Daniel Y. Kim
The Intimacies of Conflict: Cultural Memory and the Korean War
New York University Press, 2020
336 pages

Reviewed by Iana Robitaille

On August 14, 1965, a statement broadcast over Radio Hanoi’s airwaves opened with an appeal to African American servicemen deployed in Vietnam: “Hi, fellows. Let’s have a heart-to-heart talk.” The voice was that of Clarence Adams, a Black Memphis native who, after having been held as a prisoner of war in Korea, had refused repatriation and emigrated to the People’s Republic of China in 1953. The Korean War veteran continued with an admonishment for his fellows-in-arms: “I am the living truth that the American bosses have lied about the Asians in the same way that they have lied about African Americans and Latin Americans […] You are fighting the wrong war. Brothers, go home.”

If most readers are unfamiliar with Adams’s story, such unawareness is only symptomatic of amnesia that has come to characterize the “forgotten war” in which his story began. This collective forgetting is precisely what Daniel Y. Kim sets out to correct—and refute—in his latest book, The Intimacies of Conflict: Cultural Memory and the Korean War.

 Kim has written extensively on Cold War-era Asian American and African American “literary politics of identity.” The Intimacies of Conflict continues this work by uncovering the Korean War—and the “assemblages of [cultural] memory” it has provoked—as the nexus of an emergent US empire, Cold-War racial politics, and constellation of interracial affective bonds. Building on Bruce Cumings’s postcolonial historiography of the war, Kim presents a transnational and multiracial cultural archive that stretches from mid-century to the present. Kim’s sweeping analysis challenges the framing of the Korean War as a discrete and largely “forgotten” event, revealing instead a “multidirectional memory […] that persists and is part of a larger ongoing complex of war-making.”

Kim organizes his study into two parts, each comprised of four chapters. The first, “The ‘Forgotten War’ Before It Was Forgotten,” attends to cultural representations of the Korean War in the United States during and immediately following the war, and to the interracial intimacies they evoked. Central here is an extension of Christina Klein’s ‘Cold War Orientalism’—the sentimentalism that characterized US depictions of Asian subjects during the Cold War—to what Kim terms ‘military Orientalism’ and ‘humanitarian Orientalism.’ Kim introduces the former in Chapter One by way of Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), the very first Korean War film. The film depicts a new, interracial fraternity among American soldiers that revises the racialized tropes of the previous decade. It also casts Korean soldiers within what Kim refers to as a ‘racial DMZ’—a zone of “racial indiscrimination” from which American viewers must discern “friendlies” from enemies. In the end, however, all Asian subjects—regardless of loyalty—are deemed legitimately killable and a necessary sacrifice. This logic is transferred to the figure of the Nisei citizen-soldier in Chapter Three, in which Kim argues that Korean-War military service became a performative gamble by which Japanese Americans could prove their loyalty and by which the US could expunge its legacy of internment. Kim finally limns his notion of humanitarian Orientalism in Chapter Four: reading the films One Minute to Zero (1952) and Battle Hymn (1959) alongside photo essays in Life and TIME, Kim exposes how cinematic, journalistic, and photographic representations of Korean civilians—especially refugees and child orphans—elicited American sympathy and humanitarian aid while framing their suffering as a necessary, if lamentable, cost of war.

Some of Kim’s most incisive analysis in this first section comes in Chapter Two, where he considers America’s “hot war” abroad through its “race war” at home. Here he draws on an extensive archive that includes Black press coverage of the war in the Chicago Defender; a 1951 NAACP report by Thurgood Marshall concerning the experience of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry (or “Buffalo Soldiers”) in Korea; and the public politics of African American figures such as Clarence Adams and Muhammad Ali. Reading these texts alongside two 1959 films, Kim demonstrates the importance of the Korean War to anticolonial Black politics and a narrative of US racial progress and military multiculturalism. This dense and somewhat sprawling chapter could perhaps be a project of its own, though Kim is careful to state its relationship to the neighboring studies—and to presage some of the recent texts addressed in the second half of the book.

In Part Two, “Assemblages of Memory,” Kim turns to an archive of contemporary novels that reveal “the darker aspects” of the Korean War’s interracial intimacies and prolonged “web of suffering and complicity” it brought about. These chapters take a rather more straightforward shape, revealing how such novels reconfigure and at times complicate the affective bonds suggested in Part One. Chapter Five reads Jayne Anne Phillip’s Lark and Termite (2009) and Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered (2010) to reframe the humanitarian-Orientalist dynamic among US soldiers, Korean civilians, and aid workers. Engaging Joseph Slaughter’s suggestion of ‘humanitarian reading,’ Kim observes that these novels invite sympathy but ultimately deny refuge, forcing readers to confront the continued “wreckage” wrought by US military intervention since the mid-century. In Chapter Six, Kim continues his consideration of Lee’s novel alongside Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student (1998) to theorize imperfect translations of Korean American memory—or post-memory—that are necessarily incomplete and “evoke an assemblage of racializing histories.”

Chapter Seven, “The Racial Borderlands of the Korean War,” considers a multiracial archive of writing that demonstrates the Korean War’s implications for African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Chinese Americans. Kim revisits Clarence Adams—by way of his 2007 memoir An American Dream—alongside Toni Morrison’s Home (2012); a trio of Korean War novels by Rolando Hinojosa; and Ha Jin’s War Trash (2004). These texts register the interracial intimacies at the heart of Kim’s project. In a remarkable analysis, for instance, Kim locates in Hinojosa’snovels an invisible line connecting the Rio Grande and Thirty-Eighth Parallel—two partitions that, though separated by nearly a century, represent continuous “segments in the borderlands of US empire.” But the texts also reveal the limits of such intimacies, critiquing the hypocrisy of so-called “military multiculturalism” while acknowledging the culpability of soldiers of color in atrocities wrought by the war.

In the book’s final chapter and conclusion, Kim shifts his attention to the cultural memory of the war on the Korean peninsula. Through analysis of Hwang Sok-Yong’s 2004 novel The Guest, the 2004 film Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, and the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, Kim considers shifting South Korean narratives of the war and their implications—for both Korean and American viewers. The conclusion also very clearly lays out the personal and political stakes of Kim’s project and acknowledges its limitations. As Kim states, his aim was not to ascribe a “discrete eventfulness” to the Korean War but to uncover its “seepage into […] multiple historical trajectories”—a fluidity that only invites further study.

Charting the cultural longue-durée of the Korean War, The Intimacies of Conflict makes a compelling addition to critical theorizations of US empire, racial capitalism, debt, biopolitics, and interracial solidarity. Though at times meandering in its organization and prose, that is only evidence of its multidisciplinary contribution; it is a book that will interest scholars in a host of fields including Black studies, Asian American studies, Latinx studies, East Asian studies, and American studies. Most importantly, it opens up space for a relational “literary politics of identity”—for the crucial recognition of intimacies among “us,” as Kim writes in closing, “as Americans, as Koreans, as Asian Americans, as people of color.”