The Other Vietnam Syndrome

By John FefferSeptember 8, 2014

Shadow of Arms by Hwang Sok-yong

THE VIETNAM WAR, for most Americans, has always been a tragedy with only two characters: the courageous but callow GI and the wily and ultimately victorious Vietnamese Communist. Everyone else, from the hapless South Vietnamese allies to the sinister Soviet and Chinese supporters of Ho Chi Minh, have been just bit players. This boiled-down confrontation has shaped a nearly continuous stream of US books and movies, from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato to the more recent best seller Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. These accounts of Vietnam reveal the folly, the brutality, even the surrealism of the war. But the narrator’s point of view remains remarkably consistent, of naive American soldiers pushed beyond their limits by the unforgiving terrain of a foreign land and by the otherworldly determination of a foreign army.

The Vietnam tragedy also has a defined length for Americans. The war unspools newsreel-style from the contingent of troops sent by John F. Kennedy to the ignominious image of an overcrowded helicopter taking off in 1975 from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. We’ve paid only intermittent attention to the country since its unification under Communist rule. Optimists celebrate the happy ending of a US–Vietnam rapprochement: normalized diplomatic relations, boosted commercial dealings, and even closer military ties, made possible by a mutual fear of a rising China. The pessimists, meanwhile, continue to refight the battles of the past by trying to overcome the infamous “Vietnam syndrome,” the perception that a vanquished United States no longer has the stomach for extended military interventions. From Hollywood to the Pentagon, no matter whether your glass is half full or half empty, the Vietnam War continues to be all about us, here in the United States, and our preoccupations.

But the war was never all about us. Long before Kennedy or the Green Berets entered the picture, the Vietnamese had been waging an anticolonial struggle against both French and Japanese occupiers. US soldiers were only the latest in a long line of outsiders to stand between the Vietnamese and self-determination.

And the GIs did not stand alone. Alongside the nearly three million US soldiers who served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, 10 other countries sent contingents, including Australia (61,000), Canada (30,000), and the Philippines (10,000). But the most enthusiastic supporter of the US intervention was South Korea. It was the only country to send a large number of combat troops. More than 300,000 Korean soldiers fought alongside American GIs, many out of gratitude for the three years that the US Army spent on the Korean peninsula preserving a divided country. During the conflict, 90,000 of these troops were killed or injured, the vast majority affected negatively by defoliants.


In South Korea today a minor cottage industry is devoted to memories of the Vietnam War. Indeed, South Koreans struggle with their own Vietnam syndrome, which crops up in several popular novels, including White Badge (1983), and a stream of movies from the horror flick R-Point (2004) to somewhat lighter fare like Sunny (2008). The war was not just a minor chapter in South Korea’s military history. And the country’s Vietnam syndrome is not just about military failure.

“The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the modernization and development of the country,” writes Ahn Junghyo in his 1983 bestseller White Badge. “And owing to our contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least a higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market.”

The Vietnam War is the dark shadow of Korean economic development. Just as Japan’s post–World War II economic success owes much to its supplying of US troops in the Korean War, South Korea used the Vietnam War as a springboard for its own great leap forward. Several successfulbusinesses, like the chaebols Hyundai and Daewoo, grew into huge conglomerates as a result of war-related contracts with the United States. The South Korean military, sustained by US supplies and training during the Vietnam era, also served as the backbone of South Korea’s authoritarian regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980, the Chun Doo-Hwan government relied on battle-hardened Korean troops to put down the Gwangju Uprising, the penultimate challenge to the US-backed dictators. Korea’s Vietnam syndrome is less about what Korea did in Vietnam than about the way the war transformed Korea for better or worse, and the consequent feelings of guilt and anger that have settled into the silt of the Korean psyche.

And now, thanks to Hwang Sok-yong and Seven Stories Press, the English-speaking world has another literary take on Korea’s Vietnam syndrome. Hwang is one of South Korea’s leading novelists. He was also one of the country’s most prominent dissidents. He was first jailed in 1964 for labor activism. Later, facing a seven-year prison sentence, he decamped to the United States and Germany. When he returned to Korea, he was promptly thrown in jail again, where he conducted numerous hunger strikes. Finally pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, he continued to write and publish novels, including The Guest, a powerful exploration of guilt and responsibility in the Korean War that won the prestigious Daesan Prize in South Korea in 2001.

This biography, a not uncommon one for a politically committed writer in Korea during the authoritarian period, contains an unusual interlude. From 1966 to 1969, Hwang Sok-yong served in Vietnam. He had a special role in the war: destroying evidence of civilian massacres. He once compared the experience to the service of his father’s generation in the Japanese Imperial Army, and the war figured as a subject of several of his stories when he returned to Korea.

His novel The Shadow of Arms, which appeared in Korea in 1985, just translated and released in the United States this year by Seven Stories Press, is not a conventional tale of the country’s Vietnam syndrome. There are no scenes that take place in Korea after the war among anguished veterans or guilty chaebol owners. Only one principal Korean character occupies the spotlight. Hwang is not really interested in how Vietnam shaped Korean psychology or the Korean economy. His focus is instead on Vietnam, and what Korea, the United States, and the Vietnamese themselves created there during the war.

The economic underpinning of the conflict — the “shadow” that the war casts — captivates Hwang. War, he tells us, is all about money, and The Shadow of Arms follows the money. His tale is in many ways an updated version of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage. But where Mother Courage struggles to retain her humanity as a low-level war profiteer in the Thirty Years’ War, the characters in The Shadow of Arms become increasingly dehumanized as they pursue their myriad economic deals.

War novels, since they focus on young people thrown into trials by ordeal, are necessarily coming-of-age narratives. The Shadow of Arms focuses on Ahn Yong Kyu, a Korean “crawler” plucked from his foxhole in the opening pages and sent to work in the Criminal Investigation Division. Immediately he is tasked with following the Byzantine black market deals that skim off luxury goods for the elite, resell daily necessities on the market, and divert war material to the Viet Cong. Everyone, it seems, is on the make. The Shadow of Arms depicts the war as a vast moneymaking enterprise, one that almost as a secondary byproduct kills people in combat. Ahn Yong Kyu comes of age in this shadow economy in the same way a young Corleone might learn the ropes inside the mafia.

The narrative also follows two Vietnamese brothers. Pham Quyen is a high-ranking South Vietnamese army officer who demonstrated early in his career that he “thought like an American.” Of course, Pham Quyen doesn’t really think like an American, in the sense of believing that brute force will overwhelm local realities and overcome local resistance. But he wants the Americans to think that he does. He is a thoroughly cynical operative, with an equally cynical Korean girlfriend, who facilitates the blatant corruption of the Americans’ “strategic hamlet” project. He even comes up with his own scheme to use South Vietnamese troops to “pacify” a section of mountainous region and then harvest cinnamon that he then can sell for export.

His younger brother Pham Minh, after secretly undergoing basic training with the Viet Cong, uses his brother’s connections to infiltrate the South Vietnamese Air Force. Pham Minh becomes involved in the smuggling of American arms to the Viet Cong in barrels of fish sauce. But while his brother and Ahn Yong Kyu are only in it for the money, Pham Minh is a believer willing to sacrifice his life for the cause. Even more, he is willing to endure the taunts of his countrymen who, not realizing that he is undercover, believe him to be a coward.

There is very little in the way of conventional war narrative in The Shadow of Arms. Ahn doesn’t reflect much on his battle experience prior to his promotion to CID. Only near the end are there several tersely described military operations. It’s as if Hwang wants to mimic the rhythm of the war itself — long stretches of waiting punctuated by sudden chaos, bloodshed, and death. It is a novel written as if the narrator had access only to the tax receipts and reports of financial investigators. Those hoping for a ripping war yarn will be disappointed. Those hoping for a realistic account of the actual business of war will not be.

Still, the war’s bloodletting is present throughout the book, and no more so than in the fragments of collage that Hwang pastes into the narrative. He includes three excerpts from interrogations about civilian atrocities, passages that indirectly reveal his own experience of the war. Hwang takes pains not to glorify war, and these transcripts destroy any notion of heroism. In the first, a group of American soldiers explain why they raped and murdered a young Vietnamese woman. In another, an American soldier explains why he shot a young Vietnamese boy in order to save him from further torture at the hands of his interrogators. In the third, the investigators lay bare the My Lai massacre and the actions of William Calley.

The Shadow of Arms is a long book. It goes into great detail — perhaps too much detail — about the infrastructure of the war’s shadow economy. It is blunt about where the responsibility lies: “The dollar is the leading edge in the imperialist order and the American ID is the organizer.” But these heavy-handed asides are an exception. The book takes care to reveal the complex motivations of the Vietnamese and the ambivalence of the Koreans. In this, Hwang is ably assisted by his English translator Chun Kyung-Ja, who does a fine job of capturing the colloquial banter of the three cultures — Korean, American, and Vietnamese. The profusion of military ranks in the novel can be bewildering, something a Korean reader might not find off-putting given the Korean language’s richer vocabulary of hierarchy. But even American novels like Matterhorn can’t avoid this challenge.

In the end, Hwang offers a different Vietnam syndrome to consider: how the war pitted two Asian countries fierce in their determination to escape colonialism yet unable to find common cause because of the orthodoxies of the time. One country passed from colonialism through war to unification. The other remains divided. The “Vietnam syndrome,” for both Korea and Vietnam, is all about dealing with the ghosts of the past. But the “Vietnam syndrome” of The Shadow of Arms is really about the future, for it asks the implicit question: can Korea achieve what Vietnam did without another war, and all of its attendant sufferings?


John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a recent Open Society Fellow. Twitter: @johnfeffer

LARB Contributor

John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a recent Open Society Fellow. Twitter: @johnfeffer.


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