South Korea and the Vietnam-era Mindset

A Vietnam-era mindset still influences many Americans, perhaps especially longtime leftists. The same is true in South Korea. But the Vietnam era meant rather different things to South Koreans than it did to Americans.

For one thing, many South Koreans mapped their images of a divided Vietnam onto a divided Korea, and vice versa. This shows up very starkly in a novel like The Shadow of Arms, by Hwang Suk-Young, whose English translation by Chun Kyung-Ja was published by the Cornell University East Asia Program in 1994. I had the chance to write a review of the book for the journal Korean Studies in 1996.

At one point during a huge antiwar rally in San Francisco that I attended while on a weekend pass from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey in 1969, a speaker standing beneath the flag of North Vietnam began attaching conditions to his hitherto well-received calls for peace. But almost as soon as his “We demand peace” turned to “We will accept no peace until …” the more-alert members of the crowd began to chant “Peace now! Peace now!” More and more people took up the cry until they drowned out the rest of the speech. For the speaker, peace was a step on the road to partisan victory. For the crowd, it was an end in itself. The crowd won that round but, in typical fashion, the partisan peaceniks were better represented among the organizers, while the naive peaceniks were far more numerous among the organized.

Although utterly cynical about the enterprise (and especially the entrepreneurs) of war, The Shadow of Arms is not exactly an antiwar novel. It is written more in the spirit of that partisan peace activist beneath the North Vietnamese flag in San Francisco. Set almost entirely amidst the logistics-and-supply cornucopia behind the lines rather than in the more intense violence of the free-fire zones, it presents the war as essentially a struggle between self-sacrificing patriots (supported by the communist North Vietnamese) and self-indulgent profiteers (supported by the capitalist Americans). This focus on the wartime black market in South Vietnam may well reflect Hwang Suk-Young’s own experience in the 2nd ROK Marine Brigade, which was deployed to Vietnam from 1965 to 1972. But it also appears to reflect his vision of Cold War South Korea, whose greedy and corrupt military leaders presumably abandoned the goals of reunification and independence for personal profit. By implication, North Korea is the preserve of self-sacrificing patriots still wedded to nationalist, rather than capitalist, goals.

This novel thus evokes the shared fate of Korea and Vietnam. It does not explore the motives (other than profit) for South Korean participation in the war, nor the reactions of individual Koreans to the experience. There is no hint, for instance, of the kind of introspection found in Ahn Junghyo’s [war novel] White Badge, where the protagonist is reminded of his own childhood picking through the garbage of the American soldiers when he sees Vietnamese kids sifting through the rubbish of the Korean troops. Nevertheless, Hwang’s novel is an engrossing tale of individuals caught up in blackmarket plunder within a command economy during the chaos of war. (Although Hwang appears to consider such plunder typical of capitalist economies, I suspect–having spent a year in Romania under Ceausescu–that it is typical of any economy in which an elite has monopoly control of crucial resources, whether that elite meets in corporate boardrooms or in people’s palaces.)

For many Koreans, their participation on the American side during the Vietnam War was quadruply shameful. Not only did they fight on the losing side, but they fought to preserve a divided country, they fought for capitalism, and they fought in a mercenary capacity. Many others, of course, were eager to combat communism and to repay a debt to a vital ally.

The mercenary issue is particularly nettlesome. It’s a toxic label. But it’s hard to deny that, to a certain extent, the Vietnam War provided the same kind of stimulus to South Korea’s postwar economy that the the Korean War did to Japan’s earlier postwar economy (and European wars did to the U.S. economy even earlier). That’s why the same review also considered a related book, Mercenaries and Lyndon Johnson’s “More Flags”: The Hiring of Korean, Filipino and Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Robert M. Blackburn (McFarland, 1994).

The mercenary nature of foreign involvement in the war is the central theme of Robert M. Blackburn’s fascinating nonfiction account of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to beg or buy international support for South Vietnam under “The Free World Assistance Program” (commonly labeled “More Flags”), which began in 1964. Blackburn, like Hwang, is a Vietnam War veteran who “had the good fortune to fight alongside, though never with, some units of the ROK Marines, and was never bothered by what label they wore” (155). He is careful to distinguish the soldiers who fight wars from the politicians who make wars, observing that any stigma attached to the word mercenary belongs to the leaders, not to the soldiers.

However, Blackburn offers a more subtle analysis of the status of mercenaries. He notes that individual soldiers may choose to fight for a foreign country for reasons other than simply pay, although the pay itself defines their status as mercenaries. Soldiers-of-fortune may fight for the thrill of it. Others enlist because they believe in the cause they are being paid to fight for. Much the same can be said for entire military units, or even for nations that inject their own troops into foreign wars. “In the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, for example, Franco’s Moroccan battalions fought only for pay, while the opposing members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought for a cause. Both units, however, … shared the common status of mercenaries” (146).

Australia and New Zealand sent military units to Vietnam at their own expense (and therefore not as mercenaries) and for their own reasons. In fact their support for South Vietnam began before Johnson’s More Flags program. Both countries had helped fight communist insurgencies in the Malay Peninsula, and both were alarmed by what Sukarno and his Communist Party allies were doing in Indonesia. Each apparently considered it in its own national interest to help assure the survival of a capitalist South Vietnam. South Korea had at least as much national interest in the survival of South Vietnam as those two countries did. But it also had a “debt of honor” (46) to repay to the allies who helped assure its own survival little more than a decade earlier.

Other countries contributed varying amounts to South Vietnam, from Morocco’s “10,000 cans of sardines worth $2,000” to Japan’s “$55 million worth of economic assistance from a World War II reparations agreement” (141). Most contributed medical supplies and equipment. Costa Rica (actually the Costa Rican Sugar Growers Association) sent an ambulance (143), and South Korea’s first military unit to arrive was a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) [emphasis added] (159). However, of all the More Flags allies, South Korea committed the most troops (50,000 out of the 65,000 in 1968 [158]), suffered the most casualties (4,407 out of the 5,241 killed [xiii]), and reaped the greatest economic benefits in return. Blackburn (64-65) estimates that South Korean soldiers received about $1 billion just in pay, allowances, and benefits alone in 1967-73. A ROK private with a base pay of $1.60 a month could earn $1.00-$1.25 for each day’s service in Vietnam. Still, each ROK soldier cost the U.S. only about half as much as a comparable American soldier.



Filed under Indonesia, Korea, military, Vietnam

2 responses to “South Korea and the Vietnam-era Mindset

  1. Pingback: Goals of Thai Volunteer Soldiers in the Vietnam War « Far Outliers

  2. I spent nearly seven years in Korea and while “many” Koreans may have found their participation in the Vietnam War “quadruply shameful” an equal, likely greater, many Koreans did not. At least that was my experience. Now that the Sunshine policy of those years has collapsed, I suspect that many of the ‘many’ who did, now feel quite different. Current events have a habit of changing ones view, perhaps ‘assessment’ is a better term, of past events.

    Interesting excerpts on the Thais, by the way. I’m very glad to have found it and am considering getting a copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.