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What are you thinking about?

The Korean War.

Really? Why, pray tell?

My first memory of a dramatic newspaper headline dates to July 1953. (I had to look up the date just now, though I knew it was sometime that summer.) The Korean War ended: That was a big story. I was five and had learned to read by then—only at a basic level, of course, but enough to get the message.

It’s very hard for people today to grasp how present World War II still seemed in the U.S. in the 1950s. My brother Rick and I (he is two and a half years younger) grew up watching TV documentaries that covered the war, on land and sea and in the air. We lived in Pomona, California, a bit east of Los Angeles, when orange groves still thrived there. When I saw a plane in the blue sky overhead, I wondered sometimes if it was an “enemy” coming to bomb us, as we had seen endless times in footage from Europe. Please don’t suppose that I was obsessed with such fears. Not at all. But the thought was there, the possibility that our lives could suddenly be upended.

I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, but there was an odd disjunction when it came to the Korean War. People didn’t want to talk about it. Of course, even as a small boy I was aware of “communism” and the threat it posed to “the free world,” and I grasped that the Korean War was an instance of that, but there was something murky about the whole business, in stark contrast to World War II. I sensed this in the way adults talked about—or, mostly, didn’t talk about—Korea.

But what made you think about all this now?

It was prompted by what’s been happening in the Middle East, and the way people are responding to that, with the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine still very much unresolved. When Rick and I watched those World War II documentaries, we knew how the story ended: The good guys won. That was no small thing. And yet, in a way I couldn’t have put into words at the time, I learned another lesson from those stark black-and-white chronicles: anything could happen, at any time. A house (like our precious little house in Pomona), a neighborhood, a town could be reduced to rubble. A person could be shot, bombed, gassed, reduced to a lumpish body to be handled like trash.

Again, I wasn’t dwelling on such realities all the time. Our mom and grandma had instilled in us a faith (“child-like,” if you will) that Rick and I still retain in our seventies, trusting that we are ultimately in God’s hands. But that doesn’t mean we are, in this life, exempt from the common fate of humanity.

I often encounter articles or book-length treatments of “the Fifties” in the U.S. that paint a picture of that era radically at odds with my own experience. And I see some of that same contempt (contempt, that is, for people who have supposedly been insulated from the harsh realities of history) in a lot of the commentary occasioned by current events in the Middle East. It’s dehumanizing, even as it purports to be driven by empathy for people who are suffering, persecuted, misunderstood. 

I have a to-read stack (actually several to-read stacks, several in several different rooms, in fact, so a lot of stacks). “But how can you be reading a book about Gallup, New Mexico, a whole book about Gallup, with all that is going on in the world right now? How can you read about Japanese ghosts, and oceans, and the Chinese poet Du Fu, now! You dilettante! You poser! You selfish AMERICAN!” 

Well, the book about Gallup (very interesting) is mostly pictures. It’s a slim volume, but rewarding. And speaking of slim volumes, there’s a book of poems by a Russian writer new to me, Olga Sedakova (translated by Martha M. F. Kelly). And a novel by a writer from Honduras whom I’ve not read, Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003), The Gold Seekers (translated by Jessica Sequeira). I’m grateful for these books, and for the circumstances that make it possible for me to read them. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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Image by Manhhai licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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