If I saw Jeong Ji-young’s White Badge (1992) when it screened in London eight years ago, I do not remember it. I cannot imagine having a similar lapse of memory concerning Ahn Jung-hyo’s Vietnam war novel on which it is based.
Although over 70% of the book’s pages cover Sergeant Han Kiju’s experiences in Vietnam, this is far from being a Boy’s Own action adventure. Yes, there is enough superfluous technical detail (that transport plane isn’t just a Hercules, it’s a C-130 Hercules) to give the narrative authenticity, as if told by a real soldier (while Ahn did not have combat experience, he did go to Vietnam as a war correspondent). But this is more a story exploring what war does to an individual, and a story protesting about the futility of that particular war.
I have often wondered why many British veterans of the Burma campaign at the end of the Second World War never wanted to talk about their experiences; maybe, after reading White Badge, I might understand a small part of that reluctance. Sergeant Han’s first terror-struck experience of killing another human being – a Viet Cong soldier trapped in a rocky tunnel, into whom he blindly empties his magazine and finishes off with a few hand grenades is gruesomely told. His encounter with a torso in a pond being eaten by ducks is similarly nauseating. But his mind suppresses these horrors: “I was often awakened at night by nightmarish screams and agonized groans. I dreamed almost every night, but never, not even once did I dream about the body chewed by the river ducks. Very strangely, the most shocking experiences I had gone through were never reproduced in my dreams.” (p161)
Han is more robust than many in his company. Private Pyon Chinsu is a mental wreck more or less from the start, while others are fragmented by their jungle experiences or when they learn that their sweetheart at home has married another man and perhaps has never loved them in the first place. That mirage of what is happening back home – loved ones not remaining faithful, pen pals telling white lies in their letters – is more than echoed in the failure of reality on the ground to live up to the soldiers’ anticipations and the rose-tinted news coverage back home. The Vietnam War is not a heroic affair. For the first few weeks the new recruits spend their time simply digging and guarding. The first blood they spill is that of a few harmless buffalo, mistaken in the dark for some VC infiltrators (the aftermath of which engagement is a tedious and bureaucratic negotiation over the appropriate level of financial compensation payable to the local villagers for dead and wounded farm animals). On another occasion they spend a day play-acting to provide a Korean news crew with “real-life footage” of armed engagement with the enemy.
In the press in Korea, pointless victories are reported, with numbers of enemy dead triumphantly declared; but defeats and number of “friendly” casualties are never reported as that would spoil the positive narrative which supports Park Chung-hee’s decision to send troops to Vietnam to earn foreign currency from the US. To support this narrative, the war must be a just war, a war that our boys are winning. The reality on the ground is a dirty war that the natives don’t want, and where any victory is short lived: ground “liberated” will soon fall back into hostile hands. The gallant boys are putting their lives in danger so that female entertainers can earn money.
The tensest few chapters narrate a long operation in the jungle in which the main enemy is the soldiers’ own fears, as well as lethal booby traps. It is a gruelling operation, mentally exhausting just to read. The novel is full of such vivid, immediate description. But alongside this are the thoughtful and ironic observations comparing and contrasting the Korean and Vietnam wars. Sergeant Han, in his childhood, used to beg for treats from US soldiers and scavenge around their camps; 20 years later it is the Vietnamese kids who are scrounging from the “Daihan” soldiers.
I wondered why, as I read the first few chapters describing Han’s listless life in Seoul, why it was that I was enjoying the character so much, finding him believable and sympathetic, whereas more recent writing by contemporary Korean authors in a similar vein – such as Bae Suah – I find frankly rather dull. I can’t answer that question, which makes me think I should give Bae another chance. The extended section on the Vietnam War which follows this grey-tinged opening is prompted by an unexpected phone message from Pyon Chinsu, one of Han’s fellow soldiers, a decade after returning from the war. The final section resumes Han’s life in Seoul, and describes the present-day encounters between the two veterans as both men fail to make their way in life. There are no happy endings here but somehow the melancholy encounter with these characters is deeply rewarding.