BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If not in memory of the awful Korean War (1950-1953), then in memory of the brilliant author James Brady (1928-2009) — you might want to read, or perhaps re-read, his novel about that war.
That’s what I did the other day after hearing of his death, in his sleep in his Manhattan home, at the age of 80. I dropped everything and re-read “The Marines of Autumn” — every carefully selected word and well-balanced sentence.
“Diamond Jim,” as we sometimes called him, was easily handsome enough to be a television journalist, but he never much wanted to escape from the brawling arena of print, to become a patty-cake journalist in the powder-puff medium of video.
Carving his Diamond Jim “Mark of Zorro” initials at edgy publications from New York Magazine to Advertising Age, he could use language with the force of a show-wrestler’s carefully choreographed slam-down, believing that sometimes a loud writing noise could scare away falsehood and pretension.
His literary muscularity came in especially handy when scoping out giant figures like American Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom, according to his Korean War novel (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), no truly honest soldier trusted, and whom Jim himself loathed.
Brady, for instance, has an American colonel on MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo saying: “The Mikado himself is in the building. If you witness officers prostrating themselves and elderly Japanese gentlemen practicing disembowelment, you’ll know you’ve seen General MacArthur pass.”
Brady himself was one of those marines of the Korean War “who fought and defeated the Chinese army in the autumn of 1950 in the mountains of North Korea near the Chosin Reservoir, those who ever since have called themselves “the Chosin Few.”
Ten years before the novel, journalist and former Platoon Leader Brady wrote “The Coldest War,” a nonfiction reminiscence. Nonfiction or not, Diamond Jim was in his genes an Irish-American gunslinger who could knock back a few strong shots of whatever virulent liquid with the best of them, while unleashing a rapid round of verbal firepower that could lay you out.
For the Japanese and Chinese soldiers he met, Brady paints pictures with deep respect. The Japanese he admires most, perhaps for their metronomic and effective passion for order, though hating the extremism of their soldiers in battle and their barbarous treatment of prisoners.
The Chinese Communists he admires perhaps most for the fact that, even back in the 1950s, they weren’t much more than skin-deep Communists: “The Chinese were Chinese first and everything else second.”
Brady’s Korea, too, is a picture of grudging admiration. The extremes of winter cold and summer heat pound Koreans into models of accommodation, whether they’re telling you what they think you want to hear, or adapting to the superficial dogmas of capitalism or communism because they think that is what is needed to survive.
In other words, there will always be a Korea (and today the Republic of Korea, in the south, has a proud army that’s unlike its mainly joke army of the ’50s.).
Brady has an American soldier up in North Korea in the campaign against the Chinese saying: “That damned wind came right out of the heart of Manchuria. I believe Genghis Khan was right. Nobody can win a winter campaign in the land of the Mongols.”
Indeed, the combatants in the Korean War petered out in a hugely disappointing stalemate, which is still not over, as it’s the last major remnant of the Cold War, with no peace treaty ready for signing on the table. If one reads Brady, one comes to believe that Korea and Koreans — not to mention the rest of the world — deserve a lot better than two states that history has frozen in the past.
It is true that Brady, a friend of mine who spent his time at his lovely Long Island house in the trendy Hamptons when he wasn’t in Manhattan doing journalism, was at best bemused by my column’s support of the “Sunshine Policy” of diplomatic openness with North Korea, and by my optimism that North Korea would eventually trade in its primitive but feral nuclear arsenal for security. He sensed that all wars over Korea — diplomatic or otherwise — were fated to be difficult, drawn out and deeply enervating.
It is true that I never slipped in the mud or fell down the frozen mountain passes of Korea, never risked all that Jim did in his real-life career as a tough marine or in his real-life prose as a tough writer. But beneath the smart-alecky Irish cynicism and effortless street smarts, he was, I believe, praying that we silly optimists would be proven right about the tragic but beautiful Korean Peninsula. Neither Koreans nor anyone else should ever wish to suffer through a hell like that again.
Veteran journalist and syndicated columnist Tom Plate worked with James Brady at New York Magazine and was planning to buy him a ritual round of drinks at Elaine’s, the latter’s favorite classy joint in Manhattan, before the gifted writer died. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center
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