A 'Chosin few'

Tom Plate eulogizes the late writer James Brady and his perspectives on the Korean peninsula

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Beverly Hills, California --- If only in memory of the bone-chillingly, historically awful Korean War (1950-1953) -- or in memory of the brilliant author James Brady (1928-2009) -- you might want to read (or perhaps in your case re-read) -- his novel about that war.

That's what I did the other day, right after hearing of his death, coming as it did in his sleep in his Manhattan home, at the age of 80. I dropped everything and, in his memory, re-read The Marines of Autumn -- every carefully selected word, well-balanced sentence, deftly constructed paragraph. What a great book and, if you don't mind a little macho-editorializing, what a real man Jim was, too.

Diamond Jim, as we sometimes called him, was handsome enough easily to be a television journalist, but he never much wanted escape from the brawling arena of print, never wanting totally to become a patty-cake journalist in the powder-puff medium of video. Carving his Diamond Jim "Mark-of-Zorro" initials at edgy publications from New York magazine to Advertising Age, he could use language with the force of a show-wrestler's carefully choreographed slam-down, believing that sometimes a loud kind of writing noise could scare away falsehood and pretention and focus the mind on the truth.

His literary muscularity came in especially handy when scoping out gigantic figures like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom in his Korean War novel (St. Martin's Press, 2000) no truly honest soldier trusted, and whom Jim himself obviously loathed.

Brady, for instance, has an American colonel on MacArthur's staff in Tokyo saying: "The Mikado himself is in the building. If you witness officers prostrating themselves and elderly Japanese gentlemen practicing disembowelment, you'll know you've seen General MacArthur pass."

Brady himself was one of those U.S. Marines in the Korean War "who fought and defeated the Chinese army in the autumn of 1950 in the mountains of North Korea near the Chosin Reservoir, those who ever since have called themselves, with rare humor, 'the Chosin Few.'"

Ten years before the novel, journalist and former platoon leader Brady wrote The Coldest War, a nonfiction reminiscence. But whether nonfiction or not, Diamond Jim was in his genes an Irish-American gunslinger who could knock back a few strong shots of whatever virulent liquid with the best of them, while unleashing a rapid round of verbal firepower that could lay you out.

But for the Japanese and Chinese soldiers he met, instead of contempt, Brady paints pictures with deep respect. The Japanese he admires most, perhaps, for their metronomic and effective passion for order, though hating the atrocious extremism of its soldiers in battle, and their barbarous treatment of prisoners. The Chinese Communists he admires perhaps most for the fact that, even back in the '50s, they weren't much more than skin-deep Communists: "The Chinese were Chinese first and everything else second..."

Brady's Korea, too, is a picture of grudging admiration. The extremes of winter cold and summer heat pound Koreans into models of accommodation, whether telling you what they think you want to hear, because they wish not to cause offense or create problems, or adapting to the superficial dogmas of capitalism or communism because they think that is what is needed to survive. In other words, there will always be a Korea (and today the Republic of Korea, in the south, has a proud army unlike its mainly joke army of the fifties).

Brady has an American soldier up in North Korea in the campaign against the Chinese saying: "That damned wind came right out of the heart of Manchuria. I believe Genghis Khan was right... Nobody can win a winter campaign in the land of the Mongols."

Indeed, the combatants in the Korean War petered out, exhausted, of course, in a hugely disappointing stalemate, which is still not over, as it's the last major remnant of the Cold War, with no peace treaty ready for signing on the table. But if one reads his Brady, one comes to believe that Korea and Koreans -- not to mention the rest of the world -- deserve a lot better than two states that history has frozen in the past.

It is true that Brady, a friend, who spent his time at his lovely Long Island house in the trendy Hamptons when he wasn't in Manhattan doing journalism, was at best bemused by my column's support of the "Sunshine Policy" of diplomatic openness with North Korea, and by my optimism that North Korea would eventually trade in its primitive but feral nuclear arsenal for security. It was his sense that all wars over Korea -- diplomatic or otherwise -- were fated to be difficult, drawn-out and deeply enervating.

It is also true that I never slipped in the mud or fell down the frozen mountain passes of Korea, never risked all that Jim did -- whether in his real-life career as a tough Marine or in his real-life prose as a tough writer. But underneath all the smart-aleck Irish cynicism and effortless street smarts, he was, I believe, praying that we silly optimists will be proven right about the tragic but beautiful Korean peninsula. Neither Koreans nor anyone else should ever wish to suffer through a hell like that again.

That's the whole point of being warlike for peace.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.