FIREFIGHT AT YECHON
Courage and Racism
In the Korean War
By Charles M. Bussey
264 pp. $21.95
IF Washington appears to have more readers of military history than any city in America -- a natural outgrowth of the military-industrial complex here -- even a nodding acquaintance with the profession of arms and its hard-learned lessons appears increasingly remote from the general populace these days, particularly the press. How better to explain such gee whiz dispatches from the Gulf War as those discovering boredom among the troops -- an indigenous ingredient of army life since the first cave sieges -- and others indignant that Pentagon briefers won't announce well in advance the exact starting date for the ground war.
Television may be giving us unprecedented bomb's-eye views and an accurate transmission of the "fog of war" but even CNN appears hesitant to remind a younger generation of innocents that wars almost always drag on, civilians get killed and the environment gets damaged, for example. How useful it would be if bombing runs on Kuwaiti oil fields could be compared with the World War II raids against the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania, or speculation about massive Iraqi-set firestorms could be aired against real-life memories of Hamburg and Dresden, or SCUD missiles compared to the vastly more devastating V1s and V2s that blitzed London. The greatest gift of history, after all, is context.
With that in mind, Lt. Col. Charles M. Bussey's personal memoir of the Korean War and -- to a lesser extent -- World War II is a reminder that battle is a bloody sandwich of adrenalin, exhaustion and horror, where things go both terrifyingly and comically wrong -- sometimes at the same time -- but that some things remain worth fighting for.
For Bussey -- one of the famous "Tuskegee Airmen" of World War II, who also served with distinction as an Army officer in Korea -- those things include not only his country, for which his love is both poignant and palpable, but the future of all American blacks.
"I loved my country for what it could be," he writes, "far beyond what it was."
The Army Bussey served in remained overwhelmingly segregated despite presidential decree, and the bigotry he encountered on and off the battlefield was enough to eat a hole of bitterness through his soul. But Bussey never let that happen. He writes with anger at times, but never bitterness. The service life, he writes, gave him far more than it cost him. Most of all it taught him that "I could thrive even in the bigoted environment in which I found myself. It was not new to me . . . I was bred and born in it, as were my father, my grandfather and his father as well. We'd come to the American continent enslaved. Only the very strong survived the generations of suffering . . . We are, and have always been, survivors. Hardship -- physical, mental and emotional -- was the crucible in which I'd been tempered. Minor setbacks are of little moment. We are here forever."
Eschewing cries of racial victimization, Bussey looses, quite literally, a battle cry of freedom. To watch Colin Powell at a televised briefing after reading Bussey is to realize how much men like Bussey made possible.
Yet however strong Bussey's racial subtext -- he won the Silver Star and the Purple Heart and was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for the Battle of Yechon, which prejudiced Army historians later insisted, against the evidence, had never really happened -- his repeated message is a paean to the professionalism called forth by military life.
"I am the man who led your son in battle," he writes. "I led him in his transition from Sunday school student to a bloodletter on the killing floor . . . I am the type of man who defeated the Canaanites. I felled Jericho. I was the victor at Thermopylae and the hero at Valley Forge. You are free because I believed in your freedom . . .
"I returned your son a far better man than when he came to me. I sent him back to you . . . a man without rancor and without venom, but with the spleen required to keep you and himself free. I gave him discipline where you failed him. I gave him vision beyond your knowledge . . . Above all, I gave him confidence in himself and his fellow man . . . I returned him to you a man -- better than his fathers and better than his sons."
Bussey's battle scenes are visceral, his analyses of terrain and situations intriguing, and his stories of war and its aftermath alternately comic and tragic. A flawed man, he remains haunted by the compromises of his life, some of them consciously and others unconsciously revealed in his book.
But always his writing has the ring of truth. "It is not my intent to make you admire me or men like me, but I want you to know close up the life and times of fighting men," he writes.
It's to his great credit that, after reading his book, we do.
THE ATLANTIC WAR
An Oral History
Edited by John T. Mason Jr.
Naval Institute Press
480 pp. $29.95
THE Atlantic War Remembered, on the other hand, is something of a hodge-podge, alternately entertaining, orotund, revelatory and trivial, but rarely informative about the only real Atlantic war of World War II, the crucial convoy battles against German U-boats. At the very least it's wrongly named.
Drawing from the Navy's extensive oral history collection, John T. Mason, Jr., former director of oral history at the U.S. Naval Institute, has somehow assembled a collection of unrelated vignettes ranging from a Wellesley College president who joined the WAVES to the vicissitudes of airplane procurement in the Navy Department to logistical plans for the Yalta conference. Some of us will read even cereal boxes about World War II, but who else would wade through all this?
Those who choose to try, however, will be rewarded by occasional jewels. The richest is polished by Adm. Jerauld Wright, a flag-rank raconteur still, to whom Mason should have probably devoted the whole book. Wright's "True Cloak and Dagger Attempt at Intelligence Gathering" relates the story of a kayak landing in Morocco in 1942 to plan the allied invasion there with the French underground, concealment from the Vichy police in a wine cellar ("empty, repeat, empty" Wright deadpanned to the Navy later) and the hilarious escape from the beach later with Gen. Mark Clark, who removed his pants to get his boat through the surf and then couldn't find them.
"Everybody tore around the beach. Find the pants. Find the general's pants," Wright relates. "Well, I . . . knew damned well you could get back to the ship without your pants, because many sailors have . . . So I said, 'To hell with the pants, find the paddles!' " -- a quotation still celebrated when old admirals gather to raise a glass.
By Marilyn B. Young
HarperCollins. 386 pp. $25
WHERE THE DOMINO FELL
By James S. Olson
And Randy Roberts
St. Martin's. 321 pp. $19.95
AMID the glut of Vietnam books in recent years it's easy to forget that almost all of them have been penned by Vietnam veterans of some sort -- policy makers, journalists or fighting men themselves. Now academic historians are feeding the flow of books and their products, while less passionate, are useful for their compactness and, in some cases, their detachment.
Of the two appearing this month, Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 is the more scholarly, James S. Olson and Randy Roberts's Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945 to 1990 possibly the more readable. Young, professor of history at New York University, is in some ways the more comprehensive, juxtaposing the Vietnamese revolution with American cold war policy and ideology, and devoting extensive space to the anti-war movement at home as well as the political and military battles in Vietnam itself.
For some reason, however, she neglects many of the cultural roots of the war, choosing to ignore almost completely the country's centuries of domination by China that planted a spirit of Vietnamese nationalism fully as deep as anything done by the French or Americans. It's a curious omission, particularly from one who, the book jacket informs us, "has written extensively on Asian history".
Olson, chairman of the history department at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and Roberts, an associate professor of history at Purdue, on the other hand, deal not only with the war's ancient cultural antecedents, but with its modern cultural fallout as well. Their briskly paced book embraces the impact of television, movies and songs on America's war in Vietnam and, in one intriguing chapter, traces the "distorted images" of the war on film from "The Green Berets" through "Coming Home" to "The Deer Hunter" and "Platoon."
Still, there are mysteries in Where the Domino Fell, as well. Why, for example, have the authors given us a Vietnam chronology but no footnotes? Shouldn't we have the satisfaction of knowing the source for such treats as Winston Churchill's purported description of John Foster Dulles as "the only case of a bull I know who carries his china closet around with him"?
Ken Ringle is a staff reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post.