Reading the Korean War


I don’t profess to be an expert on much, such is my modesty. Even though I’ve lived in Korea for over nine years now and am invested in the country through family, I can’t really attest an authority on much of the country’s history. This is certainly an embarrassment as I’m supposed to be a history graduate.

When I first arrived in Korea I read Michael Breen’s The Koreans, and it was the kind of book that just seemed to give enough of everything so that, if you were curious about some other aspect of the country, you could easily be wise enough to make the wise decision on some follow up reading. I think I finished that book in 2006, if not 2005, when I first arrived here.

That’s quite a long time to spend learning about a country without reading much on it. This indeed may be a problem which much of Korea’s expatriate experts, in that we spend a lot of time here and profess to be armchair experts on the condition of being in Korea, yet we hold very little knowledge beyond a decent gogi jib and our opinions on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. I say this because this is basically me, and while I know there are plenty who know more than most, I can imagine there are plenty who know less than me.

It was in some respects an accident that I picked up Andrew Salmon’s books on the British, Australian, and indeed Scottish and Irish involvement in the Korean War. Around this time last year I was very fortunate to represent the Irish community in Korea when I laid a wreath at the unveiling of a memorial for Irish people who fell in the Korean War. Throughout the process of arranging the memorial, Andrew Salmon was a constant figure advising on the experiences of the Irish in the war, specifically the Royal Ulster Rifles, who suffered some of the highest casualties of the British and commonwealth units in the war. Throughout the process and after his first book To the Last Round was lauded as a must read.

Reading about the British involvement for me, while being Irish, brings it a little closer to home. While we are at all attempts proclaiming ourselves radically different, a commonality exists in many respects. Maybe this stems from a certain familiarity with our neighbours, one that is more realistic than a television impressed notion of Ameicanism.

I went online to check the books out, and here I found a second book of his Scorched Earth, Black Snow which I saw was from earlier in the year. So being a history graduate and knowing the importance of the period before the period we’re talking about, I decided I’d give that a read first. So I tapped away at the screen of my iPad, and before I knew it I had a digital copy downloading away.

That being said, I didn’t actually get around to reading the actual book until I was in Thailand this winter, about eight months later. So shoot me, but I’m a distracted soul, and admittedly one who really hadn’t been reading as much as I would have liked. But I think I’ve been doing better of late. Good books have helped.

After reading both of his books I contacted Andrew himself and asked him a few questions about the writing of the books. I has always interested me how authors who work full time as writers fit in the time to write a non-ficition book, and especially one on history which requires extreme levels of not only dedication but beyond meticulous research. Pick up either of his books and you will understand what I am talking about.

In an email Andrew explained that most of these books were written ‘after midnight’, and that the writing was ‘personally and professionally satisfying, but financially non-remunerative’. This is probably something that scares many away from writing books, this constraint on our time is not recuperated in our wallets – not that I’d know, I’m just saying.

Throughout both books there is extensive first hand reports from those who fought in the battles and slit trenches. From the Busan Perimeter to the heroic holding action at Pakchon in North Korea, relieving the 1st US Marine Division in Chongsin Resevoir, and the of course the slaughter and defiance from the battles along the Imjin River just to the north of Seoul, so much of these books comes from first-hand experience you cannot discount their authority. It seems at times that it’s unfortunate that there weren’t more pages in the books.

‘I started with the regimental and veteran associations’, Andrew Salmon explained of how he made this possible, ‘the nature of these groups is that, if they trust you or like you, once you speak to Chap A, he recommends Chap B, and so on ad infinitum. I was surprised at how open most of these guys were. I think 99 percent of them had never had anyone ask them about their experiences in the “Forgotten War” and as they are now in their twilight years, they wanted to speak, to get their war on the record for posterity. Many of them volunteered material that I was initially hesitant to ask about. For example, the account of one atrocity – the murder of a Korean civilian by a soldier who simply wanted to test his rifle (told in To the Last Stand) – was told to me, without prompting, in the back of a bus, in the company of several other veterans. None of them contradicted him.  I am pretty sure these kinds of incidents stuck in their minds, and they wanted some kind of release’.

Like these couple of incidents, there are so many images and memories specific to individuals which not one person who would there would attest against. I wouldn’t say you get numbed to atrocity, but after some time you kind of stop being amazed and just accept it as a circumstance.

Of all these incidents though two much discussed ones come to mind which I couldn’t help but be frustrated or shocked by – the first was the accidental napalming of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, or Jocks, which was perhaps as brutal and unfortunate an incident of friendly fire as you’ll come across, and the action of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars as 29 Brigade withdrew from their Imjin defensive positions – not only was it the first time these newly touted tanks had a chance to really operate, but it was in such desperate circumstances that you had to wish they could have done more.

Of course throughout these books, it must be expressed, there is descriptions of rampant slaughter described and it is hard at times to remember that the Chinese who were mown down could have been as desperate as the men whose experiences I was reading about were. It was a time that we can be grateful to have lived after.

With more and more devices providing reading experiences, writers are being coerced into providing a more diverse package. I read my copy of Scorched Earth, Black Snow on my iPad, and as I read I followed 27 Brigade north with Google Maps. I tried and failed to find their positions on the Naktong bridgehead, but as they moved on to Seoul, and then North Korea and along the main highway through Sariwon, Pyongnyang, Sukchon, Anju, and of course Pakchon and on to Chongju, feeling eternally like this was going to lead to one great bloody Borodino – if only it was so glorious. You knew something was going to happen but you couldn’t really tell how or when it would, but when they captured that Chinese soldier while on patrol you knew that something was about to happen that they would have little control over.

‘I wish my publisher had added film of one of those as part of the eBook package’ Andrew said, ‘that would have given the reader a huge amount more visual material to look at, but I don’t think technology has been well-leveraged or well-deployed by traditional media managers’. For the digital age, this is the advantage that eBooks have, and it is one being leveraged by the media, just not publishing. ‘As a print journalist, I am being asked to become a photographer, a film recorder, a presenter, a film editor as well as my core task’ Andrew continued. ‘The upside is that one has to upskill. The downside is that I am not being paid more’. If we expect so much of the media, perhaps publishing will follow soon, but we shall see how high the quality will be.

And perhaps it is our expectations that are dragging so much for nothing from everything. With the internet, nobody expects to pay, and this is where our problems start. ‘The Internet is killing journalism and publishing’ Andrew continued, ‘though it has to be said, the blame for this long, slow, death really lies at the hands of the management of the newspaper and publishing industries, who have failed to come up with financial models that will guarantee the future of traditional media’. This is something that is happening, but it is slow, and expensive, and a learning process. ‘In the future, when online media has matured, we will look back on the first two decades of the 21st century as the critical, transformative period. Alas, it has been bloody; the number of working journalists has fallen horrifically. This is not good for media but – without wishing to sound alarmist – it is not good for democratic governance either.’ A stern warning indeed.

In terms of the books, I’d recommend them to anyone. Enthusiast or casual interest, these books should be read, not only because of what I have said above, but also because they have kindled an understanding and gratitude for our present situation, and made me appreciate my extended family further.

What struck me more than anything in these books was not the descriptions of war and sacrifice by foreign troops, but the images of a poor and agricultural society made destitute by the destruction wrought from the international deliberations over its territory. The people who lowered themselves so dejectedly, who fought their own demons, who fled, who stayed, who starved, but who stuck around and dug in sacrificing more to build up what is truly a remarkable miracle, 21st Century Korea.

*

On the reception his books have received Andrew Salmon told me this:

‘[The responses have been] universally positive: Mainstream media – including The Times, The Daily Mail, and BBC History Magazine  – have been kind. I’d add that “To the Last Round” has 130 five-star reviews on Amazon UK, which is an unusual number for a non-fiction book, and which I am particularly pleased about. The only negative review I suffered was from the writer of an expatriate magazine here in Seoul. What is most gratifying is the response from veterans, who have said: “You have captured it – this is what it was like!” One, the late Colonel Mervyn McCord, said in an Amazon review, “Anyone suffering from PTSD should not read this book – they would have a relapse.” I have also had endorsements from two “true” heroes – Derek Kinne, George Cross and Bill Speakman, Victoria Cross. That kind of response is deeply gratifying’.

 

Andrew Salmon’s personal blog/website is tothelastround.wordpress.com (this particular page on the site is worth particular attention in my view)

The books can be purchased online here

Images all courtesy of Andrew Salmon via flickr.

Letter from Ireland, August 2013


Dunboyne, Ireland
16 August, 2013

Dear Korea

Negativity is an often attractive topic. It’s in our nature to be critical, to find issue with what is at fault, and even when we are happy we still find reasons to complain. This isn’t exclusive to any particular situation or condition, everyone does it in some manner or form. There may be some explanation to it, but that is not my aim today.

I wanted to write today about something which has being an increasing source of bother for some time, and since I am now in Ireland I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on it from a particular standpoint.

Some time back, possibly longer than one year ago or more, I wrote a post on this blog entitled “10 Reasons Why I Dislike Korea“. I suppose when I wrote it I felt that I had to say what I said. I was feeling inciteful as well as insightful, and at the same time I was approaching the living in Korea thing from a new angle. I didn’t consider it an “I hate Korea and here’s why you should too” kind of post, and I still don’t. I read it again recently with the thought that I might take it down, but decided that no it wasn’t my post which had the problems, it was the people who read it, and of course those who commented on it who had the problems.

Regularly people find my blog with search topics which automatically create the idea that they hate Korea, or that they are looking for people who hate Korea. These kind of people who go searching for previously written complaints find my blog post with a set agenda, that is they agree with me, or accuse me of being a racist, which I don’t believe I am. But what gets me a little is that more often than not, people take what I have written and muddle my meaning.

I suppose that’s just part of writing to be read though. That some people disagree with me, or that they take what I write and twist into some other meaning and confuse and confront me as if I have some sort of agenda is something I have to deal with. I have kind of stopped replying and interacting with many commentors, with the exception of the odd clarification. That’s my way of dealing with it.

I had thought of removing the post from my blog but I think that would be against what I stand for. I do still believe in what I wrote, and if it’s a little more negative than how I usually think or write, let it be a lesson for me to think these things through. On the up side, it does bring a lot of traffic to my blog, more than many of my other posts, but I don’t get the impression that many people do what I suggest they do and that’s read some of my other posts to get an idea of how I really think.

And you know, how I think now is no different than how I ever think. I try to think as openly and as relevant to my current situation as possible. I try to approach my blog posts about wherever I may be as honestly as I can. I don’t think I’ve ever lied, or taken anything out of context before (too much). As I say, it’s a personal blog and I am just the opinion of one person. This is the internet, I suggest using it to find a counter opinion.

You see it’s always easy to choose the reasons we dislike somewhere when we are there. Call it a constant search for a better situation, or something, something that encourages us to simply desire a better slice of the cake, because every human is entitled to want.

I could easily turn around and write ten reasons why I like living in Korea (and maybe I will but it would be a challenge to avoid cliches – which may be why I wrote the ten reasons in the first place). What I can do is point to where I am now, Ireland, a country where I have lived for a lot longer than I have lived in Korea, and one where I left in 2005 when I was 23 because I disliked living here. Today I couldn’t even attempt to rattle my brain to recall the simple causes of my initial departure, but there are plenty of things which get to me already and I’ve only been bacl here on holidays for a month and half.

Things like this odd superiority complex, the casual racism, the expectation that Ireland is and always will be perfect for everyone, that it is impossible to get real, good, Korean food, that we still as a people cannot stand up and fight and demand together the changes this country needs (but this could be a universal problem), that we still can not turn left on red, and that the majority of pubs still insist on serving only Guinness, Heineken, Carlsberg, Smithwicks, Bulmers and Budweiser…

We are people and we all want a better lot. We see things which we believe can be improved and we try to talk about them, to raise awareness where we see wrong. Some things will never change, such as the poor beer choices in Ireland and the human zoo that is Costco in Korea. We hope, and in this hope we continue on, making our own changes to see the progress in our lives, because we know how little hope we stand of ever finding the solutions we seek elsewhere.

I do dislike many aspects of living in Korea, but I bear them as an acceptable weight, and I see them as challanges which would be merely different but equally pertinent in any other country I might choose to live in, including my own. There are plenty of reasons that I like Korea also, but I chose not to write about them at that time.

There is no such thing as utopia. With every situation were people live together there will always be complaint and distaste. I believe it is in our nature. The important thing is that we do our best to concern ourselves with our own goals and our own future and we look beyond what others see as wrong. No place is exempt from criticism, just as much as no country should be criticised for only its mistakes and wrongs.

The same can be said for people. If you see what someone has done or said, look back and try to see what else they have said or done and try to realise how much of a human they are and how their actions reflect our own, regardless of skin colour or place of birth. In the world, it’s all just best that we get along, regardless if we’re from Ireland or Korea or somewhere in between.