Matthew Ross

In her new book In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War, Melinda L. Pash seeks nothing less than to capture the voice of an entire generation of servicemen and women as Paul Fussell did for the World War I generation in The Great War and Modern Memory, and Stephen Ambrose did for the World War II generation in Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers, and Pegasus Bridge.  While her efforts do not quite rise to those same heights, Pash does create an impressively researched inquiry into the zeitgeist of the Korean War generation.

Pash argues that the reason why the Korean War has faded from America’s cultural consciousness is that “Americans today still grapple to make sense of this abbreviated, limited, half-won conflict that became the first hot war of the Cold War.” As a result, Korea “frequently…ends up only in the footnotes of other, longer or more successful wars,” consigned to be studied primarily as either an epilogue to World War II or a prologue to Vietnam and rarely considered as a conflict unto itself. Pash paints the Korean War as the logical transition point between those two more heralded conflicts, largely fought by World War II ‘retreads’ unwilling recalled into service and their brothers who were still too young to serve in 1945. She characterizes their generation as the turning point that marks the move away from the eager patriotism of World War II and towards the anti-authoritarian protests of Vietnam: “Hastily pulled from civilian life or from the peacetime American military, the men and women stuck at ground view during the Korean War can be forgiven for not immediately understanding the reasons for their sacrifices or the forces that swept them to that remote corner of Asia.” From Pash’s perspective, if their experience foreshadowed the confusion that their sons and even younger siblings would find in Vietnam, they were still affected enough by the last vestiges of the Second World War’s patriotic spirit not to voice their discontentment as forcefully.

Pash begins by laying out the unique temporal placement of the Korean War generation in a chapter aptly entitled “Timing is Everything.” Just before conflict erupted in Korea, the former soldiers who had fought in World War II were proud of their service and content in the knowledge that they had ‘done their part’ for their country. Meanwhile, their younger brothers reached military age assuming they had just missed out on the war and looking forward to entering the working world and building a family. Both demographics were optimistic that the country would enjoy a period of peace following the Second World War and equally shocked to find themselves unexpectedly called into uniform. Pash characterizes the typical responses to being drafted as an anticipation of the discontent that would later define the Vietnam generation. The new draftees who had just missed serving in World War II had no casus belli, no Pearl Harbor to fire their patriotic zeal and questioned the reasons for their conscription. The reaction of the World War II veterans still young or fit enough to be ensnared a second time was even more visceral; they protested vehemently that they had sacrificed enough of their lives in one war and wanted no part in a second. Pash chronicles the mostly unsuccessful efforts that both demographics made to avoid military service, emphasizing the disruption that the draft had on their families and civilian lives and the general indifference that they faced when seeking reasonable accommodations from draft boards or government bureaucrats. Though the draftees grumble about the imposition on their personal lives and enter service with far more reluctance than the World War II generation did, Pash paints the Korean War generation as mostly unwilling to extend that reluctance into active civil disobedience. They may not have been happy to serve, but they still valued patriotism enough not to consider draft-dodging seriously, with Pash suggesting that the Korean War generation marks the midpoint in the erosion of World War II era nationalism that would result in the upheaval of the Vietnam War.

Pash follows the Korean War draftees as they enter, or in many cases, re-enter the military, go through basic training and quickly receive assignment overseas. Mixing firsthand accounts from veterans with statistics and historical documentation, Pash places the accelerated (and often shoddy) training in context with the military’s dire need for front-line replacements, qualified or not. Similarly, she captures the frustration of the many newly-minted infantry who were rushed to Korea only to find their units lacking basic supplies, and of the World War II veterans who were sometimes sent directly onto troopships without having fired a rifle since their prior service. After an overview of the chaotic combat of the war’s early months, the book loops back to explore the additional challenges faced by female and African American service members, who were inducted into a recently-desegregated Army that sent them to basic training in highly segregated southern towns. Pash then returns to Korea to examine the end of a soldier’s tour, in which combat’s survivors returned to the U.S. and attempted to adjust to civilian life once again. She closes the book with a long-term look at this adjustment process as the Korean War’s veterans struggle, sometimes for years, to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Veterans Administration and to receive proper recognition for their participation in a conflict that was quickly overshadowed in the popular consciousness by Vietnam.

Without question, the greatest strength of In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation is its extensive and thorough research. Bibliographic notes take up nearly one third of the book’s length, and Pash goes to great lengths to examine the war from all the angles. She diligently mixes a healthy dose of Studs Terkel-style personal interviews in with excerpts from historical documents and statistical information in a commendable effort to keep the book’s focus on people and not numbers. Sadly, Pash lacks Fussell or Ambrose’s talent at keeping a large number of individual sources easily distinguishable from one another, and the testimony of her oral history interviewees has an unfortunate tendency to run together in the reader’s mind. Coupled with a somewhat dry and academic writing style, the resulting effect is that the book often fails to connect with the emotional nature of its subject. Furthermore, its middle chapters also fail to maintain the narrative focus established in its earlier sections. The first half of In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation logically and meticulously traces the war’s origins and the mobilization process through which men and women were brought into the armed services, trained, and shipped overseas to Korea. The middle of the book then transitions into a series of lengthy examinations of the roles played by women and people of color in the conflict and this rehashes a great deal of information that the book had already covered. While the individual subjects are all worthy of attention, Pash struggles to fit them into the book’s overall narrative, and they end up reading more like a succession of interesting tangents than a natural progression from the book’s early chapters. By the time Pash circles back around to the war’s ending and the homecoming experiences of returning veterans, the narrative cohesion built up in the first half of the book has long since been lost.

Pash does a fine job of sketching the Korean War’s history and charting the butterfly effects of one historical event influencing another. Though Pash decries the historian’s tendency of over-relying on facts and figures to frame a time period in its particular contexts, her work falls victim to that same tendency all too often. In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation is a phenomenal scholarly accomplishment, but one that may not reverberate outside of an academic setting. Pash has made here a valiant effort to give the Korean War generation the kind of serious, extended coverage that it has long deserved and rarely received in print. Korean War veterans have waited a long time to see a historical treatment of their conflict that appeals to a popular audience, and unfortunately they will have to wait a little longer. 

Matthew Ross earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2012 and is currently lecturing at Georgia Southwestern State University. His writing has previously appeared in Eclectica magazine and can also be seen in forthcoming issues of Stephen Crane Studies and Southern Cultures.