Excerpt from War Trash by Ha Jin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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War Trash

by Ha Jin

War Trash
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2004, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2005, 368 pages

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The following night, as the divisional staff was about to enter a canyon, suddenly three green signal flares whooshed up ahead of us. At first I thought they must have been fired by our vanguard, but then some officers began to whisper that someone on the mountain was signaling our whereabouts to the enemy. I had heard that a good number of Korean agents worked for the Americans on the sly, but I hadn't expected to encounter something like this in the wilderness. As we were talking about the possible meanings of those signals, four planes appeared in the southeast, roaring toward us.

"Take cover!" a voice ordered.

Some of us rushed into the nearby bushes and some lay down in the roadside ditches. The planes dropped a few flash bombs, a shower of light illuminating the entire area; our troops and vehicles at once became visible. Then bombs rained down and machine guns began raking us. Some horses and mules were startled and vaulted over the prostrate men, dashing away into the darkness. A bomb exploded in front of me and tossed half a pine sapling into the sky. I lay facedown on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift my head to the scorching air, and keeping my mouth open so that the explosions wouldn't pop my eardrums. Around me, men hollered and moaned, and some were twisting on the ground screaming for help. Some, though dead or unconscious, were still clutching their submachine guns.

The bombardment lasted only five minutes but killed about a hundred men and wounded many more. Along the road, flames and smoke were rising from shattered carts and disabled mountain guns. As I looked for Chang Ming, I saw two orderlies coming my way, supporting an officer. I recognized the officer, Tang Jing, the quartermaster of our divisional staff. He looked all right, though one of the orderlies kept shouting, "Doctor, doctor! We need a doctor here!" But all the medical personnel were busy helping the seriously wounded, assembling them for shipment back to our rear base. Division commander Niu ordered an engineering company to dig a large grave at the edge of a birch wood to bury the dead.

Finally Dr. Wang turned up with a flashlight and asked Tang Jing, "Where were you hit?"

The quartermaster didn't register the question, his fleshy face vacant while his eyes glittered without a blink.

"Are you injured?" the doctor asked again.

Tang Jing opened his mouth but no sound came out. He was trembling all over, unable to speak a word. Dr. Wang felt his forehead and then his pulse. Everything seemed normal, so he didn't know what to do. We had to reassemble and continue to march, but we were unsure whether we should take the quartermaster along. Another doctor, Li Wen, arrived, and together the two doctors checked him again, but they found nothing unusual except that his temperature was slightly above normal.

"Shell shock. He lost his mind," said Dr. Li.

"Can he hear?" an orderly asked.

"I'm not sure."

"What should we do about him?"

"We'd better send him back. It'll take a long time for him to recover."

"I can't believe this," said Chang Ming, who had joined us for a while. "He's such a strapping man, yet he lost his mind so easily."

The two orderlies helped the quartermaster to his feet and walked him toward a team of stretcher bearers who were going to carry the wounded back to our base. I had been struck by the vast number of Chinese laborers in Korea. Most of them came from Manchuria, and some were over forty years old. They were able to mix with the Koreans because they could speak Japanese, which had been taught in both Manchurian and Korean schools during the Japanese occupation; yet their lives here were as precarious as the soldiers'. Although constantly under air and artillery attacks, they had to repair roads, build bridges, unload supplies, and ship the casualties back from the front. A lot of them had been killed or wounded. Right in front of me walked a reedy boy, about fifteen years old, carrying one end of a stretcher, on which lay a man with his face bandaged. The wounded man kept wailing, "They lied to us! They lied to us!"

Excerpted from War Trash by Ha Jin, chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 (pages 6-20) of the hardcover edition.  Copyright© 2004 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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