The Shadow of Arms
In the comments to my last post, which touched on Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, I mentioned a passage by Korean novelist (and Vietnam veteran) Hwang Sôg-yông concerning his Vietnam War novel The Shadow of Arms (무기의 그늘). There was an English translation published in the Cornell East Asia Series, but I believe it is currently out of print. I must admit that I haven't read the novel myself, either in English or Korean, but it's on the list...
Anyway, here are Hwang's thoughts on the novel and the war in general:
It was in the eighties, in the midst of this maelstrom of change, that I published the work that would mark the end of the first half of my literary career: The Shadow of Arms.[From the 'Korean Writers Reading in the US' publication accompanying an event held October 9-18, 2003 at three US universities. This passage translated by Maya West.]
Unlike Hollywood films and other novels that deal with the Vietnam War, The Shadow of Arms has nothing to offer on the theme of struggling with life and death on the battlefield; the pages hold no humnitarian conflict, no ideological protest against the war. Neither is it a mix of colonialism and orientalism in the tradition of "Apocalypse Now," presenting a detached but darkly emotional condemnation of war itself. The Shadow of Arms is a cold-hearted novel that deals instead with the business aspects of what was an intrinsically capitalistic war.
War is nothing more than a fiercely violent reaction to a conflict between different races, nations, and/or classes that is guaranteed to either solve or exponentially aggravate the issue at hand. Without question, was does result in the appearance of a hell on earth, full of destruction and slaughter. On the other hand, this hell is accompanied by the emergence and activation of an extremely dispassionate, precise mechanism of political and economic logic. The Shadow of Arms is an attempt to reveal both the surface appearance and inner workings of this phenomenon. America's Vietnamese 'intervention,' which came on the heels of their activities in the Philippines, was simply a move calculated to expand their imperialistic market control to include the rest of Southeast Asia. War was considered to be the quickest, most efficient means of achieving this end: in essence, the war itself was a kind of business being conducted on a rather grandiose scale.
As such, The Shadow of Arms uses the back alley black markets of the Vietnam War as its stage, a market that turns into a setting more fitting than any jungle to discover and explore the core of the war. The more we learn about the system that was used to circulate U.S. Army munitions, the closer we can come to understanding the true nature of the war. Because achieving this understanding became my overarching goal, it was necessary for the perspective of the story itself to be multi-lateral. In this novel we see the perspective of the U.S. government and soldier, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the South Vietnamese under American rule, and the "psychological refugee" who refuses to intervene and become a part of the war, searching endlessly fo an escape route instead. Lastly, we have the perspective that overlaps with that of myself, the author: the dazed ROK [Republic of Korea] soldier who has somehow become involved in this foul war.
In the preface to the first edition of The Shadow of Arms, I wrote that I would "never indulge in a depiction of an individual who was scarred" by the Vietnam experience. This was a manifestation of the obstinate self-consciousness that is controlled by the guilt we Koreans feel when treating of the Vietnamese, a substantial limitation that was difficult to overcome when armed with nothing but the perspective of an irresponsible outsider.
Truly, if there is one thing that must make a deeper impression on the hearts of the Vietnamese than the victorious outcome of their war for independence, it can only be the painful memories of all that was lost in order to achieve that very victory. For this alone, over my ten years of exile and incarceration, watching the world change around me, I felt remorse.