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At War’s Painful Core

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

"We who have experienced the war directly have a responsibility to share our insight and experience concerning the truth of war," the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes. "We are the light at the tip of the candle. It is very hot, but it has the power of shining and illuminating."

America’s three wars in Asia this century have generated a significant body of literature in the United States and Asia. Excerpts from many of these stories and poems, along with photos, film, and art will be available online in 2001 in a digital resource library being developed by the American Wars in Asia Project with NEH support.

"Our core objective is to promote imaginative ways of looking at international conflict and talking about the experience of war," says Philip West, director of the project at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. "Poetry and fiction have helped to shape our cultural approach to studying war."

While political and military histories focus on nations and ideologies, fiction writers and poets have sought to illuminate the experience by documenting trauma, exploring loss of innocence, and calling for remembrance.

"By supplementing traditional histories with literature and art, we’re using another lens to look at people and their experiences," says West. "We’re asking the question, what is the impact of war in human terms?"

To understand how international conflicts affect individuals and communities, the project also sponsors dialog groups for writers, intellectuals, and veterans from the United States and Asia. It has produced a book of essays entitled America’s Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory, which grew out of an NEH-funded seminar.

In Japan, expressions of the impact of the Pacific War initially were suppressed. The U.S. forces occupying Japan censored all discussion of the August 1945 atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many survivors experienced a fractured sense of identity and reality but were unable to process the bombings emotionally because of the ban on discussing them. The Japanese themselves ostracized hibakusha, the survivors of the bombings, who were often physically marked and regarded as unmarriageable. In Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, negotiations for a marriage agreement for a young woman named Yasuko end when she shows signs of radiation sickness and sends the young man "a despairing letter saying she had started having symptoms." Her uncle asks, "I wonder whether it was love for him that made her decide on this honest course? Or did she do it in despair, on the impulse of the moment?"

In the United States, John Hersey’s Hiroshima overwhelmed readers with its depiction of six victims’ experiences of the bomb. The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto worked at rescue: "They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment….He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, ‘These are human beings.’"

Although the novel was released in the United States in 1946, it was not published in Japan until 1949, when censorship was lifted. A best-seller in Japan, the book contributed to the burgeoning of previously forbidden atomic-bomb literature.

A genre of hibakusha literature was established with the writings of Nagai Takashi, a young, widowed father. Ill from radiation sickness, Nagai wrote prolifically until his death in 1951. His writings express his faith in Christianity and a sense of martyrdom. "Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim," Nagai writes in Bells of Nagasaki, "the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?"

"Most of us, even historians, aren’t inclined to consider that there may be a Japanese story here that doesn’t fit into the predominant view of Japan as the evil empire during the Pacific War," says West. "Once you listen to stories on both sides, you realize there were Japanese people who opposed the war, who suffered in the war, and many people who are working today to heal and to own up to their responsibilities."

The outpouring of Japanese atomic-bomb literature coincided with the escalation of the Cold War. American involvement in Korea terrified many Japanese, who feared the possibility of a third world war. From 1949 through the mid-1950s, the still-fresh images of the atomic bombings contributed to heiwa undõ, a pacifist movement that endorsed political neutrality. New kinds of nationalism and pacifism were expressed in literature as a result of higaisha ishiki, or victim consciousness.

The Korean War’s roots are in the post-World War II division of Korea into the Soviet-occupied North and the U.S.-occupied South. In the United States, it was an unpopular conflict and quickly forgotten. "The Korean War came so soon after the Pacific War, there was no psychological room to entertain another war," West says.

In an essay in America’s Wars in Asia, David McCann attributes its "forgotten war" status to the impact of three previous wars of the twentieth century. The shock and destruction of World War I, the inhumanity on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and the horror and unprecedented number of casualties of World War II made a further military excursion into Korea "hard to justify" only five years after the end of World War II.

McCann, a professor of Korean literature at Harvard, suggests that Western literature’s failure to provide a "meaningful account" of war explains the silence of American writers.

Literary works of the first World War and the Spanish Civil War ended the rhetorical tradition of calling death in war "noble sacrifice," McCann writes, and the literary response to World War II also denied, on the whole, any overarching significance to death in war. He concludes that the literary tradition of this century has dealt with war through irony, silence, and reportage, forming "a predisposition not to seek literary heroism in connection with the war in Korea."

In Korean literature, the war is often treated as a civil war whose roots reach back to the struggle against Japanese occupation. Japanese colonizers suppressed Korean stories of social and political upheaval because they were considered anti-imperialist and pro-nationalist. After the country’s division, such stories in South Korea were viewed as sympathetic to the communists. In North Korea, they were considered favorable to the government of Syngman Rhee.

Ahn Junghyo’s 1990 novel Silver Stallion deals with the effects of war on a boy, his mother, and the head elder of a small village. The villagers awaited the arrival of the U.N. armies with great anticipation. But when two U.N. soldiers rape the young widow Ollye, a villager comments, "That’s what the Japanese did to our women when they invaded this country, and that’s what the Mongols and the Chinese did when they were here. They raped every woman in sight―virgins, widows, housewives―every living thing with a skirt on. I don’t think the Occidentals are any different.”

Shamed in the eyes of her community, Ollye becomes a prostitute to support her children. When her son, Mansik, catches two boys peeping on his mother, the confrontation involves the whole village. The village elder berates the assembled community: "Don’t you think this war has brought enough hate and fighting among us? We have had enough of ill feelings for one generation." Yet, the novel concludes with the village divided and Ollye leaving to seek a new life.

Unlike the Korean War, a great deal has been written about the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1954 to 1975. The fiction and poetry of Americans and Vietnamese who witnessed the war employ a common approach to style and form. In fiction, a quickly shifting narrative, lack of superstructure, and absence of transitions disorient and frustrate the reader.

"In any war story, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen....What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way....The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot," writes Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried.

Vietnamese novels dealing with the war demonstrate similar fragmentation. In Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, an unidentified speaker tells the story of Kien, one of only ten survivors of the Lost Battalion of the North Vietnamese Army. The fighting happened in "the dry season when the sun burned harshly, the wind blew fiercely, and the enemy sent napalm spraying through the jungle and a sea of fire enveloped them, spreading like the fires of hell. Troops in the fragmented companies tried to regroup, only to be blown out of their shelters again as they went mad, becoming disoriented, and threw themselves into nets of bullets, dying in the flaming inferno….The diamond-shaped grass clearing was piled high with bodies killed by helicopter gunships. Broken bodies, bodies blown apart, bodies vaporized."

A montage of images, stories nested within each other, and reflections on writing mingle to disorient the reader and create an atmosphere of chaos and destruction. The novel alternates between the first and the third person, undermining the reader’s sense of an authoritative consciousness controlling the book.

Vietnam War poetry by Americans and Vietnamese also employs structural fragmentation and often consists of snapshot-like images.

In "You and I Are Disappearing," Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes of a Vietnamese girl burning from napalm and how her image haunts him.

We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline….

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and poet, was labeled an "antiwar poet" and "pro-Communist propagandist" by his government. He was forced into exile in France, where he lives today. In "Condemnation," Thich poses unanswerable questions.

Humans are not our enemies―even those called ‘Vietcong.’
If we kill our brothers and sisters, what will we have left?
With whom then shall we live?

Universal experiences of love, loneliness, fear, and sadness appear in Poems from Captured Documents, a collection of twenty-three poems edited by Nguyen Thanh and Bruce Weigl. Many North Vietnamese soldiers carried a copy of one of these poems: "The Couple of the Mountains." In the poem, the speaker returns after seven years at war to find that his fiancée was killed in an attack.

From the mountains to the river the road is blocked.
Xuan-Duc and Doai-Dong are thick with wild grass.
Bomb-cratered yards have become ponds, houses burn,
Destroyed in the dust and broken tile.
. . .

On the way to the market I heard someone say
The next harvest would bring much rice.
The mountains remain side by side
And I remember our love.
As long as the enemy is here, I will fight.

Poets of the Vietnam War "have borne witness for those dead, testifying to the horror of war and its realities, rather than to jingoistic or spurious myths," writes combat veteran James Soular. "By doing so, they have made their anguish humanity’s, and they have warned us of what grim possibilities lie in war."

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Funding Information

NEH has provided The American Wars In Asia Project with $258,000 in funding for its digital resource library and for a 1995 Summer Institute for College and University Teachers.