The Shadow of Arms by Hwang Sok-Yong

I’ve read other novels dealing with the Republic of Korean troops and the Vietnam War. All were combat novels. Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Shadow of Arms (Seven Stories, 576 pp., $14.95, paper), on the other hand, is the first Korean Vietnam War REMF novel I am aware of.

The back cover blurb of this immense book informs us that “a young corporal serving in the Korean Armed Forces during the Vietnam War is transferred to the Allied Forces Criminal Investigation Division in Da Nang. His assignment is to keep an eye on the black market that is flourishing in the country, feeding on the U. S. dollars pouring into an imperialist war.”

Those last two words really caught my eye. Rarely is a cover blurb on a Vietnam War novel marketed to an American audience written with a doctrinaire communist slant.

It goes on: “Trafficking, blackmail, profiteering and hoarding are set alongside the atrocities and brutalities of a hellish war.”  We are then told that this novel is different than other Vietnam War novels because the author’s voice is “the wry and compassionate one of a universal noncombatant.” Different? I don’t think so, as I’ve encountered many a “wry and compassionate” voice in other Vietnam War novels.

The author has written other novels, and he served five years in prison in South Korea, much of it in solitary confinement, for his choice of subject in his writing. He was born in 1943, and served in the military in Vietnam as a “mercenary” in the South Korean Marine Corps.

The Shadow of Arms, translated by Chun Kyang-Ja, was first published in 1985. It is based on the author’s military experiences in Vietnam serving with American and South Vietnamese forces during the time of the Tet Offensive.

Hwang Sok-Yong

I served in South Vietnam just prior to the Tet Offensive, and also was involved in the investigation of black market activities, mostly focused on South Korean soldiers’ abuse of their PX privileges. So while this story is not new to me, it is of great interest. The author was obviously there, involved, and he gets the details right.

Hwang Sok-Yong is in his seventies now, but this book was written in the 1980s so it is not the maunderings of an old man who has lost his wits. This is a new translation, occasionally hard to follow, but worth the effort for a reader curious about the subject—the Korean involvement in the American war in Southeast Asia.

I found it fascinating because I’d always wanted to know what the South Korean Army was doing about black market activities in Vietnam. This book tells that story.

There is wonderful stuff about Col. George Patton III, about the periodic changing of MPC to confuse the illegal money brokers, and the con-job that was the Strategic Hamlet Program—which, in reality, was run as a scam to line the pockets of corrupt ARVN officers.

The author is clearly sympathetic to the cause of the Viet Cong. This is rare in a Vietnam War novel not first published in post-war Vietnam. This novel describes and attacks the U.S.-led war effort, especially the atrocities and corruption, while giving the communist side mostly a free pass. That should set some American readers’ teeth on edge.

There is an engrossing detective story buried in this giant novel, but it is hard to get to amid sections on the My Lai Massacre, the story of Casualties of War, and just every other bad thing that the author found about the “imperialist” American war.

If he had chosen to focus the story on his detective and main character, this would have been a fun ride. Instead, we are lectured to in the introduction, then forced to plow through a book that says the war was “meant to promote the interests of the hegemonic capitalist power and hence could be terminated only when the capitalists at home finally came to object to its ultimate unprofitability.”

I guess I shouldn’t blame the author for his introduction, but I can blame him for writing a novel that hides the story away amid a welter of propaganda.

If you have the energy and desire, this book will provide you with more information about the black market in South Vietnam around the time of the Tet Offensive than you could ever need to know. Good luck with that.

—David Willson