Book Review


Retrieving Bones : Stories and Poems of the Korean War. Edited by W. D. Ehrhart and Philip K. Jason. New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999.


There has been surprisingly little interest on the part of Koreans on how the American and other U.N. soldiers who fought in the Korean War felt about Korea and their experience of the Korean War. This may well be because Koreans had so much to sort out for themselves about the cause of the Korean War, the trauma of massive fratricide that the war was, and the physical and psychological aftermaths of the war to be concerned about what the experience meant to others who just came to do battle. After all, it was only in the late sixties that the Korean War began to be dealt with in literature in the larger context of national and world history, and not until the 80s that the ideological conflict that led to and was played out in the war could be openly debated.

In America, too, the experience of the men who fought in the Korean War seems to have gone largely overlooked. Following rather close upon WWII, the Korean War lacked the grandeur of a global warfare, and anti-Communism acquired a bad political stink even before the war ended. After the initial thrill of MacArthur's Inchon Landing and the series of resounding victories that culminated in the capture of Pyongyang, the repeated defeats and retreats and then the stalemated armistice talks were unflattering to the American ego, while the war failed to inspire the massive national guilt and soul-searching that the Vietnam War did.

So, in spite of a sizeable number of novels, short stories and poems, the literature of the Korean War has for the most part gone neglected in the U.S. Retrieving Bones, a collection of stories and poems of the Korean War which came out in the summer of 1999, exactly one year prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, is a belated but also timely effort to rectify the undeserved neglect. Of the two editors, W. D. Ehrhart, a noted poet and writer of Vietnam War memoirs, has already put together I Remember: Soldier-Poets of the Korean War, a collection of Korean War poems by American veterans of the Korean War, which was published as a special issue of the journal of the U. S. Air Force Academy. Philip K. Jason is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of several books on the Vietnam War. The stories and poems in this collection cover a wide range of attitudes and sentiments towards Koreans and the Korean War. Therefore, the volume will stand as a truly representative anthology of literature on the Korean War. The book also has an excellent introduction to the historical background of the Korean War, as well as detailed biographical notes on the authors and annotated lists of works for further study.

The collection begins with "Rice," a story by Henry Steiner set in 1947, which serves as an excellent introduction to how the Koreans' relationship with the U. S. armed forces began. In this story, the U.S. Military government requisitions rice from Korean farmers at one sixth the black market price, which provoke vehement resistance in Korean farmers. The U.S. government does it not to exploit the farmers but to feed the hungry population in the cities, but the compulsory purchase is perceived by Korean farmers as worse exploitation than the Japanese colonizers'. In this story, Han, the Korean farmer, resists the American authorities with his scythe, and his resistance is quickly countered with a bullet. Captain Frazer, who went out to execute orders, feels deeply frustrated by the dumb obstinacy of Korean farmers. The author might or might not have known that "han" in Korean is the word for the bitterness that comes from being perennially wronged and abused; in any case the farmer in this story is an apt emblem of the Korean who is dealt a harsh blow at every turn in the national history.

In other stories, Koreans are perceived by Americans as resourceful, loyal, pitiful, or simply disgusting. In some of the stories, friendship, mutual trust and dependence develop between Americans and Koreans from an uncertain beginning; in others there is no close contact and the Americans are revolted by Koreans and mad about having to put their lives on line in their defence. Naturally, the latter stories view the war as an unmitigated evil, while the former stories find some redeeming grace out of the hellish experience of war.

In the second story, "A Long Way from Hone" by Vern Sneider, a few Korean lads who become recruits of the U. S army, lured by the promise of three meals and a full pack of cigarettes a day, are given Irish names such as Patrick Tobin and Bernard Shaw because the American soldiers cannot remember and pronounce Korean names (and because Americans think the Koreans are the Irish of the East), and are each paired with one American soldier as his "buddy." The Korean lads find Americans a strange bunch, who throw away the food they don't want rather than giving it to their starved Korean comrades and who try to "hit the sack" all day long but have no thought of sleeping as soon as duty hours are over. But, communicating by means of a few words of English and Japanese, the Americans and Koreans develop human fellowship. The gimmick the American soldiers use to deflect the suspicion of their sentries on their way back from their clandestine expedition to the P.X. teaches the young Korean soldier a trick to fool North Korean guards when they are almost caught by north Koreans in a nocturnal reconnoitering expedition.

By pretending to be a North Korean returning to post with captured American soldiers, Kim Won-il is able to escape capture by North Koreans and bring back the body of his fatally wounded American buddy.

There is little room, in contrast, in James Lee Burke's "We Build Churches, Inc.," for comradeship to develop. The story focuses on the hardships of the war and the cruelty that war brings out in men. Death scenes are depicted with relentless precision:


The bottom of the ditch was strewn with spent shell casings and empty ammunition boxes. Willard was next to me, firing his M-1 over the edge of the embankment, his unused clips set in a neat line in the snow. I heard a shell whang dead center into his helmet and ricochet inside. He pirouetted around in slow motion, his helmet rolled off his shoulder, and the blood ran in red strings from under his stocking cap. There was a surgical cut along the crown of the skull that exposed his brain. He slid down against the ditch wall with one leg folded under him, his jaw distended as though he were about to yawn.

. . . .

Five minutes later the lieutenant got it through the throat, and the artillery never came. Before we were overrun, we put a flame thrower in their faces and cooked them alive at thirty yards. Their uniforms were burned away, and their blackened bodies piled up in a stack like people caught in a fire exit. Farther down the ditch I saw Jace with his back propped against the embankment, his face white with concussion and his coat singed and blown open.


All this carnage turn soldiers into "self-hating, loathsome creatures who would live with the guilt of Judas the rest of their lives."

In Eugene Burdick's "Cold Day, Cold Fear" Eli, an American soldier aged eighteen, comes to depend on Kee, his Korean comrade who, though a novice to the war like himself, seems to know how to cope with dangers and total lack of necessities as if by instinct. Thrown into imminent danger, they take a desperate gamble together of crawling nearer the Chinese soldiers to hide practically in the shadow of the Chinese' tank rather than trying to escape from them. After their daring ploy succeeds, Eli asks his Korean friend how old he is and whether he was scared that afternoon. Finding that Kee is only sixteen--two years his junior--and that Kee's habitual smile is only a nervous twitch, Eli gives Kee a protective, almost paternal, pat. And he musters the courage to signal to the American helicopter flying overhead for rescue. So, together they are able to save themselves, though neither could have acted so decisively had each only his own skin to save.

William Chamberlain's "The Trapped Battalion" comes closest to a hymn to the triumph of the human spirit, almost a junior high school textbook story. Yet, this paean to war-inspired manliness and courage makes interesting and convincing reading. Steve Lang, a young major fresh from West Point, finds his battalion trapped between the victorious pursuing enemy and a river whose bridge had exploded. And he has the fate not only of his weary, beaten and completely demoralized battalion in his care but two hundred-odd Korean refugees and three truckfuls of the battalion's wounded to be take care of, and the vanguard of the Chinese divisions to fight off.

Although discouraged and weary himself, the major has to kick the despair out of his men, and he does it by making his tired, beaten men fear him more than they feared the enemy. And he finds in Lieutenant Murtaugh, a career soldier of thirty years, a kindred spirit. He tells Murtaugh to build a bridge over the river within six hours, and the engineering officer, seeing that it has to be done or they must all perish, simply says he will.

The story is complete with a wartime romance between the West Pointer and a pretty red-cross girl mothering Korean orphans. The red-cross lass, seeing the fortitude and loyalty of the soldiers, wonders: "Why was it . . . that war--the nastiest business on earth--could bring out the best in even the smallest of men?"

The story ends with the resounding success of the joint effort of the major, lieutenant, and the whole battalion in the safe crossing of all the soldiers and refugees, after which the bridge is exploded in the face of their Chinese pursuers. The battalion is slogging tiredly through the night again, but "[the] hopelessness had gone and men marched now with a certain sure swing to their tired shoulders."

John Deck's "Sailors at Their Mourning," in contrast, is a study in the psychological warping that goes on in the military. Mark Power's "Graves" also probes into the stupidities and the corruption war produces. Ronald R. Depew's "Indigenous Girls," on the other hand, is a tragicomedy surrounding the relationship between "indigenous" employees and their American military employers. Grateful for the job (a lifesaver in the destitute war years) and the friendliness of their office mates, one of the Korean typist spends her pay to treat her office mates to luscious strawberries. But U.S. army regulations forbid eating of "indigenous food." "Cows back home are cleaner than these people," says the Captain's adjutant. The sergeant eats the strawberries in defiance of the army's injunctions, but the evasion and embarrassment shown by the captain and the others crush the innocent and trusting girl.

Robert O. Bowen's "A Matter of Price" shows the price paid by soldiers caught up in a war they cannot make any sense of. Carson, hospitalized with an injury so serious that the doctors predicted an imminent death, survives with unbearable physical pain, but he suffers from even greater mental pain. The Korean War arouses fury and disgust in him because, unlike the WWII, "[the] Korean thing had not been a war that he could take pride in or find order in.... There seemed nothing behind him as there had been in Europe, and no real object in front. They killed gooks and they helped gooks.... The Commies he could feel as a proper enemy, but the field was never clearly sided. He located nothing that he could stretch into decency in Rhee's mob.... Carson felt lost among it all, killing and dying purposelessly, evilly." And he was among "godless men whose real hate was turned, not forward against the brown peasants that they shot or stabbed or trapped with mortars, but back toward the white Christmas-card churches and the thoughtless home-people that leched and marketed and bitched at taxes and offered neither ammo nor ideal to an unrelieved and weary mob on the Korean peninsula."

James Drought, author of the last short story, "The Street," is even more bitter about war mongers. He regards war as something for which young men are sent to killing fields to promote the interest of politicians and businessmen: "...a lot of experts say we were surely headed for a Depression if it hadn't been for the Korean War, and the shot in the arm that this war gave to production, to business, and even to religion¦ˇsince right away everybody returned to church to pray for their brave sons overseas¦ˇwas something that the fat-cats had to have or they might have gone under and suddenly become poor folks like the rest of us."

He is sick of all the propaganda and the patriotic pep talk about the war and how it is a chance for a youth to become a man and discover himself. He presents cases of soldiers who had to sell out everything "in order to come into the goddamn nation's service," all of whom were "just sitting on their asses, killing time until they could kill or be killed for the greater glory of South Korea." As a particularly heinous example of the vain sacrifice of youths, he recounts an attack "whipped up" for a congressional inspection team. The completely meaningless and wasteful attack was planned and publicized weeks in advance, and was carried out not just once but twice, even though the entire movement had become known to the Communists in advance, with horrendous consequences.


In the poems, sadness and bitterness predominate. There is some deeply felt compassion, but very little humor or victory of the human spirit over great odds. The devastation wrought by war and the dehumanization of the soldiers are reflected on in bitterness, and the politicians who start wars for their own purposes are the target of the poets' hatred and fury.

William Childress's "Letter Home" reads:


Mother, they line the roads

like broken stalks,

children with bellies swollen,

and O, the flowers

of their faces, petals all torn,

and the flags

of their threadbare garments.

Mother, we give

them everything in our packs

and still they moan

so sadly. More with eyes

like stone.

These kids will never sing


O, mother, wish me home!

With just one field of Kansas grain,

what I can do for them.


With withering irony, Rolando Hinojosa calls "touching" the stupidity (or innocence?) of General Walker, commander of the Eighth U.S. Army, who opined that the Chinese Communists who joined the war in such massive numbers might just be Chinese residents in North Korea. And he speculates that even such a traumatic experience as having scraps of one's comrade's flesh on one's clothes will be forgotten in time, through sheer force of time and process of living:


If Mosqueda has lost an arm or a leg or an eye, a nose or an ear,

He'd not forget it nor would others have let him, but

One man's meat is not another's souvenir,

And so, Mosqueda will forget;

If not, heˇŻll become a bore, and a bother, or a public nuisance.

But Mosqueda will forget . . .


And he says that GIs are just pieces of equipment "to be counted and signed for," to be "replaced with other GI parts" in case some break down.

Keith Wilson, the last poet in the collection, concludes his "December, 1952" with this observation:


It is when the bodies are counted

man sees the cost of lies, tricks

that blind the eyes of the young. Freedom.

Death. A life safe for. The dead.

....all over the nation, these men

deceive themselves. War is for. The Dead.


As a Korean I find it regretful that even though there is compassion and friendship felt towards Korean people and Korean soldiers in some of the stories, there is so little sense of the war worth fighting for in defense of the South Koreans who would otherwise have been thrown to the Communists. But the anger and bitterness of a soldier who has not only to risk his life and undergo unbearable physical hardships but also the mental and psychological torture that military life in wartime entails is perfectly understandable and easy to sympathize with. For a Korean who has not experienced the war directly, even as a civilian, the stories and poems, whether they are sympathetic to Koreans or not, are a meaningful reminder of at what price to how many people, even people who had little personal stake in the fortunes of South Korea, their small and fragile country was rescued from the Communists. And, whether they regarded Koreans as fellow human beings or simply as "gooks," and whether they fought in the spirit of defending a poor and helpless people from Communism or with bitter loathing for the whole business, gratitude is due to the soldiers for having preserved the country at such great cost to themselves. That the stories are moving, convincing, and compelling, and the poems haunting is cause for added gratitude.


Seo Ji-moon

Korea University