The Korean War has been called a number of things, most commonly The Forgotten War, but to Lieutenant James Brady it was The Coldest War. In 1947, college student Brady followed a classmate’s example and joined a marine program entitled the Platoon Leader’s Course, something like a reserve officer program that only took place during summer break. “Men joined the Marine Corps for many reasons:…to keep from being sent to prison, they were bored…A few sought adventure. I joined to avoid the draft.” It seemed like a good idea at the time: being drafted meant you were assigned to whatever military branch needed you, doing whatever job they chose, whether you liked it or not.
Combat memoirs are often clogged with obscure minutia that bogs down the narrative. Sometimes it’s esoteric details about the tools of war, such as the flying characteristics of an airplane or the inside of a tank, other times it might be constant allusions to small villages on faraway battlefields with no maps for reference. Readability is sacrificed for accuracy. Brady’s work doesn’t suffer from this defect. He keeps things simple and is a reliable observer, unimpressed with himself. “I had enough sense to be realistic about myself. I was still unformed as a man and knew it.”
He is a Princeton graduate and his story moves quickly, filled with personal observations and a welcome sense of context. He understood the history he was living through and making. “In some ways, it wasn’t a modern war at all, more like Flanders or the Somme or even the Wilderness Campaign. There were jets and tanks and warships but you didn’t see them very often.” For nine months he lived to fight and fought to live and gives us a gritty look at war in Korea.. It’s a very personal look at what he saw, ate, felt, what was important to one lonely man suddenly given responsibility for the lives of other men in the middle of a war. His first lesson was learned before he left the states, though, from a captain at Quantico named Joe Will. “Will had really been to Korea and had fought so we listened and took notes. Will didn’t talk about war aims or strategy or even small unit tactics. He told you what to take to Korea in your pockets.” Nail Clippers, vitamins, a knife, toilet paper, a few other items. These were the important lessons you didn’t learn from books or lectures that you could only learn from doing.
The book has a linear chronological structure, starting with the plane ride into Korea, and the author lets you know right away that he means his narrative to be literate and personal. “From the starboard windows you could see real mountains in the north, hunched and white-robed like Dominicans at prayer. I didn’t like the look of them.” Brady was an officer, a second lieutenant, the most dangerous officer rank. He reflects the intensity and pressure of his rank almost from the moment he steps off the plane in Korea. “Now I was a character in this chill nightmare.”
His first posting took him to the mountains of North Korea on the far eastern edge of the Korean peninsula, just north of the 38th parallel. Like every new Marine officer Brady wanted to be a platoon commander. First, though, he had to get used to life at the Main Line of Resistance, the MLR, the front, where death was quick and casual. In his first days he joined a patrol pursuing a squad of North Koreans, some of whom were wounded. The reality of war quickly became clear as they found bloody spoor in the snow. “Jesus, I thought, just think of your life’s blood leaking from you, people tracking you, wanting to kill you, and you absolutely have to shit, all at the same time.” He and his fellow Marines lived an underground existence in cramped bunkers, assaulted by bitter cold that destroyed fingers and toes, dodging snipers and mortar fire and struggling through night patrols. It wasn’t long before he was given a platoon, some 40 odd men, his first command.
Like soldiers the world over Brady soon realized that the most important people in his life were the Marines in his unit. He defended their life just as they defended his, and all other considerations faded into insignificance. “I accepted the status quo as I accepted Sergeant Princeton’s crude and vulgar ways. Was he a good platoon Sergeant? That’s what I cared about. It was what I cared about with the platoon: Would they do the job and not get anyone killed unnecessarily? Would I lead them well and not prove myself a fool or a coward?” Life before the war did not matter; life after the war was a distant dream.
And sometimes life in the present was a nightmare that drove men insane. “Kelso, the machine-gun Sergeant, lost a man…It wasn’t the Gooks that did it but the wind. We’d been on the line three weeks and the wind never stopped. One night Kelso’s corporal went berserk, firing off a heavy machine gun inside the bunker, trying to kill rats no one else saw. They carried him off in the morning, cursing the wind and the rats, drooling and trying to tear off his clothes.” Freezing men armed to the teeth in close proximity to the enemy were bound to be in danger, but Brady was surprised at how dangerous they were to each other, at how many different ways there were for a man to be injured, or killed. “So the Gooks were not the only danger. We were killing ourselves and breaking legs and falling sick and cracking up and being carried away. It was how it was in a mountain war in deep winter. But the Gooks were to have their chances.”
War was a whipsaw between short periods of intense activity and long stretches of doing nothing. The Marines adjusted and, in some fashion, even found small pleasures in life. “When you weren’t fighting, the war was pretty good. Mornings were the best time, the terror of night ended, the patrols and ambushes and duck blinds. Men slept late.” And sometimes more than small pleasures. “It was not difficult to fill a letter without giving alarm. If you have never been to war you cannot realize that some of it- not all, of course- is such sheer, boyish fun. You lived outdoors, you were physically active, you shared the boisterous camaraderie of other young men, you shed fat and put on sinew and muscle.” The pleasures didn’t last forever, though, because there were always the long nights. “I hated to see the dusk come. In combat there are no beautiful sunsets; a falling sun is a warning of the night. The shadows lengthen and the temperature falls and the wind seeks you out.” Night was a time for patrols and enemy attacks, a time of danger and death; there was no pleasure in life on the MLR by night.
Danger was everywhere. Enemy artillery, mortars, sudden attacks on the perimeter, deadly cold, illness and combat fatigue. Brady did his best to take care of his men but he remained a careful and reliable observer so that we believe him when he tries to tell us of the more subtle dangers facing his men, some of whom became ‘shook. “We were beginning to learn a new word for someone who’d had a bad scare or was losing his nerve. We said he was ‘shook’…Shook was nerves in general, and once you had a man who was really shook you tried to get rid of him because he was no good to you anymore…” Being shook was not what had been called ‘shell shock’, though, which is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That was another danger, another reaction to stress, which officers like Brady had to constantly watch for. “Men who had been out here for a long time reacted in different ways to stress. And when they knew there was a rotation draft coming and they were due to go home, you couldn’t predict how it would take them.”
Eventually Brady’s unit was moved off the line for a rest, leaving him to wonder what had been accomplished. The war was stagnant and cold and dirty and always dangerous, but to what purpose? “In a month and a half of fighting we had not moved an inch, forward or back. A few men died on both sides.” Even off the line in a rest area, though, with winter becoming spring, safety was an illusion. There were accidents and carelessness and illness to worry about. “So the war went on, no fighting to speak of, the daily communiques banal in their sameness, and marines continued to die. The mountains killed them, the cold, and now even the thaw conspired to kill them. And they killed themselves and each other, and sometimes the gooks had another turn at it.”
As the weather warmed, Brady’s battalion went back into the line, this time on the Korea’s western side, where nothing was different except the topography: the high mountains were replaced by valleys and smaller hills. There was no movement of the armies, however. Both sides gunnery was too good during daytime to risk exposure, so the war was left for night. “By day, except for the shells and occasional sniping where the lines closed to a few hundred yards, there was nothing. It was a nighttime war, and both sides observed the ground rules: by day we fenced, by night we fought.”
The author had, by this time, given up his platoon command to be the battalion intelligence officer, and soon after came his promotion to first lieutenant, for which he was inordinately proud. This leads to an passage that shows the author’s personal honesty in his memoir, and his sense of humor. “To a civilian it must sound superficial, shallow, but being promoted in combat meant something, and Mack and I couldn’t wait to pin on silver bars. Only problem, they didn’t have any, and in the end someone suggested a bit of adhesive tape stuck on the gold bars would look dull silver, so we did that. I never did get a set of real silver bars.”
Despite the closeness and dependence on each other necessary to survive in an infantry unit, a man could only invest his emotions in those who were close at hand. Once a man was gone, he was gone. “That was how it was, a man was part of your life, you liked him or you didn’t, but he was there and had meaning. Then he was gone, and after a few weeks his name wouldn’t come up.” A combat infantryman, and especially an officer, could not afford to invest emotion in those who were gone. Out of sight, out of mind.
In their new section of line Brady finally got to see Koreans, because he finally got to see Korean villages instead of bare landscape. “There were villages in this sector, real villages, and not the burned out, empty, desolate villages of the eastern mountains, where no one lived, from where populations had been banished.” Aside from helping the reader visualize Korea, this sentence also illustrates both the author’s innate intelligence and his education. As a prose example it’s just plain interesting, a perfect example of why this combat memoir soars over most others. In this same chapter he neatly captures the frustrations of soldiers tied to fixed defenses, never accomplishing anything, not taking ground or fighting in the open, during a discussion with his friend and fellow lieutenant, Mack. “‘Mack, this is some war.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, not knowing what I meant, just agreeing. ‘We never fight a real battle, we don’t win or lose, yet guys get killed, we wrap them up and send them south somewhere. We eat some more, we sleep some more, more of us get killed or lose a leg or go blind, and there’s never a real battle and still the war goes on. Wouldn’t you think one of us, them or us, would get tired of it and just pack up and go home?’” The quotes ring true because they sound like the author, even if the chances of these being direct quotes remembered long after the fact are remote.
And that’s the key to why this book works so well, it’s smart, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, but always rings with honesty and insight into the mind of a soldier. The objective is to bring to the reader a world he or she may never know, the world of war. Brady does his best but admits he can only make it so real. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been shot at up close in a real firefight can possibly understand how good you feel afterward. Men have been killed or hurt, the fight has been won or lost, but there is only one truly significant fact: that you are still alive, you have not been killed.” As the spring waned and summer grew ever hotter, Brady began to realize that heat could be every bit as bad as cold and tries again to help the reader understand combat. “No one I knew who had been there long enough missed the winter, regretted the cold. But this fighting in the heat possessed its own dimension of horror. You could see the wounds, see what killed people, the explicit manner of death an injury.” No longer bundled under layers of clothes that hid wounds and blood, things that killed men were open for all to see.
And then, almost before he knew it, Brady’s war was over and he was headed home, with only his reflections for company. He had not achieved legendary feats, had not been in a famous battle, the only real action had been a nasty little firefight on a hill the Marines called the Yoke. “Yoke. The biggest fight I was ever in, and there’d been what, maybe a squad of chinks? Some battle. Some war. Small and mean and cold and all the war I ever wanted. As Sergeant Wooten said, it wasn’t much, but it was the only war we had.”
Brady had done very little in terms of military achievement. And yet his combat memoir is among the best we have, because he comes as close as anyone can to letting the reader know what it was like in Korea. Cold, cramped, dirty, dangerous, whatever Brady is trying to tell the reader, it’s believable, it’s illustrative, it does what the best literature is supposed to do: takes the reader somewhere he or she has not been before and makes them understand what it’s like to be there.