War Trash

By Ha Jin, <I>Pantheon. $25</I>

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Ha Jin’s new novel, War Trash, is the fictional memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer sent with the “People’s Volunteers” to help the Communist side in the Korean War. Aside from its extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment, this is a riveting page-turner — leaping right into bloody firefights and foolish command decisions, forced marches and catastrophic defeats. When Yuan is finally captured by American soldiers, the novel finds its true and timely subject — the experience of Korean POWs in American camps. Because of his good command of English, Yuan soon becomes a pivotal translator in the power struggles between various POW factions — Communist and Nationalist — and their American jailors.

Outnumbered wardens, spiraling violence, the gradual dehumanization of both sides — the comparison to Abu Ghraib is unavoidable. POWs even demand that their American captors abide by the Geneva Conventions. Ha Jin brings to this chaos a serene moral clarity. He has so thoroughly researched the historical milieu that War Trash reads less like a deliberate exploration of the human condition — which it is — than stunned first-person reportage. There’s a blank neutrality to the gaze of his young narrator, recording everything and judging nothing. Ha Jin strikes a rare balance between the all-seeing detachment of the novelist and the particularity of a single character’s experience — a pitch-perfect blend of immediacy and lyrical beauty.

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Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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