Korea: Traces of a Forgotten War by James N. Butcher (2013)

Jim Butcher, 19, Korean War 1953

This is a book that everyone should read. How often does one get to say that – and not least when the title might suggest that the author merely means to expand our thin acquaintance with a sixty year old conflict, brief, remote, and wasn’t it all American? (No actually: it was a United Nations’ conflict.)

There are so many wars going on at any one time in the world but, surprisingly, when onekorea oic 3 stops to think of it, not many of us have the faintest idea of what it actually means to be an ordinary soldier on the frontline. You are fighting for your life and the lives of your companions, obeying orders to advance further into enemy-held territory, hoping every hour to kill your opponent before he kills you. And you are a teenager, just out of school.

James N. Butcher was one of those soldiers. He eagerly enlisted at the earliest moment, at 17. By the age of 19 when the conflict ended he was leading patrols of men older than himself, having been promoted up the ranks to Sergeant First Class, Fox Company, 17th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army.

In his book (Korea: Traces of a Forgotten War published by Hellgate Press, 2013) he briskly fills in the basic gaps in our knowledge about the Korean War (1950-53) but giving us a history lesson is his least intention. Rather, he writes an anecdotal, alternately searing and amusing personal account of a determined teenage soldier’s experience of frontline conflict in trenches constantly under enemy fire, of physical and cultural oddities he observes in the army and in the foreign places they are stationed. He writes of the peculiar dehumanization of the enemy and in some respects of women too, in contrast to the deep and loyal friendships on which soldiers in combat need to rely.

After the war, the GI Bill lifted Butcher out of childhood poverty and set him on course in a university career. Now he is 80, an internationally renowned professor of psychology, co-author of the ubiquitous and famous revised MMPI personality test, author of countless academic papers and of 58 books including some which have become standard academic texts. His book on Korea is not like any other he has written.

The narrative line and general tone of the book is derived from letters that Butcher wrote to his sister and which some 60 years later he was able to return to in order to write the work. He admits that it took all that time for him to face again the most formative experience in his life, his total emersion in the later stages of the Korean War. He lost almost all his closest friends there, especially during the much documented Assault on Jane Russell Hill and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, two famous and dangerous engagements in which Butcher was amongst the forward combatants. He survived, often by pure luck, left with what he regards as minor injuries – a shrapnel wound and deafness in one ear; but on Jane Russell Hill the man crouching beside him was shot in the head by a sniper; on another occasion Butcher missed putting his foot down on a mine whose tines, another soldier pointed out to him, poked up just inches from his boot; countless artillery shells just missed his position; and in the last part of one of the last battles, his Commanding Officer, unusually, insisted he stay behind on the grounds that he was due for rotation, and that same CO and his remaining buddies were killed in action soon after they entered the fray. By mere good fortune it was not also the author’s fate.

Given the risks he and his buddies always took and his youthful eagerness to volunteer for patrols, it is astonishing that Butcher survived the war. There is a certain modesty in his not really dwelling on this. Rather he returns repeatedly to the tragedy of the fact that so many others did not survive.

While for two years political negotiators in Panmunjom had haggled in conference about how to end the Korean conflict, thousands of combatants on both sides were being wounded or were dying in situations of permanent danger that the uninitiated can hardly imagine. At last the fighting came to an end: the declared ceasefire held from 10pm on the 27 July 1953. That was 61 years ago.

“There was the most incredible silence,” Butcher writes. “Not a tracer was seen dotting the sky, not an exploding round was heard. . .” Although now for the first time they could sleep without fear of attack, “No one felt much like sleeping; the excitement was too much. The evening passed without incident, the war was really over… All of the precious real estate that we had spent so long wrestling away from the Chinese and North Korean enemies, all of the concertina wire, all of the miles of our trench line and the network of mysterious Chinese caves would now become a part of the four kilometer demilitarized zone…”

After his returning troops ship with its much depleted numbers finally sailed back under the Golden Gate Bridge, no pomp and ceremony awaited the soldiers. In the newspapers, Korea had been reported as ‘a second page war’ by a nation battle-weary after the enthusiasms of the Second World War. The soldiers were expected simply to go home and start up their civilian lives again. Aside from the relative ignorance of many Americans about the military’s role in Korea, soon there was the growing Anti-Vietnam War movement and with it a popular turn towards anti-war protest and a spurning of men who had served in the military. The disdain was entirely unlike Butcher’s experience on a first return visit to Seoul for a psychology conference in 1992. Some 40 years had passed but passers-by and shop-keepers who asked if he’d ever visited Korea before, stopped to thank him, as an American, for his military role in ‘saving their country’. On the war’s 60th anniversary he was amongst those veterans honoured in celebrations and ceremonies in South Korea.

Most of the soldiers, as in all wars, were very young men sent to fight by old men. The language of the book is deliberately colloquial, capturing the youngsters’ turn of phrase and a juvenile jingoism that contrasts sharply with their adult stoicism, mature patriotism, serious loyalty – all the profound attributes of the trained combatant.

Most entertaining are Butcher’s wry descriptions about how soldiers in their forward trenches got to eat (not well), or wash (not much), or dress (never comfortably) or use latrines (never mind). He answers the anticipated questions about what happens to the soldier’s spit and polish of early training when he’s fighting for survival in rat infested trenches. There is the matter of physical and psychological courage under perpetual fire, the hardship and creative strategies of patrols and guard duty. There are stories about living out of doors all the time, of freezing winter, of malarial summer, of soaking rain, of insufficient clothing and inadequate fighting equipment. There is the problem of the occasional crazy officer or private, and the anguish of seeing wonderful men dying too soon. There is the arduously acquired mastery of lighting a cigarette and then smoking it in the midst of perpetual downpour and torrents of mud.

There are terrifying accounts of face to face encounters with the enemy, and on the first morning of the ceasefire, astonishment at witnessing what they had really been up against. Butcher scans the usually barren hills with his binoculars (booty from one of many poker games, as I recall). As far as the eye can see are ‘thousands upon thousands’ of Chinese soldiers ‘stretching from their forward caves and trenches all the way back to their rear echelon areas in the distance… standing a few feet apart, passing supplies and equipment backward in an endless assembly line… Had we known the extent of their forces … we would have not been so complacent and comfortable of our own strengths and capabilities.’

Butcher concludes with some reflections on the purpose of war, its gains and losses. One feels the influence of his wife Professor Carolyn Williams who has done extensive research on the exploitation of women in refugee camps and disaster zones. He affirms the radical new military regulations regarding the restraint of soldiers’ sexual conduct, and he agrees that the US military was complicit in the coercion of ‘comfort women’. He talks about the subtle changes in his own opinions about war, about the social conduct of soldiers posted abroad and military intervention in general.

But above all, his heartfelt, undiminished grief at the loss of his best buddies in the conflict will bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened reader.
Book review by Patricia Morris, 16 April 2014.

Korea: Traces of a Forgotten War by James N.  Butcher (Hellgate Press, 2013)