Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: War Trash

Ha, Jin. War Trash. Pantheon Books, 2004.

Reading an account, even a fictionalized one, of Asian prisoners held by the United States provides a clear look at commonalities in the prison experience facing military and civilian prisoners.  Ha Jin describes Chinese prisoners of war experiencing the same feelings of loneliness, isolation, and fear that American prisoners during the Vietnam War report in their memoirs.  Issues of living conditions, food supplies, collaboration, and physical abuse are also a constant concern of both the Chinese soldiers Ha Jin portrays and other prisoner memoirs.  The difference with this text is that it addresses the specific problems faced by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army during and after the Korean War.
Issues specific to this setting included, but were not limited to, conflict between soldiers with Nationalist and Communist sympathies, disparity in treatment between the two groups by their American and South Korean captors, and worries over treatment by either Communist or Nationalist governments after the end of the war.  The novel’s protagonist, Yu Yuan, fell into a grey area between the Nationalists and Communists.  While not a member of the Communist Party, Yu also did not completely support Chiang Kai-Shek.  His credentials as a graduate of the Nationalist-affiliated Huangpu Military Academy caused Communists to view him with suspicions, while Nationalists assumed he would side with them.  Both sides desired his skills as an interpreter and pressured him to join him – the Nationalists going so far to torture and murder those who opposed him.
Though he disliked the Communists’ desire to control the thoughts and minds of his fellows, Yu feels that he must fulfill his filial duty to his Mother and fiancĂ©, and works to return to China at all costs.  As a result, he was one of the few Chinese prisoners to return.  Rather than receiving a hero’s welcome, the repatriated soldiers are condemned by the Communist Party, becoming pariahs in the homeland they fought to defend because they did not choose a glorious death.  By the time he returns, his mother is dead, and his fiancĂ© shuns him due to the stain on his reputation.  In contrast, Yu sees the prosperity of those who chose to relocate to Tiawan, and the welcome they receive when they return to China thirty years after the war.
As much as War Trash shows the commonality of the prisoner of war experience of soldiers of different nations, it shines a bright light on the specific challenges Chinese soldiers faced during the Korean War, particularly the demands of ideological purity and sacrifice placed on them by the Chinese Communist Party.  While fiction, Ha Jin draws not only on a variety of primary and secondary sources.  Since the work is dedicated to his father, a member of the PLA serving in Korea, it is sure that some of the events described come from his recollections of the period.  This means that while War Trash cannot be relied on for research purposes, it plays an important role in setting the mood of the conflict.

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