Review of Hardly War — Memories of the “Forgotten War”

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Hardly War, by Don Mee Choi / Wave Books, 2016 / Illustrated; 97 pages

Don Mee Choi is a South Korean poet, translator and anti-militarist now living in the U.S. Through a startling, kaleidoscopic collection of prose, poems, and photographs in her new book, Hardly War, she makes a powerful case against the U.S. justification for and intervention in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. She exposes the underlying racism and colonialism over nations and cultures.

The volume is in homage, too, to her father’s work as a photojournalist during these conflicts. He was often on assignments when she was a child. The book is dedicated to him, most of the photos are his, and the last section is based on interviews with him about his experiences. The author describes how as a child she thought that the things he photographed lived inside his camera and wished that she could, too. It is within her embrace of her father and his stories that she makes her way through the madness of war.

A fragmented reality from many voices. Atrocities and miscellanea are presented through many speakers — soldiers, Choi’s father, her own limited perspective as a child.

It occurred to me that this particular war was hardly war because of kids, more kids, those poor kids. The kids were hungry until we GIs fed them. We dusted them with DDT. Hardly done. Rehabilitation of Korea, that is. It needs chemical fertilizer from the States, power to build things like a country.

Choi confronts the propaganda driving U.S. intervention with uneasy metaphors and repetitive numbering and equations.

Unthinkable destruction. She points to the weaponry (the Tarzon, a huge early guided bomb; napalm) that created a country of “dying orphans” with “skin crisp like fried potato chips.”

       Did I tell you I saw corpses piled up inside the well in Pyongyang?

      Did I tell you I helped the Communist Monitor who was also a Colonial Monitor, ROK Monitor, then later an ROK-UN Monitor drag the corpse of his brother?

Her father relates the first time he saw a North Korean fighter plane: “Then in the most lowly, predictably, ethically unsound manner from the point of view of everything that is big and beautiful, the sound of the machine gun.”

Pervasive racism. In “Shitty Kitty” (the crew’s nickname for the USS Kitty Hawk supercarrier), a race riot erupted, for which only the Black sailors were prosecuted. This and repeated references to “gooks” reveals pervasive U.S. racism.

In “The Tarzon’s Guide to History” Choi quotes U.S./U.N. commander, General Douglas MacArthur, looking down at the bodies of four young Korean soldiers, “That’s a good sight for my old eyes.” U.S. willingness to destroy lives and partition countries in the drive against communism stands out starkly.

Choi reveals the corrosive consequences of imperialist aid. The U.S. installed dictators and contracted the South Korean army to fight for the U.S. in Vietnam. In “Shitty Kitty,” she counts the blood money paid for Vietnamese lives:

       How much?

       $7.5 million per division

       or Binh Tai massacre = $7.5 million

       or Binh Hoa massacre = $7.5 million

       or Dien Nien-Phuoc Binh massacre = $7.5 million

An invaluable notes section explains historical references and quotes.

Searing commentary. Choi’s critique of the U.S. role in the “Forgotten War” — forgotten only in the USA — is especially apt now. Media largely focus on U.S. condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing program and the U.S. agenda of punitive sanctions. The decimation wrought has been mostly ignored, along with the cogent fact that Gen.MacArthur advocated nuclear bombing of the North.

Upwards of four million people were killed and North Korea lost close to thirty percent of its population. U.S. bombing included about 250,000 pounds of napalm dropped every day between 1950 and 1953.

There were 25,000 U.S. soldiers in Korea when fighting began. Twenty-eight thousand are still in South Korea today, almost 70 years later, making this the longest American conflict ever.

As a Korean American, my own outlook on the war was clarified by the challenge of processing the difficult prose and poetry. It helped me see U.S. imperialism in opposition to the conventional view that the U.S. came to rescue Korea from “communist clutches.”

Hardly War dazzles and puzzles with its wordplay and multifaceted imagery. It evokes Choi’s anti-colonial stance against U.S. intervention in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. It is also a love letter to her father. Without his photographs and interviews, this provocative book would not have had its stark immediacy.

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