For those who believe that Memorial Day should be celebrated as something more significant than the opening of the barbecue season, these can be frustrating times. War and terror have brought an era of increasing military awareness-even militarism-in the United States. Almost every day, Americans are graphically reminded of the sacrifices and dangers faced by young men and women in uniform. Those yellow ribbons are still seen everywhere.
Yet somehow, there also seems to be a peculiar diminishing of respect for those who serve-and those who have served. A Presidential adviser arranges a photo-op air pageant that mimics real-peril campaign footage. An ideologue who has never heard enemy fire, except in the movies, casually refers to the invasion of Iraq as “a cakewalk.” A candidate who avoided the draft wins election by slurring a Senator who left three limbs in Vietnam.
Other politicians who evaded that horrific carnage feel free to disparage the patriotism of partisan adversaries, although they fulfilled their duty with courage. And we hear much loud talk by pseudo-tough pundits about our national “love of war”-and about the bloody conflicts of the future that these great intellects anticipate without expecting to participate.
In all these events and outbursts, there is a peculiar lack of seriousness regarding the realities of combat, as if soldiers were pawns or stage props rather than human beings. How fortunate we are to have among us James Brady, a decorated veteran with the literary skill to remind us what war truly is.
For those who may not already know Mr. Brady’s history, he is the Manhattan journalistic titan who created Page Six, edited Women’s Wear Daily, continues to crank out columns for Ad Age and Crain’s New York Business, and is the best-selling author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest is The Marine: A Novel of War from Guadalcanal to Korea (St. Martin’s). But all the fame and good fortune came long after young Jim, a kid just out of college, joined the Marines.
In 1951, he found himself commanding a rifle platoon on the front lines of the Korean War. His extraordinary acts of heroism on a hellish ridgeline, where he risked his life to save his wounded men, earned him a Bronze Star with “V” for valor. For reasons that had nothing to do with him, that medal was finally pinned to his chest in November 2001, or five decades after the fact. (As he explained dryly at the time, “The Marine Corps doesn’t rush into things.”)
Mr. Brady recalled those hellish experiences of his youth well enough to set them down in a wonderful 1990 memoir, The Coldest War. In that book, he wrote that he felt no desire to relive them by returning to the scene: “I didn’t want to see the hills again or feel the cold or hear the wind out of Siberia, moaning. I didn’t want to disturb the dead.” A few months ago, with Korea edging closer and closer to the brink, he changed his mind.
Accompanied by Eddie Adams, the Pulitzer-winning photographer who shot some of the Vietnam War’s most chilling pictures (and who also had served in Korea), the 74-year-old writer embarked on a Marine’s tour of the peninsula. The remarkable story of their trip will appear as the cover story in the Memorial Day issue of Parade magazine on Sunday, May 25.
Being James Brady, he wants to talk color; that means him in his Brooks Brothers shirts and khakis, hiking around on a bad knee, with Mr. Adams, a pony-tailed old “hippie” who “dresses all in black like a character in The Matrix .” Hanging out with commanding generals and 20-year-old scout snipers, he would have you know, they had a great time.
But he’s a serious reporter. He visits the demilitarized zone, that desolate strip separating the South from the million-man military of Kim Jong Il. He talks to American soldiers about South Korea’s implacably hostile youth. And, finally, he returns to the spectral hill where he pulled the dead and wounded up through the deep, reddened snow.
Mr. Brady’s respect for American soldiers and officers is manifest, which is surely one reason why he is in no hurry to get them killed. He would remind the armchair strategists that, unlike Iraq, North Korea “has a big, grown-up army, and they’re nasty. I fought them.”
He worries that the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang could become “a Dr. Strangelove situation that we don’t want to get into.” Indeed, Mr. Brady despises the North Korean regime-and firmly believes that the Bush administration must engage the deranged dictator in the very “face-to-face negotiations” so far rejected by the White House. “This has to be settled diplomatically,” says the old Marine, who knows what a Korean war was, and what it would be.