Having spent the best part of the last fifteen years in Hanoi, I am always keen to get my hands on books dealing with my chosen home. Yet, after a while a certain sameness tends to creep into the reading experience: most books seem to be dealing with the Vietnam War, or as it is known here, the American War, from the US perspective.
The sheer volume of movies and books produced in the United States about the war and its aftermath (most recently Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen) decades after the famous evacuation of the last US troops from Saigon, illustrates the still unresolved trauma of having been beaten by a Third World opponent. It also tends to drown out other interesting voices. One such voice is author Hwang Sok-Yong whose war novel The Shadow of Arms was published to great acclaim in his native Korea in the 1980s and without much fanfare a couple of years ago in the United States.
It is often overlooked that Korea was the biggest ally in America’s fight against the National Liberation Front (NFL) comprised of guerrilla and regular North Vietnamese army forces. Keen to curry favours with the United States, Korea’s staunchly anti-communist military strongman Park Chung-Hee not only ruthlessly cracked down on domestic political dissent, but also committed a total of around 300, 000 troops to the war in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973.
Before becoming famous as Korea’s premier left-wing writer-activist, Hwang Sok-Yong himself served as a soldier in Vietnam for three years and his experiences infuse this expansive novel with an aura of authenticity despite, or maybe because, it largely avoids the depiction of military combat. Set in the aftermath of the Tet offensive and during the strategic hamlet project involving setting up safe model villages to, in the jargon of the day, “win the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese peasantry, the novel is largely set in the port town of Danang, away from the main front line in the central highlands.
What The Shadow of Arms sets out to achieve, and by and large accomplishes, is to give a full picture of the reality of war reflected in the micro-cosmos of Danang with its army barracks, officer clubs, seaside villas of the military top-brass, army supply warehouses, massage parlours and guerrilla safe houses. Yet, while ambitious in scope, the novel is in many ways also a sprawling mess : long, unwieldy and uneven. Yet, at the same time it is also original, engrossing and insightful.
The story is built around Private Anh Yong Kyu who is plucked from a foxhole in the jungle and deployed to Danang to see out the final three months of his time in Vietnam as a black market investigator. Set against him are two brothers, Pham Minh, a medical student who becomes an agent for the NLF, and Pham Quyen, aide-de-camp to the provincial Governor. The three central characters are embedded by a vast supporting cast that make up this sweeping panoramic view of war in its dying stages.
Kyu’s task is to prevent army rations, weapons or medicines from reaching the enemy. At the same time, black market deals in other goods are fair game with the army working hand-in –glove with traders and a network of civilian business men syphoning off beer, cigarettes and Western canned foods to be purchased by the elite of the port city. It is a world of backroom deals, double-crosses and outright bribery to the soundtrack of nightly gun and mortar fire beyond the outskirts of town.
Both main characters, Kyu and Pham Minh are shoved into their new roles, innocents who have to be initiated into their respective worlds of the military criminal investigation unit and the NFL guerrilla forces before fully inhabiting their new environments. Yet this parallelism of Minh the young idealist beset with self-doubt and Kyu the battle hardened, jaded soldier fighting a war he doesn’t believe in. ends up slightly too schematic to achieve its emotional potential.
The plot veers between the domestic and the military, both not rendered with equal skill. The characters of Minh’s girlfriend and sisters, as well as the Korean escort married to Pham Quyen much to the disdain of his family, are less convincing than the soldiers and traders. Sok-Yong excels, maybe not surprisingly for a novel about men at war and given his own background, in the terse and weary banter of soldiers behind the front lines waiting for battle.
The soldiers and civilians Kyu comes in contact with all search for ways to extract maximum profit from the fighting to set themselves up for peace-time, ideally outside Vietnam. One of the main offenders is Pham Quyen, the General’s aide-de-camp, driven by the desire is to make enough money to move his family to Singapore. In the climax of the novel, economic and military interest converge in a prolonged battle scene depicting a full-on assault on a guerrilla mountain stronghold conducted for the sole purpose as to enable the harvest of lucrative cinnamon for Quyen and his General.
Despite these dramatic highlights, Sok-Yong’s concern is less with driving the plot forward but primarily with documenting a war in which Korean troops were doing the dirty bidding for their political masters, the United States. His sympathies clearly lie with the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front. The uneven quality of the novel might in parts be explained by its troubled publication history. The first half was published in serialised form in a literary magazine in 1983 and appeared as a book two years later. It made the author a persona-non-grata in his native Korea for his depiction of atrocities and corruption perpetrated by the Allied forces. Sok-Yong set the book project and second volume aside after liberalisation of the South-Korean military dictatorship. Finally, the revised text of the combined volumes was published in Korea in the early 1990s.
What makes the novel unique and, despite its flaws, worth reading, is that the story of the war is told through the prism of the black market. The Byzantine wheeling and dealing and the uncertain and changing roles of its protagonists mirror modern guerrilla warfare where it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe. While the descriptions of the arcane minutiae of the workings of the black market can be tiresome and impenetrable to the contemporary reader, the technicalities of the trade are not as important as their symbolism.
The famous aphorism by 19th century military strategist, Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics by other means, has morphed into the notion of capitalism itself as a form of warfare. Or, as one of the black marketeers puts it: “Isn’t war the most merciless form of business?” A sentiment that sadly still resonates in the context of recent military adventures by the United States and its allies.
Hwang Sok-Yong. The Shadow of Arms (translated from Korean by Chun Kyung-Ja). Seven Stories Press