Voices From the BattlefieldBook Uses the Korean War as 'a Prism' to Look and Be Seen
Philip West found humanity in the politics of war. "War is like a prism that refracts how people really view each other, and also how they look at themselves," Mr. West says. "Stories of war are stories of national myth."
The historian of America-East Asian relations was in Korea last week to celebrate the publication of "Remembering the 'Forgotten War': The Korean War Through Literature and Art," a book he co-edited with Suh Ji-moon.
War and its offspring, national myths, are commonly found in all nations. Combat soldiers, physicians, photojournalists, oppressors, victims, all have a story to tell. And, bluntly put, history textbooks define history by war.
Looking at war through the lenses of literature, art, film, cartoon and music creates a "profound" understanding of the nature of international relations, according to Mr. West. A professor at the University of Montana, he tries to bring war to a human level, especially in his classroom.
In "Remembering the 'Forgotten War,'" published by M.E. Sharpe, the editors have gathered the war experiences of Korean and American artists, writers, photographers and film makers. The 11 chapters are written by nine people, including two Koreans and one Chinese. The topics range from "The Korean War Through the Camera of an American War Correspondent" a chapter by Max Desfor, an Associated Press photojournalist, to "Reluctant Crusaders: Korean War Films and the Lost Audience" a chapter by Lary May. In the last chapter, Mr. West asks a panel to "imagine a different Korea" by posing questions historians are not supposed to ask that begin with, "What if...?" Lee Chaei-jin, Donald Oberdorfer, Koh Byong-chu and William Stueck are on the panel.
With the 50th anniversary of the Korean War upon us, many war memorials have been published in the past year. Amazon.com matched 17 English-language books to "Korean War," all published in 2000. According to Kyobo Bookstore, 14 Korean books were published on the war in 2000.
Korea is the event of the decade, both in terms of public interest and academic scrutiny. The debate about the cause of the Korean War has heightened, perhaps because the last Cold War border in the world separates us in the south from our neighbor to the north. The gallery of Nobel Peace Prize winners' portraits at Kyobo Bookstore once had an empty spot waiting for a Korean and now is filled with a drawing of President Kim Dae-jung. However politically motivated, discourse about healing between the two Koreas has gone from, well, discourse, to action.
In the noise about the Korean War, "Remembering the 'Forgotten War'" offers a fresh perspective. The book brushes conventional military strategy and diplomatic history aside and uses the voice of art and literature to evoke a dance between Korean memories and American memories.
In one chapter, Ms. Suh, an English literature professor at Korea University, quotes a Korean poet, Park Yang-kyun:
"At whose request have you bloomed on this wasteland where men slaughtered men, you nameless flower which confronts the sky with your fragile sweetness? How can you, a delicate plant standing on a sunny road under the blue heavens, try to efface, with your ineffable smile upon your frail stalk, the deafening din of cannon roars and bomb explosions and yells and bloodbaths that shook the earth to its axis?"
The next chapter, by William D. Ehrhart, draws on the work of American soldier-poets. In a poem that also alludes to flowers, William Childress, a demolitions expert, writes:
"Mother, they line the roads/ like broken stalks,/ children with bellies swollen, and O, the flowers/of their faces, petals all torn. Mother, we give/ them everything in our packs/ and still they moan/ so sadly. More with eyes/ like stone./ These kids will never sing/ again. O, Mother, wish me home!/ With just one field of Kansas grain,/ what I can do for them."
At 62, with five languages under his belt, Mr. West is full of anecdotes dealing with topics other than war. Easing his long frame into a library chair, he punctuates our engaging conversation with his professorial gestures. His first story is one touched off by "Remembering the 'Forgotten War.'"
Yu Chun-do was a medical student when the war broke out. She took on the role of a doctor, caring for South Korean soldiers, then North Korean soldiers when the Communists took over Seoul. When the South Korean Army retook Seoul, she packed her belongings and tried to follow her patients north. Captured by a South Korean soldier, then rescued from summary execution by an American soldier, she was jailed. In a prison for Communists, she was tortured and witnessed other horrors. Finally released to South Korea, she became a doctor, married and had three children. Until lately, she has kept quiet about the memories that still wake her at night.
After the recent death of her husband, and almost 50 years after the war, she broke her silence with "Unforgettable People," a book of poems published in 1999 about her memories of the war. "Remembering the 'Forgotten War'" introduces Ms. Yu's poetry to the English-speaking public.
Last week, the poet, now 73, met many of the poets, artists, photojournalists and military servicemen who form the nucleus of writers who contributed to "Remembering the 'Forgotten War.'" The U.S. Embassy held a reception, as did General Paik Sun-yup and Kukje Gallery on different nights. The retired general is a veteran of the Korean War. Kukje Gallery holds the rights to Lim Ok-sang's painting "The Kim Family After the Korean War," used on the cover of "Remembering the 'Forgotten War.'"
Another story Mr. West recalls is the moment of clarity that planted the seed of the book. He was teaching a class on the Korean War at the University of Montana, where he also serves as director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. Dissatisfied with his course material and conscious of his inability to convey the human dimension of a war distant to his students' lives, he discovered Yun Heung-gi's "The Rainy Spell," translated by Ms. Suh. The emotions in the short story, a young boy's narration about the impact of war on his family, brought history to life. He remembers thinking, "This is it! This is history. This is what I want my students to know of the Korean War."
That was 15 years ago. Mr. West never thought he would meet Ms. Suh, his co-editor. Through one of the Mansfield Center's projects, "America's Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach," he met not only her but 25 other people associated with the Korean War. The Mansfield Center, named after a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has been dedicated to Asian studies since its creation in 1984.
Ten Americans, 10 Koreans and five other Asians met in Montana in 1999 for the "Korea-America Dialogue on the Korea War." The conference was the second in an annual series that began with the war in Vietnam. "Remembering the 'Forgotten War'" came out of the Korea-America conference.
A China-America dialogue is slated for the summer of 2001. The formula of participants is the same: 10 Chinese writers, historians and artists will meet their American counterparts and five other Asians. What the Mansfield Center calls the Asian Cold War has affected countries neighboring China, Mr. West explained. It's his hope that in a year or two, North Korean voices will participate in the dialogues.
On a professional level, opposition to his work at the Mansfield Center comes from traditional academics, skeptical of Mr. West's nontraditional approach to history.
"I'm very traditional," he insisted. "My library is stuffed with books," he adds, evoking an expansive library with wide arm movements. "But history is not a science. We don't have a methodology."
Another conflict Mr. West faces is from those who question, "Why are you working with the military? Why are you telling stories of combat and war?"
His reply is to give soldiers a face: "Our relatives, our grandfathers, our fathers, and now, increasingly, our mothers, are soldiers. They're human. They have a notion of patriotism and of sacrifice that is stirring. The only problem is, all sides of war have that story."
by Joe Yong-hee