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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Our divisional leaders were unsettled by the loss of lives, equipment, animals, and supplies, but I was more shaken by Tang Jing's case. For a whole week his expressionless face went on haunting me. Never had I thought a man's mind was so easy to destroy.

The next morning, on a roadway leading to Seoul, we ran into a group of U.N. prisoners, about seventy men, marching past us from the opposite direction. The majority of them were Turks, some tall, some quite short, with haggard faces. At the end of the procession were about a dozen Americans, mostly large men wearing parkas. One of them wore steel-rimmed glasses and a tufty red beard. The POWs couldn't walk fast on account of injury and fatigue, and some hobbled along, one using a shovel handle as a crutch. The Chinese guards, toting rifles with fixed bayonets, were rough with them. One officer yelled in a strident voice, "Faster, don't drop behind! You need a ride, eh? I tell you, we have no vehicles to relieve your pampered feet." Although the prisoners couldn't understand him, they looked frightened and hung their heads low.

The encounter cheered us up a little. Our political officers began working to convince the rank and file of the enemy's weakness despite their airpower. Likewise, the U.N. side had never slackened its psychological work either. The roads we trod were strewn with leaflets, dropped by American planes and printed in both Chinese and Korean, urging us to capitulate. One had an ancient couplet on it: "How piteously the skeletons lie on the riverside / Still dreaming of a pretty bride!" Another showed a woodcut in which a young woman stood on the shoulder of a mountain, gazing into the distance, longing for her man's return. We had been ordered to ignore the leaflets. Many men pocketed them to roll cigarettes with or to use as toilet paper, but once you glanced through these sheets, a heavy sadness would stir in your chest, sinking your heart.

Our food supplies, carried by the horse carts, had been used up by the end of the first week, so now the only thing we had to eat was the parched flour in the tubed sacks draped across our chests. Some men found and picked wild herbs-dandelions, purslanes, wild chives, and onions. There was a kind of wild garlic in Korea, whose heads were still tiny but good-tasting, pungent and crispy, not as spicy as the regular garlic. You could eat both their heads and their green tops, but they were scarce in the early spring when most herbs were just beginning to sprout. Some trees were sending out yellowish leaves, which many men plucked and ate. I didn't eat many wild herbs or tree leaves, because I couldn't tell poisonous ones from good ones. Quite a few men were not as cautious and suffered food poisoning.

There were so many troops moving toward and back from the front that as soon as it was dark, the roads turned chaotic, noisy, and jammed with traffic-trucks, artillery pieces, carts drawn by animals, teams of Chinese porters carrying supplies and ammunition, and lines of stretchers loaded with the wounded. Once I saw a camel laden with mortar shells. Every night each regiment of our division had about a hundred stragglers, incapacitated by exhaustion and sore feet. A movement was started among the ranks, called "Leave No Comrade Behind." Officers and Party members were supposed to help carry bedrolls, guns, and bandoliers for those who had difficulty keeping up. I was moved when I saw squad and platoon leaders fetch hot water for their men to bathe their feet. This marked a difference between the Communist army and the Nationalist army, in which even some junior officers had eaten better food than their men and had often abused their inferiors.

We arrived at the Thirty-eighth Parallel on time, but a third of our division could no longer stand on their feet. My legs were swollen and one of my shoes had lost its sole. Our divisional leaders pleaded with the Headquarters of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army for a week's rest, but the superiors allowed us only one day off. We ate a hearty meal-rice and pork stewed with turnip and broad potato noodles. After the meal, like sick animals, we slept in the mountain woods for the rest of the day.

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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