Horror and Valor of War

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2005

The Scariest Place on Earth by James BradyThe Scariest Place on Earth: A Marine Returns to North Korea
James Brady (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 278 pp.

Remembering war is always a tricky business. As James Brady writes in The Scariest Place in the World, his memoir of the Korean war, “don’t let anyone… tell you he remembers what happened when in a firefight. Much of combat is pure chaos and even after the fight no one is quite sure exactly who did what… Memory plays tricks, you’re scared or badly hurt… the noise of firing and yelling, the unfamiliar terrain, smoke and the night confuse and disorient you.”

Time also affects memory. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero, seeking to summon hope from the grief generated by the horror of war and the loss of friends, says, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps to remember even this.”

Aeneas is right. As a war recedes into the mists of memory, those of us who may have fought it tend to remember with fondness the valor and camaraderie that we experienced during wartime rather than the misery and suffering that was often our lot. This is probably a good thing for our sanity.

Brady’s memoir of his service as a young Marine officer in Korea reflects Aeneas’ perspective. A novelist and writer for Parade, he had the opportunity to return to Korea to cover the 50th anniversary of the cease-fire. The book juxtaposes his return to Korea with his experiences leading a Marine rifle platoon over a nine-month period of 1951-52.

Brady is a living example of the old saying “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” So it’s no surprise that The Scariest Place describes Brady’s “love affair” with the Marine Corps and “the men with whom he campaigned: the classy university types, the roughnecks and the poets, the sophisticates and the hicks, the salty regulars and the freshly graduated and what the Marines called ’the Old Breed,’ the hard old China hands.”

Brady’s stories alternate between the grim and the hilarious. Lying between World War II, the “good” war, and Vietnam, the “bad” war, Korea remains a largely forgotten conflict. It lacked the “grandeur” of the former, but, despite its brutal nature—37,000 American servicemen lost their lives in three years—the American public never perceived it as negatively as it did the latter.

There is something eternal about the way infantrymen go about their business. Indeed, the men Brady describes reminded me of my own platoon in Vietnam. Brady’s men were the younger brothers and cousins of those who fought in World War II. We were their sons who wished to emulate those who went before.

In those days, men built their lives around their military obligation, and if a war happened on their watch, fighting was part of the obligation. Nonetheless, my men would all have preferred to be somewhere other than the Republic of Vietnam’s northern Quang Tri Province, but they were doing their duty.

Some would die; others wounded. But even those who emerged from the war physically unscathed were changed forever. And, with Aeneas, we can say, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps to remember even this.”

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.In 1968 he led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam.