IT'S TOO EASY to clutter a good story with distractions. This is especially true when writing historical fiction. My desk became littered with tantalizing notes accumulated during the two years that I researched the background of Cuba and Castro's revolution. It was so tempting to use them all, but I refrained from cramming most of them into Rebels on the Mountain
. Instead, I turned them into blog postings. That way I didn't feel the time was wasted. I've been having the same problem with my research on the Korean War.
The Tootsie Roll story came by way of my brother-in-law. How could I resist including it? It's an endearing piece of trivia. Unfortunately, the epic tale of the U.S. Marine's escape from the Chosin Reservoir won't find its way into my tale. It was tempting. I have even had the honor of spending some time with one of the “Chosin Few”.
My upcoming novel Behind Every Mountain is not a war story, not in the classic sense. Much like Patton, which also wasn't a classic war story, my novel is about a soldier and focuses on the process of becoming a soldier. The central conflict of the story will be “the first kill”. Only sociopaths lack an aversion to taking a human life. Most of us who enter combat need an overwhelming incentive to overcome that aversion.
Although I never killed anyone I could have. In my case, anger overcame the aversion and I went looking for an enemy to kill. The opportunity occurred one night when I was the officer in charge of a sector of our base camp perimeter. Ordinarily, the field of fire outside the camp's berm would have been lit by illumination rounds fired at regular intervals by Division Artillery. However, we had none that night. A cluster of barrels containing CS gas had been stored in our sector that night. Someone decided that there was a risk of gassing the base camp if a flare fell into their midst. Thus, we were left in the dark.
Most people have never truly experienced the dark, at least, not most Americans. Those who live in wilderness areas or have sailed far from shore, understand what I'm talking about. However, those who live in cities, suburbs, or even small towns, are rarely in the dark. I'm talking about the kind of dark when you have to lay down so that you can see objects silhouetted against the sky. Add a solid cloud cover to block moonlight and starlight, and even that trick won't help.
Our guards couldn't lie on the ground. They sat atop bunkers looking down on the open field surrounding the base camp and its rows of barbed wire and land mines. Without the light of illumination rounds, they had only their hearing to rely on. One of my guards heard something hit the wire near his bunker and called it in.
Illumination rounds drifting on parachutes -- Click to enlarge
We sat side by side for about a quarter of an hour listening until I decided to launch a hand-held flare. We studied the ground by its dim light, counting shadows that might have been someone lying on the ground until the flare extinguished itself. We waited five minutes and then launched another. It seemed to both of us that shadows had moved. I then called Division Artillery to inform them that we had potential enemy contact and requested illumination rounds. They denied the request stating that they would not respond unless I could “produce a body”. That's what I went looking for.
After contacting the other bunkers and ordering them to hold their fire unless authorized, I and a sergeant went looking for a body. After moving about a hundred meters beyond the berm, we separated and lay down on the ground. We soon saw the silhouette of a person stand, run a few meters, and drop to the ground. I whispered to the sergeant asking if he had seen it. He responded that he had.
The sergeant was carrying a grenade launcher and I ordered him to fire a round in the area of the sight we had seen. I never hesitated, nor did he.
We didn't find the body but the sound of the grenade exploding brought the division chief-of-staff to my sector wanting to find out what was going on. After I explained, my sector was lit up like a birthday cake. We had illumination rounds for the rest of the night, many illumination rounds. I suppose that the risk of a sapper tossing a satchel charge among the barrels of CS gas was greater than any possibility of an illumination round on a parachute drifting on top of them.
So, what else beside anger could help a soldier overcome a person's innate aversion to taking a human life? That is the question that I've been exploring.
HOW MANY TIMES must centralized planning and control fail before we learn? It has never succeeded, not anywhere nor anytime in history. The most dismal failure is occurring today in North Korea. People are suffering. They grow smaller generation by generation because of malnutrition. They live in constant and abject fear of everyone within and without their country. Can you imagine living that way? And all of these ills arise from the simple fact that one person holds all the reins of power and citizens have never evinced any will to resist it.
Kim Jong Il the current tyrant of Korea
It wasn't always thus in Korea. In the beginning, they were a very successful civilization. At a time when the Britons painted themselves with woad and the Romans were building an empire, Korean civilization was already well established. The foundations of this civilization may be traced back to some time around 1100 B.C.E. when a Chinese sage, Ki-tzse, led his clan into the mountains of Korea to escape a new dynasty that had taken power in China. They integrated with the rugged people who occupied the mountainous peninsula and built great cities and institutions.
Korea grew and prospered for more than four hundred years, until 1582 when the powerful Japanese Regent, Hideyoshi, sent an army of 300,000 to occupy Korea as a stepping stone towards the ultimate conquest of China. The Japanese drove the Koreans north, killing thousands and destroying their cities until China intervened at the behest of the Korean monarchy and helped repel the invaders.
As the Japanese were driven back into the sea, they continued to rape the nation. They kidnapped skilled workmen and women. They stole Korean treasures and religious artifacts. They ground a hatred for all things Japanese into the Koreans, a hatred that has been passed on generation to generation, often refreshed with new outrages, and continues to smolder to this day.
Korea might have recovered from the devastation, but a new dynasty arose, the House of Yi, and established a rule fatal to all progress. The King took control of everything, a precursor to the centralized planning and control that afflicts North Korea to this day. No one was allowed to rise in stature or wealth beyond the limits imposed by the King. Even the size of a family's home was determined by the King. The only path to success lay in service in the King's court. However, yang-bin, civil servants also had to be cautious. Any display of ambition might have resulted in forfeiture of one's rank or even one's life.
Unlike Cuba with its long history of revolution, North Korea submits mutely to tyrants. It appears that passivity is a national trait of Koreans and they endure every insult, every privation, without thought of rebellion. At the very least, there is no historical record of the people rebelling against their oppressors, either foreign or domestic. Those few who did attempt to rebel used passive means which might have worked against more civilized tyrants but, in the case of the Koreans, only resulted in mass executions, especially when they attempted to stand up to the Japanese. This lack of a heritage for rebellion only encourages tyrants to rise and subjugate the people.
IN MY OPINION, North Korea must be the most God Forsaken place on the planet. There are other peoples who are equally poor. There are other places similarly destitute. But there is no other place so lacking in hope. Generally, I believe that all people have the government they deserve, except in North Korea. Their lives are so bereft of minimal sustenance that they lack the energy to rebel.
North Korea lost in the darkness above its brightly illuminated cousin to the south
What could they hope to obtain through rebellion. They have been taught from cradle to grave that the rest of the world is far worse off than their miserable lot, and there's no one to correct the lie. They cannot travel. They cannot participate in global communications. They are shielded from every truth.
North Korea is an asylum run by the maddest of the hatters and its leaders are hellbent on spreading bedlam to the rest of the world. To this end, they abet the disciples of intolerance, men of other nations who have deluded themselves into believing that they alone possess the one truth to which all people must submit or die. Their greatest danger is that they do not fear death. They welcome it, and Korea is ready, willing, and able to supply the instruments of death.
U.S. soldiers as portrayed in propaganda disseminated to North Koreans
I knew that I shared this planet with these people but didn't really know them until I began collecting research materials in preparation for writing my next novel, Behind Every Mountain, a story of the Korean War. Once again, as with every research project, my first lesson was to learn the extent of my own ignorance.
The war itself was a relatively simple affair. It may be summed up briefly in four campaigns: (1) The North Koreans drove the South Koreans from their capital and almost totally from the peninsula; (2) The South Koreans, with the aid of the Americans led by Douglas Macarthur, landed at Inchon, cutting off the North Koreans from their bases and briefly uniting the peninsula under one command; (3) the Chinese Communists launched a surprise attack drove the South Koreans and Americans back to the southern tip of the peninsula; and (4) the South Koreans and Americans, reinforced by U.N. Forces drove the Chinese Communists back to the original border, the 38th Parallel, where the war became stalemated. All of this occurred in a brief, though bloody, two-year engagement.
Koreans, both North and South, suffered terribly during the war. North Koreans murdered their cousins in the South during the first campaign, and South Koreans exacted brutal revenge during the second. As a result, enmity between the two halves of the Korean population remains strong to this day.
The only people Koreans despise more than their neighbors are the Japanese. Most of us know that the Japanese treated the Koreans terribly during World War II. Most notably, few are unaware that the Japanese Army used Koreans as “comfort women,” irredeemably debasing them and leaving them with self-loathing. However, Japanese crimes against Korea extend from well before World War II. Following the Sino-Japanese War in the early Twentieth Century, Japan annexed Korea and renamed it Chosin, a province of Japan.
Korea remained a province of Japan until the end of World War II. During that time, the Japanese attempted to eradicate all vestiges of Korean culture. Koreans were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own cultural or religious celebrations. Japanese commanders and bureaucrats carried off Korean national treasures. Korean dissenters, sometimes whole villages, were annihilated to enforce Japanese demands.
Some may dismiss the loss of Korean culture as a minor event in human history. However, I have come to learn that Korea had a rich cultural heritage predating Western Civilization. It simply had the misfortune of being located between two militarily superior forces, China and Japan. Ultimately, it fell victim to that fate alluded to in the African Proverb - “When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
It is my habit to research the people and the place in time long before the milieu of my story so that I will have a deeper understanding of them. As I studied the history of Cuba to pre-Columbian times to better understand Fidel Castro's Revolution, I am reaching back into antiquity to understand the Korean culture that Japan attempted to eradicate. I believe that it still resonated during the Korean War as well as it resonates today despite Japan's best or worst efforts.