war.
Lessons From Japanese
Responding to an American characterization of Koreans as ruthless warriors, Ahn explains that the kamikaze spirit was imbued in Korean military leaders during Japan’s 35 years of occupation. Also, during the Vietnam War, Korea was poor.
“Americans throw away helicopters and everything to save human lives. Koreans die for rifles,” he says. “We were so short of materials. That sort of difference makes different soldiers.”
There also were essentially different natures at play. During a mortar shelling at an American military base, Ahn recalls, Americans hit the floor, while his first reaction was to look out the window.
“I wanted to see what was going on,” he says with a chuckle. “But for Americans safety is first. They do everything by the rules.”
Ahn stresses, however, that he is a non-political creature, so neutral that he refuses to join even the Korean branch of the international literary organization PEN. A former supporter of Kim, he now finds the dissident selfish and uninterested in the good of the nation. His anti-American harangues are not the view of the people, he says. Even the yearning for Korean reunification, felt by both the old, who are parted from their families, and the young, who have never known the Communist regime, seems to have skipped Ahn’s generation, now comfortable with the material and political gains they have made.
Censorship has been eased; government officials no longer visit newspapers as they did in Chun’s years, dictating headlines and leads; even Communist books are now allowed publication.
Roh is popular, and, for Ahn, the past is largely for textbooks. Although Koreans claim cultural, if not economic, superiority over the Japanese, with the cultural circuit historically running from China to Korea to Japan, Ahn views the powerful island nation as no more than a rival Asian neighbor. The Japanese and Chinese organize more easily than the warily independent Koreans, which partially explains their higher visibility even in foreign communities, he thinks, but to his generation, they are no longer enemies.
At the same time, Ahn, like other Asians, has a more fatalistic attitude toward life’s possibilities, hammered out of a long national history. In 1919, 23,000 Koreans were killed and wounded by the Japanese in a pro-independence uprising that is still seen as a significant incident for Asians.
Viewing the crushing of the Chinese student demonstrations, Ahn notes, “Americans say, ‘It’s unbelievable, how can such a thing happen!’ But we know it can happen.”
Liberalization in Korea may continue or it may not. “I believe it’s going well, but you can never tell the future in politics,” Ahn says.
Meanwhile, he continues to write. Another book, “Silver Stallion,” written in college about a village’s reaction following the rape of a woman by an American soldier, will be published in the U.S. next January. And Ahn will soon start work on a novel about life since the Kwangju massacre, which, he says, “even now may be difficult to get published in Korea.”
Otherwise, he describes his life as a placid, contented routine. He lives with his mother in a house on the outskirts of Seoul, brags happily that his twin daughters have been accepted into the city’s top university, and, readers of “White Badge” take note, is getting back together with his wife after a 14-year separation.
“Orientals take everything so slowly,” he says in the now-recognizable plaint, and laughs, “It’s the Korean way.”