Unremembered Victory (Truth in the Hills Press, 176 pp. $8, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a short historical novel by Dennis H. Klein. It deals with American military concerns and actions along the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea in 1968. Klein says all the stories in the book are true, but he uses “poetic license” in telling them.
The focus of the story is on what’s been called the 1968 “DMZ War” or sometimes the “Second Korean War.” Klein says all the characters are based on people he served with or met during his twenty-one months in Korea.
Four thousand American troops found themselves stationed near the DMZ a fifteen years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. These men were considered neither the best nor the worst of what America had to offer. It was commonly believed that the best troops at the time were serving in Vietnam. But so, it was believed, were our worst troops because of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s lowering of the mental standards to fill out numbers for the war in Vietnam.
Plus, the West Point graduates serving as officers in Korea were rumored to have graduated in the bottom third of their class. As if that wasn’t enough, it seemed that the equipment sent to Korea was all “antiquated junk” because the good stuff was going to Vietnam.
Assuming this is basically true, that left a Second Infantry Division with average troops and questionable equipment and a second-rate officer corps to face the North Korean Army, the fourth largest in the world, which was hell bent on invading South Korea.
With North Korea’s seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968, Americans along the DMZ went from their usual “state of high lollygag,” as Klein puts it, to preparing for a war that “could start anytime. Clerks, mechanics, medics and cooks were now infantry soldiers.” There were firefights up and down the line and the extremely lethal North Korean commandos were known to sometimes cross surreptitiously into the South.
Students in South Korea began marching in protest—not against the possibility of war with the North, though. They were in favor of a war in order to unite North and South Korea.
Washington did not want to fight another war while engaged in Vietnam so the Army’s job was to control things so they didn’t develop into a big news story. Yet there also was talk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. While this didn’t become a major war, it was certainly war enough for the American troops on the ground.
“Once you are north of the fence long enough, you are out on the line in your head all the rest of your days,” was a commonly expressed thought.
A phrase heard in writers’ circles is if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it. That’s what Klein has done, maintaining that the Vietnam War “should not be the only story told of our generation.” The 1968 face-off with North Korea was a “victory,” as opposed to our defeat in Vietnam, which, he says, “forever brands us as a bunch of losers.”
This is an interesting look at a story in danger of being lost in the mists of history.