Looking at War Through a New Lens
Chen Ping

Military writer Wang Shuzeng's book "Far East: The Korean War" stands out among the collection of works already published on the subject of the Korean conflict and has turned out to be a dark-horse bestseller on the country's numerous bookstands.

The reason for this is simple: Wang exposes and describes the true picture of what happened between 1950 to 1953 in Korea in a straightforward way that few Chinese mainland authors have been able to do.

Instead of starting the book in smoke-filled meeting room populated with the members of some supreme decision-making body, as do many war others, Wang devotes his first chapter to a demobilized middle-ranking People's Liberation Army officer named Cao Yuhai who is politically insignificant but whose story is somehow striking.

On that very day, June 25, 1950, Cao was walking on the street of Wuhan in Central China's Hubei Province to meet a pretty nurse he was going to marry when he heard the broadcast news of the war.

He immediately went back to his former military unit and was renamed commander of his former battalion. He was among the first group of the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) to cross the Yalu River.

Eight months later, Cao died on a barren hill south of the Han River in the central part of the peninsula, "his gushing blood soon frozen with the thick snow in the low temperature of minus 20 degrees centigrade."

Wang examines this personal side of the war from both sides.

After describing Cao's death, he goes on to write about Charles Bradford Smith, commander of the First Battalion under the US Army's 24th Infantry Division who became the leader of the first group of US soldiers to reach the Korean battlefield.

In the book, Smith, having kissed his wife good-bye on a rainy night, flew from Japan, where he had been stationed after the Pacific War, to an entirely strange land where what awaited him remained a mystery.

Smith survived the war and retired in 1965 as a US army general, according to the Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography.

"The war takes place in a country which was called 'the Land of Morning Calm' in ancient time and called Korea now, but the narration of the war has to begin with an ordinary Chinese and an ordinary American. This is history," Wang explains, in an effort to show how the war has affected the lives of ordinary people from either side.

Writing the book 50 years after the war, Wang is careful to use neutral terms like "Chinese," "Americans," and "South Koreans."

Himself a colonel of the People's Liberation Army, Wang tries hard to tell the story as it actually took place.

He tells of victories, of defeats, of the high prices paid for both.

"Wang looks at the war from an international perspective and writes it in a very objective way," said Xiang Xiaomi, an editor with the PLA publishing house and copy editor of Wang's book. "That's why we include his book into the Reports of PLA's Military Campaigns Series."

"In the book, I paid more attention to the international politics (surrounding the Korean War)," Wang said.

Wang shows his personal respect to General Matthew Bunker Ridgeway despite the fact that the CPV suffered some major military setbacks after he was put into Douglas MacArthur's shoes as the commander of the so-called UN forces (Ridgeway discovered the secrets of Chinese army's "week-long attacks" in the first few days after his arrival on the Korean battlefield.)

"Ridgeway was the strongest opponent for (CPV commander) Peng Dehuai (1898-1974)," Wang said during an interview.

"Wang shows us more clearly how strong an enemy we faced in Korea," Xiang said.

Wang indicated that the Chinese volunteers had to learn a hard lesson about modern warfare in Korea, which involved not only infantry, but also artillery, armored forces, air forces, navy and even biological weaponry.

When asked why he neglected to discuss the truce negotiations in his book, he said: "I focused mainly on the five campaigns (during the Korean War, from October 1950 to July 1951) to portray the situations on the battlefields, to analyze from a military point of view the positive and the negative sides, especially the latter."

"There were no big battles after the Fifth Campaign, only sporadic skirmishes here and there.

"On the other hand, some quite good books have been published about the truce negotiations, especially the one written by Chai Chengwen," Wang said, referring to "The Panmunjom Negotiations," co-authored by Chai, who participated in the truce talks in the 1950s and was in later years China's ambassador to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

"At its initial stage, the Korean War was a typical civil war aimed at reunifying the divided peninsula but was later internationalized with the US intervention," Wang writes. "It was rooted in the artificial division of the peninsula by the United States and the Soviet Union after Japan's surrender at the end of World War II."

One well-received Western thesis has it that the war was the conspiracy of the communists - Soh Jin-chull, a scholar of the Republic of Korea, even published a book entitled "The Origin of the Korean War - Conspiracy of International Communism."

Wang shrugged off the argument. "Personally I think it is a groundless exaggeration."

There was no consensus on the Korean issue among leaders of the socialist countries before the outbreak of the war, Wang said.

General Walton Harris Walker's successful breaking of an encirclement and the surprising Inchon Landing indicate that the DPRK side had no concrete and complete war plan at the beginning of the war.

There were other points to refute the conspiracy theory.

China began to demobilize its soldiers for economic construction in early 1950. China did not have an embassy in DPRK when the war broke out. Mao Zedong reportedly learnt of the war from Western news broadcast.

"The outcome of the war would have been entirely different if it were well planned beforehand," noted Wang.

Wang was born in 1952, the third year of the Korean War. He had written numerous novels, essays and plays before he decided to shift to the Korea issue.

It took Wang three years to prepare the research for his book. He traveled extensively throughout the country to interview those ageing, even dying, former CPV soldiers who experienced the battles and he buried himself in a sea of Korean War-related reference materials.

He took 1.2 million characters' worth of notes - only half of which was used in the final version.

Sadly, the book does not have a bibliography and no notes are given.

During the process Wang was lucky enough to read all the telegraphs between Mao in Beijing and Peng in Korea, which were declassified very recently but are still not completely open to the general public.

This lends a new dimension of legitimacy and insight to his narrative.

"It's absurd to talk now about whether China should have sent its troops to Korea five decades ago," Wang said. "Chinese leaders were given no other choice but to fight the United States (at that time)."

"At a certain moment in history, war has become the only choice for a country, if the country cherishes its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as its people's peaceful life," Wang writes in the foreword.

"Gone for good are the days in the past several centuries when Western invaders could occupy a country by simply erecting a few canons on an Oriental coast," Wang writes in the end.

The line is a quote from CPV commander Peng Dehuai.

(China Daily 10/24/2000)