by Michael Pembroke
A literary agent once told me not to write what you think people would like to read; write only from the heart, then people will read what you have written. My book on Korea came from the heart. It has been a long time in the making, perhaps even a lifetime. But the timing of its publication is a coincidence – although I confess that my publisher hurried me along as tensions rose on the Korean peninsula.
The genesis of the book was my desire to understand and tell the story of the Battle of Maryang San – an event that occurred four years before I was born. For some reason, I have lived with a consciousness of that battle for most of my life. I vividly remember as a six-year old boy, lying ill in bed with a recurrence of the meningitis that I had suffered in England. After the long sea voyage to Australia, the illness returned and I was confined to a darkened room in my new home in Queenscliff, Victoria. Fitful and feverish, partly delirious, I kept seeing flashes of a battle scene involving my father. Strangely, no one had told me of this particular scene at the time. I did not learn of it until quite recently.
Although the Battle of Maryang San was the genesis, I was not content to write just another war story. I have never liked – nor has my father – the jingoism and excessive patriotism with which some countrymen celebrate their military conflicts. Once I had understood the battle, I needed to put it into the overall context of the war. Once I had done that, I wanted to understand the origins and causes of the war, and also its legacy. And as I began to learn what had happened, I felt the need to look more closely at the dark side of the conduct of the war; at the things of which most Americans had little or no knowledge.
Some of those things included the secret decision in late September 1950, when the war should have been over, to continue the conflict by invading North Korea and seeking to effect regime change in Pyongyang. That calamitous decision transformed what was effectively a three-month civil war into a global conflict with China that lasted over three years. Washington never understood the irony of its decision. Having complained about North Korea crossing the 38th parallel and invading the south, it had no compunction about leading UN forces across the 38th parallel and invading the north.
The immediate result was that China entered the war to protect its border. What followed was the longest and most infamous retreat in American military history. The American-led forces were hounded out of North Korea; fleeing by every means available. It soon became a rout.
Many times while writing the book, I was quietly moved to tears. The heart-rending scenes of hapless and inexperienced young American soldiers fleeing from a superior Chinese force, every man for himself, some men run over by their own tanks, provided one such occasion. Another was the disproportionate scale of the American response and the misplaced righteous indignation that accompanied it – the overwhelming use of airpower against innocent civilians, the razing of villages, the burning of haystacks, the carpet bombing of cities and towns, the destruction of dams, the profligate use of napalm. It was a display of impotent fury that achieved little other than to destroy the country, kill millions of men, women and children and stoke the fires of North Korean resentment for years to come.
There were other aspects of the story that moved me deeply, and continue to do so whenever I re-read what I have written – the secret harbouring of Japanese war criminals in order to benefit from their biological warfare research; the appalling treatment of communist Chinese and North Korean soldiers in POW camps run by the US Army; and Washington’s dissembling over the prisoner repatriation issue and the grotesque prolongation of the war that ensued.
I could see in the way the war was conducted, so many echoes of the next sixty years of hubris and overreach – the years of pointless conflict in Vietnam; the CIA wars in Central and South America; the unnecessary invasion of Iraq; the reflexive and simplistic classification of nations and people into ‘good’ and ‘evil’; and the inevitable resentment (and worse) generated toward the United States. And I could understand why some questioned whether the United States has been a force for good on the Korean peninsula.
After I had written the book in draft, I had an opportunity for reflection and interaction at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study – that unique institution that became the home of Albert Einstein and George Kennan, both of whom have important roles in the story that I have told. The experience at Princeton only confirmed my impressions, my doubts and my criticisms. When Freeman Dyson, the Institute’s legendary 94-year-old physicist and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, kindly read my draft and told me that it would make ‘some people angry and others thoughtful’, I felt that my job was done.
This book will be released in Australia in February 2018.