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February 2014

The War That Shall Not Be Named

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“WCCO radio is interrupting this program to bring you breaking news. An Associated Press report confirms that at dawn, Sunday the twenty-fifth of June, elements of the North Korean Army crossed the border into South Korea, and it appears that a full-scale invasion of the south by the north is occurring. Stay tuned for further developments.”

The 1950’s were a time when the thought of going to war was made for you by government through the draft, or simply for believing it as a part of your patriotic duty. In contrast to these fundamental reasons for entry you meet a young man named Chris Engleson who’s reason for joining the military is a little out-of-the-box. Chris’s parents have grown tired of his behaviour, so rather than conforming or moving out he decides that the Marines would offer him an opportunity for exhilaration that would certainly not be found in the farm fields of Milbank, South Dakota. Without the backing of a high school education, mornings of tilling, cultivating, harvesting and husbandry was life’s foregone certainty, and for Chris that wasn’t going to cut it. Pete Houser is Chris’s good friend who is also a “farm boy” from the rolling hills and badlands of South Dakota. Being the admirer and follower that he is, Pete had decided to join the Marines to be with his friend Chris. Although similar, Pete still had his own individual reasons for joining the Marines. Like Chris, Pete wanted to provide an alternative to his otherwise predetermined fate as a farmer with little responsibility, and as an added incentive, escape a harsh punishment for demolishing his father’s beloved Studebaker. Travel the world, meet wild girls, with the small chance of actually having to fight in a war, or suffer an inordinate amount of parental punishment; Pete’s decision was becoming all the more clear. All Pete’s mom Florence advised was to be good and go to church. As Pete would soon find out, it would be easier to go to church than to maintain your morals in a cesspool that promotes alcoholic indulgence and sexual promiscuity. One commonality between the two was the wanting of a more purpose-driven life enabled them to make decisions that would change the course of their lives forever.

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 “On June 29, President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized General Douglas A. MacArthur to send U.S. ground troops into Korea. On July 2, General MacArthur requested of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a Marine regimental combat be deployed to the Far East.”

From my initial analysis of the book I was expecting more of a MTV stylistically-inspired Oliver Stone Platoon showcase with focus on the seedy underbelly of war. The title of the book is so unnecessarily long and unusual, and gave me the feeling the inside pages would reciprocate my thoughts. Being a novel with two distinct voices, you are given a perspective of a Marine that happens to be on a continuance of liberty passes with a little guard duty thrown in to indicate that this is in fact, not a vacation. But what you get from the other narrative is an intense procedural story which at times is rather dull and would be more well-received by war enthusiasts and strategists alike. There are a lot of firefights, explosions, death, environmental and dietary hazards that come into play as well. If action is not executed a certain way it can become lost on the reader, which I felt happened to me.  There is a psychological struggle represented in the duality of man which I found very intriguing. The internal struggle of armed forces happens to be one of the main reasons of what I love about references of war. Seeing the evolution of young adults into lean, mean, fighting machines is an interesting storyline, but for me I always enjoy the infiltration of the moral code during uncertain situations that only the battlefield can bring. Chris happens to go through many sympathetic moments and does not completely turn robotic and cold-hearted which increases his likeability. One moment in the book that stands out over the rest was Chris’s moment of reflection on the bus to basic training in San Diego. Through the looking glass he marvels at the significance of the country he will be fighting for, the lasting effects of the great depression and how people detracted from the beauty of the land. As important as the inner psyche is to wartime novels, I couldn’t get past the fact that the author centered the majority of the book on combative strategies and armed forces procedures. Too many cases of referencing coordinates, perimeters, columns, ordnance, and encampments. To see how war can change a person in such a short period of time is so important for my own imagination as I travel the landscapes with the characters. Like Oliver Stone’s Platoon there was also the main characters similarity of leaving an underwhelming life back home and the desire to be part of something bigger, regardless if it meant life or death. And if you could experience life while skirting death, that made it all the more fulfilling, and if you died at least you experienced living.

“Chris’s family had been happy to see him but seemed a little puzzled about who he had become. The Chris they had known had become a different person, and they weren’t sure who that person was. In a similar way, for Chris, what had been his home no longer seemed like home. What had been his home had become a place to visit, not a place to go home to.”

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The Korean War is often regarded as “The Forgotten War” and also the kick start to the Cold War for the sole purpose of diffusing Communist regimes as they set on campaigning around the world. Although a relatively short-term war the casualties were many. Within the vast amount of multimedia, The Korean War is rarely covered. I suppose the biggest representation of this unknown war was that of the long-running television show M.A.S.H. Unfortunately for me that was a little before my time, so I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about this subject while reading this novel. It was interesting to learn about Chris’s negative reaction to the renegade actions of General Douglas MacArthur. The direct insubordination of the Truman Administration’s orders was in violation of the U.S. Constitution and led to his dismissal from the command post and the end to his military career. Being Canadian I don’t go out of my way to learn about other nations history, but if given the opportunity it is one I take seriously. Without ever reading this book I would not have learned about this unpopular war and the effects it still has on today’s Korea.

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In the end when I judge a book I do so in relation to its maintaining a level of interest and the amount of “edu-tainment” received while reading. This book ultimately traveled more towards the side that I didn’t want it to go and lost me along the way a time or two. It did manage to hold my interest with various stories and teach me a few things which was awesome. This book is not solely based on military operatives, but I would warn some people not to read if that is a put-off, there are human elements and a travelogue type feel, just don’t go in assuming that that is the primary subject to pique your interest.

“In the Infantry, war is dirty, grubby, bloody business. You find you can survive  conditions, do things you might have thought impossible, you discover who you are and who the men around you are in your first real firefight. You learn who you can trust and depend upon and you form bonds stronger than you ever had before and ever will have again.”

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