Lee’s (The Search for a Hero, 2007) narrative nonfiction finds the author’s alter ego, Dr. Ahn, on a tour discussing the shortcomings of U.S. military strategy compared to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
In 2006, Ahn, a professor emeritus of English literature in South Korea, joins fellow teacher Ms. Jin on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. The two meet several people along the way, including a Vietnam War vet, a Seoul college history professor and a medical doctor. In between bouts of sightseeing and dining on local cuisine, the group talks about American military tactics, namely in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. might have fared better had it employed “softpower”—psychological warfare based on The Art of War. Ahn supports his theory by noting successful runs against the U.N forces from “poorly-armed” Chinese and Viet Cong soldiers, as well as America’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. The author’s novel favors his argument over the autobiographical storyline: Ahn’s dialogue more closely resembles college lectures (often spoken in response to someone asking for his opinion), while most supporting characters don’t even have names. Ahn’s—or more directly, Lee’s—reasoning is sound, as history supports his references to the United States’ losing to guerrilla assaults. He also maintains a middle ground critical of America’s capitalism and materialism but clearly not on the side of communists, whom he calls, among other things, “wicked red ones.” The arguments, however, become repetitive; his unambiguous rationalization that the Chinese army and Viet Cong triumphed with strategies derived from Sun Tzu is overstated when he devotes multiple chapters to each war. And Ahn/Lee repeatedly calling U.S. soldiers “cowboys” and the country “Uncle Sam” and elsewhere calling the Japanese “samurai” or “Japs” seems derisive. Scaling back the reiterated exchanges would have given the arguments more impact and allowed the author to devote more pages to personal touches: Ahn’s thinly veiled attraction to Ms. Jin; his Japanese roommate in graduate school, who turned down the thermostat in their room before leaving the university; and a man in the tour group who’s publicly chastised by a few ladies for his wandering hands. The novel would likewise have benefited from some editing to correct errors—the attack on Pearl Harbor is given a Nov. 7 date more than once—and occasionally confusing grammar, such as Chinese soldiers maneuvering “just like flying bats on a sudden.”
The theory on military tactics has merit, but the book could have been improved with better balance between the overwhelming discourse and diminutive story.