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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Why have we read so little about Korea?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

Fifty years ago an uneasy peace descended on Korea after a bitter three-year war involving more than a dozen nations, including the UK. But why did this bloody conflict make so little impact on our collective consciousness?

"Suddenly we saw two planes headed south. They were enemy MIGs unmistakably. I focused on the leader and finally got close enough to fire at him. I got a few hits on the wings. My sight wasn't working properly, so I adjusted and hit the fuselage.

US Air Force F-86 fighter jets
"During a fight, the past vanished, the future you can't think of. It is quintessentially living in the present"

"My heart was in my throat with excitement as the MIG rolled over. Something flew out. It was the cockpit canopy. Then the pilot bailed out. I called to my wingman to confirm the kill. 'Did you see that?' 'Roger,' he said."

James Salter's real life victory on 4th July, 1952, was later retold in his novel about US Air Force pilots fighting Russian, Chinese and North Korean MIGs - a contest he says was "the last of the romantic version of air combat where you'd fight another pilot up close in individual battle".

Published in 1956, The Hunters was one of only a handful of novels to emerge from the Korean War. It also acted as the basis for a Robert Mitchum film - one of the few occasions the conflict was brought to the big screen.

"Is it the best novel to come out of the war? I can't answer a question like that," says Salter. "I'd certainly nominate it though."

Others would gladly second the nomination, it seems. Michael Dirda, the Washington Post's respected book reviewer, has long championed Salter's writing. "James Salter must be among the last great writers to have been openly influenced by Hemingway, both in his style and his themes. He is one of those writers that other writers revere," he says.

James Salter
James Salter: "One of those writers that other writers revere" (Image by Linda Girvin)

"The Hunters' great strengths are its breathtaking descriptions of aerial combat and its intense focus on the nature of courage and heroism."

So why has The Hunters failed to reach a wider audience? And why have so few writers and film directors chosen Korea as their theme?

Books about World War II launched the careers of many important novelists, including those of former servicemen such as Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. Nobel Laureates Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll, Kenzaburo Oe and William Golding have all also written works set during the war.

The Korean War certainly does not lack subject matter for writers. Aside from the air war in which Salter participated, the conflict witnessed fast-moving offensives akin to the Nazi Blitzkrieg and bloody mass attacks as appalling as those seen in the trenches of World War I.

Why the UK sent 63,000 troops to fight in the Korean War

"It was a distant war - and one unpopular with those that fought it. No one in it or close to it seemed all that interested in writing about it," says Salter.

"It wasn't like Vietnam - though the number of American dead was about the same - there were no demonstrations in the streets. Returning veterans were in more danger of being ignored than facing hostility."

The same indifference was present on this side of the Atlantic, says General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley - who was taken prisoner when his 600-man unit took on a Chinese force of 30,000.

"Korea came along when many other things were going on. We were pulling out of India and Palestine. We had no formal obligation in Korea and it wasn't like World War I or II where the whole nation was drawn into a fight for our very survival."

Though the conflict did not lack heroism, the final years of fighting could be characterised as a bloody and confusing stalemate. The 1953 armistice which saw the opponents withdraw to their respective sides of the border between North and South Korea left few with reason to celebrate.

Sir Michael Caine in Too Late the Hero
A Korean veteran, Sir Michael played in many WWII films instead

The books that were written about Korea came out at just the wrong time, says Jeffrey Walsh, a Manchester Metropolitan University academic who lectures on war literature.

"The great novels of World War II were just being published - things like Mailer's The Naked and the Dead - and then came the very first books about Vietnam."

Mr Walsh also says the reading public was rather war weary, and not keen to begin novels about an "incredibly messy" conflict like Korea.

Nor did Korea prove attractive fare for cinema-goers. Michael Caine (who served as Fusilier Maurice Micklewhite in the real war) has starred in many war films, but only A Hill in Korea (1956) drew on his real life experience.

Though ostensibly set in Korea, even M*A*S*H (a 1970 film which later became a hugely successful TV sitcom, whose final episode was supposedly watched by 125m Americans) has often been seen as satire not of that Asian war. Instead it is said to have explored the themes of the far more controversial US involvement in Vietnam.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H
Set in Korea, was M*A*S*H really about Vietnam?

This points to the possibility that Korea has been overshadowed by the good of the fight against Hitler and the evil done in the fight against communism in Vietnam.

Mr Walsh says that there is a "bandwagon" developing in the US calling for a greater recognition of the Korean War and the writing and poetry which emerged from it.

"There's been a great recovery going on of what has been called the 'forgotten war'. The dedication of a Korean War memorial in Washington in 1995 was a key moment in that," he says.

James Salter will not be setting his sights on this particular battle. "I don't see why people should remember Korea. Many things in history are ignored. I don't see why Korea should be different."

Britain's forgotten war
20 Apr 01  |  UK News
US veterans confess Korean War atrocity
29 Sep 99  |  Asia-Pacific



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