Shadow of Arms

Written by Cornell East Asia Program (trans.) Hwang Sok-Yong
Review by Kristina Blank Makansi

“Disneyland in a vast tin warehouse” is the description of the American PX, the focal point for graft and corruption during the Vietnam War as described by celebrated Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong. Based on the author’s own experiences and first published in Korea in 1985, the novel follows two main protagonists: Korean Corporal Ahn Yong Kyu, who is plucked out of his combat unit and sent to Da Nang as an intelligence officer tasked with penetrating the complex web of black market profiteering, and Pham Minh, an idealistic Vietnamese medical school dropout who joins the National Liberation Front and dreams of battlefield glory. Ahn is a thoughtful young man who, once in Da Nang, finds the atmosphere as toxic as the jungle. He also soon finds that the Americans, who treat him as an inferior, and the South Vietnamese, who he is supposedly fighting for, are often more concerned with trading refrigerators, air conditioners, and C-rations than winning the war. As for Minh, instead of experiencing the joy of fighting for his country, he finds himself in the thick of black market intrigue and divided family loyalties.

I’ve read many Vietnam novels (and even edited and published one), but I was unaware of the scope of Korean involvement in the war. With shades of Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder without the black humor, Hwang’s novel is populated with people who are, for the most part, blind ideologues or ruthless hypocrites—no matter which side they fight on or which country they come from. The author’s descriptions of the city and countryside, of the battles and the banality, and of the politics and profiteering are often disturbing, and yet always remarkable. It is often difficult to follow, probably due to the translation, but well worth the effort. Recommended.