Forgotten Warriors The Girl in the Picture (Kim Phuc) Back to Reviews

Forgotten Warriors

Ordinary Lives: Platoon 1005 and the Vietnam War
by W.D. Ehrhart

Retrieving Bones: Stories and Poems of the Korean War; edited by W.D. Ehrhart and Philip K. Jason; Rutgers University PressOrdinary Lives: Platoon 1005 and the Vietnam War; by W.D. Ehrhart; Temple University Press
reviewed by Gerald Nicosia

W.D. Ehrhart may be the best-kept literary secret of the Vietnam War. He began his career as a contributor and editor of the First Casualty Press, the publishing arm of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, back in 1973. Since then, he published 12 books of prose and poetry under his own name and 4 others that he assembled as editor or co-editor. His 17th, New and Selected Poems, is due out later this summer. Almost all these books have to do with war, especially the Vietnam War--no surprise, as he himself is a Purple Heart Marine combat veteran who participated in the siege of Con Thien and the Tet Offensive battle for Hue.

Most of them, sadly, have come out from presses that nobody ever heard of. In a book that has long been overdue, Ehrhart joins U.S. Naval Academy Professor (and also distinguished poet) Philip K. Jason to present us with Retrieving Bones: Stories and Poems of the Korean War. So inundated have we been by the endless stream of articulate voices about Vietnam that many people know next to nothing about the Korean War and have no idea that there even was a Korean War literature. This powerful collection, and the exceptionally detailed and intelligent introduction by the editors, should go a long way toward correcting that.

The Korean War lasted over three years (twice as long as America’s engagement in World War I and only seven months less than World War II). Over three million soldiers and civilians were killed, including 54,000 American troops, just a tad less than in Vietnam; and it left our military reeling from repeated, main-force assaults by the Red Chinese army--bringing us, some thought, to the brink of nuclear war.

How did such a major war get forgotten? For one thing, it wasn’t called a war; it was called, in the beginning of the semantic games that would reach their zenith in Vietnam, a “police action.” Like Vietnam, the war was undeclared by Congress; and like many of our more recent stabs at policing the world, it was supposedly fought as a joint venture, under the United Nations flag, though the U.S. provided by far the largest share of troops. Most chillingly, in all senses, it was the first foreign war America did not win. Even worse, it was the first time Americans had unleashed their full firepower against Communist foes, and still the Communists came within inches of driving us into the sea--a scenario that did not play well in the McCarthyite ‘50’s. When a truce was finally signed, the battle lines stood almost exactly where they did when the fighting had commenced.

In Korean War fiction, we find the cheery, gutsy tone of World War II writing--typified by the Saturday Evening Post happy ending, American morality triumphant, smiling orphans grateful to have been saved from the unspeakable horrors of evil governments--rapidly giving way to the far more cynical, bitter, and angry tone that emerged as the keynote of Vietnam. Many of the writers are themselves transitional figures. Eugene Burdick, for example, who wrote what some still consider the finest Vietnam novel (though it deals only with the gestation of the war in the ‘50’s), The Ugly American, was himself a World War II vet and cut his teeth writing Korean War stories. Burdick is represented here by a story called “Cold Day, Cold Fear,” amazingly modern in its studiedly unemotional narrative of an American and a South Korean soldier contriving to elude almost certain death after being trapped behind enemy lines.

Indeed many of the pieces in this collection were not written until the Vietnam era was well underway; and, as the editors explain, “the Vietnam War seems to have been a catalyst for many [of these writers] ... releasing pent-up feelings that had perhaps been held in check by the personal and cultural stoicism bequeathed to them by their generational older brothers and by the restraints forced on public utterance by the atmosphere created in the 1950’s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.” [galleys: p. xxxiv] Indeed one Korean vet, Keith Wilson, declares: “I started writing [about the Korean War] ... in the winter of 1966 in anger that our government was again fighting an undeclared war in a situation that I, from my experiences in Korea, knew we could never win ... It took the pressure of rage and fear for the young men [of the Vietnam generation] that made me write it and it poured out, page after page.” [galleys: pp. xxxvii-xxxviii]

The tone and humor of Korean-era vet James Drought (best known for The Gypsy Moths) are so utterly black that, were it not for a few references to the Yalu River and other points of Korean terrain, one would almost certainly place his piece “The Secret” among Vietnam War fiction. “You couldn’t win, you could only survive,” he writes, sounding a lot like Tim O’Brien’s Cacciato. “You couldn’t be defeated, you could only die. You couldn’t quit playing, you could only be captured. You were in a helluva mess that meant nothing and you couldn’t get out, you had to play.”

The parallels between Korea and Vietnam were in fact so deep that when Richard Hooker published his Korean War novel M*A*S*H in 1968, it was immediately taken to be a thinly-disguised parable of Vietnam. The confusion is augmented by the fact that these stories are replete, as was the Korean War, with napalm strikes and medevacs (medicual evacuation by helicopter)--normally considered distinctive features of Vietnam.

But while most of the stories (other than Drought’s) grope tentatively toward the nihilism of Vietnam, the poems in this collection almost all come at you like a flow of molten lava out of the heart’s darkest fury; and in that, they are pure Vietnam. For my money, the work of two of the poets, William Childress and William Wantling, is alone worth the price of admission. Childress’s “The Long March,” arguably the best war poem ever written, renders the link both explicit and ineluctable:

When we bivouacked
near Pyongtaek, a soldier
fished a bent brown stick
from a puddle. It was
the arm of someone’s child.
Not far away, the General
camps with his press corps.
Any victory will be his.
For us, there is only
the long march to Viet Nam

Wantling, gravely wounded both physically and psychologically in Korea, a vast boozer and drug abuser till he died at 40 in 1974, gave promise of being one of the greatest poets of his generation. In “Sure,” Wantling tells, perhaps better than any poet ever has, how the experience of war has changed him forever:

can you be a
after you’ve killed
too many
& if one is too many
where do I stand
with my scor

Clearly the impetus of Ehrhart’s Ordinary Lives, in which he sets out to find and learn what happened to the 79 other members of his original Marine recruit platoon, derives from much the same anguish Wantling feels. Larry Heinemann has written eloquently of the “something crucial and precious” that war takes out of a person; and in the incredible determination Ehrhart demonstrates in years of tracking down his boot-camp mates, one feels his passionate, not to say desperate desire to recover “the bond ... between United States Marines”--all the more remarkable considering his strong anti-war views. In several places, he tips his hand, however, so that we come to understand that part of what a soldier loses is his connection to home, friends, and family; and the need to recreate or restore some form of family, even (in Ehrhart’s case) military “family,” can occupy most of the rest of a soldier’s life.

Ordinary Lives is addressed to America, and it answers questions not often enough asked, the most important being: who are the soldiers who fight your wars? In the interest, as Ehrhart says, of “restoring each man’s individual self, to give him a permanent place in my memory and on the printed page,” he resisted the temptation to pull out just the tragic or bizarre stories, or to focus on the 79 lives thematically, which might have created a best-seller. Instead, he sticks to a straight alphabetical presentation, which makes the book less than exciting, and even dull in places, but gives us a fuller glimpse into the military, and why people choose to spend a substantial part of their lives inside it, than anyone yet has.

By and large, these men did not become disenchanted with the armed forces; in fact, a surprisingly large number went on by choice to become reservists for many years after their initial discharge. One sees in them a tremendous urge to serve--to go the extra mile with their family or community: raising foster kids, coaching little-league baseball, doing volunteer work with the sick, and so forth. Whether in the Marines or later in life, they see themselves as men “doing their job”; and their non-military jobs are, tellingly, almost all working-class: bartender, coal miner, lumber salesman, dairy farmer, policeman, firefighter, freight handler. Almost all, too, are marked by a permanent sense of death and loss, which even the passage of 30 years has not erased. Virtually every one retains a quiet pride in having served as a United States Marine.

How do they reconcile those contradictions--specifically, the pain caused by a botched war, and yet their willingness to do it all over again? George Osada, owner of the flag-filled George’s American Cafe, explains succinctly: “I make a distinction between my country and the government. This is the only place I’d want to live.”

Black combat veteran Alvin Jordan goes even further: “I think it helped me a lot. The Corps taught me real life ... how to be with different races and different kinds of people. It taught me discipline and how to take care of myself.”

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