The late James Brady was mostly known during his life for short celebrity interviews he routinely did for Parade Magazine, that thin Sunday insert in the newspaper. Always, however, he returned to the theme of military service, specifically, to that of his and his fellow Marines in the Korean War. His memoir of his tour in that brutal and brutally cold conflict, The Coldest War, was a highly descriptive narrative of real-life military service in a war largely forgotten or ignored by most Americans. Sandwiched between the end of World War II – which Brady’s narrator in The Marines of Autumn repeatedly refers to simply as “the War” – and the war in Vietnam, the Korean War somehow slipped between the cracks of America’s collective conscience despite a death toll during its three years that rivaled that of Vietnam’s ten year war. The Marines of Autumn, though, is a novel. The protagonist, Captain Tom Verity, is a reluctant warrior who had served in the Pacific during “the War” and was involuntarily recalled to active duty for the Korean conflict because of his knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Chapter Eight of Brady’s novel describes Captain Verity’s ascent up the Korean Peninsula along with his driver, Corporal Izzo, and Gunnery Sergeant Tate, the no-nonsense and invariably invaluable non-commissioned officer assigned to the captain.
During this chapter, the three Marines slowly make their way north, heading for Yudam-ni. The chapter begins with their approach to Koto-ri, a small town that “didn’t mean anything to any of them.” There are two main themes to this chapter, however. The brutal and unceasing cold, and the incompetence of and disdain for General Douglas MacArthur. Early in the chapter, Brady describes the scene:
“. . .the mountains were higher, and the road steeper and narrower, the weather colder,” and
“. . .here in North Korea with the wind coming out of Manchuria and from the vast ice box of Siberia beyond, the November snow was already piled deep and drifting in the pass.”
Captain Verity reflects on the mental distinctions between his serve in the Pacific during “the War” and his service in Korea. Then, he was young and single. Now, he had a daughter to consider. “Husbands and fathers, he concluded, had no business going to war.” All along the way, Verity dutifully monitored Chinese radio communications, dispatching his aides to report his findings, usually to be met with indifference.
Brady’s cynicism regarding General MacArthur is conveyed in the thoughts of Verity. Following a reconnaissance flight over enemy territory, MacArthur returned to Tokyo, where he “promptly issued a detailed communique regarding future operations. Seldom had any general so recklessly revealed his hand, and both Peng and Lin Piao received accurate translations within twenty four hours. Oh, yes. General MacArthur was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his sightseeing flight.”
Ridiculing superior officers is a part of military life, but Brady’s disregard for General MacArthur, who would be relieved of his command by President Truman for repeated and blatant instances of insubordination, runs deep. Later in the chapter, Lieutenant Colonel Fleet, with whom Verity is conferring, makes his own derogatory reference to MacArthur: “For the life of me, and it may literally come down to that, I can’t understand what the hell MacArthur was thinking about when he divided this army in high mountains where the two elements of the army can’t possibly support each other.”
Chapter Eight of The Marines of Autumn is just another phase in Captain Verity’s war, but it’s important for its treatment of the war as a political issue and for Verity’s reflections on the distinctions between the two wars to which he was a participant.