Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, despite its gruesome nature, excited viewers. For me, the movie captured the intensity of true guerrilla warfare. W. E. B. Griffin’s Under Fire, on the other hand, explores the depths of non-excitement. Under Fire narrates allegedly true events leading up to and during the Korean War. I knew nothing about the Korean War before, and I know little more now. It was another chapter in the book of the Cold War: the United States versus communism. I have no idea why W E. B. Griffin bothered writing this book.
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The novel focuses on a core group of people, although other characters come and go. The two most important are Fleming Pickering, a former Brigadier General, and his son Major Malcolm Pickering. Both served in the United States Marine Corps during “Guadalcanal,” a military operation of which I am completely ignorant, and Griffin never explained to my satisfaction. The Pickering family is filthy rich. Fleming Pickering is the head of the Pacific and Far East Transportation Company. His wife, Patricia, owns a bunch of luxury hotels.
A close friend of the family is Major Kenneth “the Killer” McCoy. McCoy earned the nickname “Killer,” which he hates, from two incidents. The first was a knife fight in which he killed an Italian Marine, and the second, for allegedly single-handedly killing a dozen or so Japanese during World War II. He married a woman named Ernestine, originally intended for Malcolm Pickering. There is no bad blood between the Pickerings and the McCoys over the unarranged marriage because they treat one another like family.
The reader fortunately meets the historically more famous characters of the time, including President Harry Truman. The most interesting character in the novel, who receives less space than he deserves, is Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Douglas MacArthur. At the height of his career, characters in the novel criticize him for surrounding himself with doughy “yes-men” and acting like the “Viceroy” of Japan. The characters refer to him as “El Supremo” and “the Viceroy” behind his back, but always admit his military genius. Later in the novel, MacArthur admits he knows what people think of him. His intelligence far outweighs the protagonists that I thought we should somehow admire or care for.
Ken McCoy gathered intelligence that the communist North Koreans planned to invade South Korea. He put his findings into a report and presented it to General Willoughby, part of “The Bataan Gang” surrounding and advising MacArthur. With no explanation, Willoughby ordered the report destroyed and McCoy separated from active duty. MacArthur’s intelligence remained ignorant of the impending invasion. McCoy disobeyed orders and took the report to his friend Fleming Pickering.
While briefly in Japan, Fleming Pickering met with his old friend Douglas MacArthur and wanted to discuss McCoy’s report, but never felt there was an opportunity to bring it up due to the presence of Willoughby and others from The Bataan Gang. Yet, MacArthur’s later admission that the Generals under him are only telling him what he wants to hear seems that he would seriously investigate the validity of the report and Willoughby’s suppression of it.
Back in the United States, Pickering enlists the help of a Senator to bring the report to the attention of the director of the CIA, Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, who is understandably incredulous. After the communist invasion of South Korea begins, word of the report reaches Harry Truman, who wonders why there was no advance warning of the invasion. He appoints Fleming Pickering as the Assistant Director of the CIA for Asia. Pickering surrounds himself with his old war buddies, including McCoy. United States forces quickly mobilize. Due to the silver spoon Malcolm Pickering was born with, he connives his way to Korea early, where he attempts to become the first train-destroying ace. He crashes his plane behind enemy lines, possibly due to anti-aircraft fire or debris from the train, and no one knows if he is alive.
Meanwhile, MacArthur plans an attack on Inchon in order to cut off North Korean supply lines, encircle the enemy and crush them with minimal loss of American lives. A battle straight up the peninsula from the South would be much longer and bloodier. Fleming Pickering, thanks to the idea of a subordinate officer, decides to launch a covert operation, without even consulting MacArthur, to capture some islands the North Koreans might use to attack the invading fleet at Inchon.
Griffin’s novel is flat. The few descriptions are flat. The characters are flat. Griffin’s style is flat. There is no real sense of tone, setting, or a narrative voice. Griffin breaks the cardinal rule of fiction—show, do not tell—time after time. Rather than characters emoting with their voices or bodies, Griffin writes the thoughts of the characters as if it were dialogue. The story has many settings, including Korea, Japan, and the United States. The only way Griffin differentiates between them is by naming the setting, time, and date at the beginning of the chapter. He never establishes a sense of place.
The characters are unlikable. Griffin paints the Marines as sociopathic fools. This could favor the novel if it were a critique of the military, but one of the comments on the back cover calls Griffin the “poet laureate of the American military” and the jacket mentions his membership in military-related organizations. Fleming Pickering is an alcoholic, and both he and the narrator are in denial. Pickering opens a cabinet. A bottle of Proud Grouse scotch! Pickering opens the car trunk. A case of Proud Grouse! Pickering opens a cabinet drawer on the U. S. S. Mount McKinley. A bottle of Proud Grouse! Here a Grouse, there a Grouse, every where a Groused souse.
The novel illustrates how much the military and government are a club for the “good old boys,” where certain people receive special favors and promotions because they are friends, not because of their competence or merit. Late in the novel, the point of view shifts to a character named Captain Dunwood, who is about to depart on a plane for Korea. The flight is held until some important officers can arrive. Dunwood is understandably upset, after his flight has been delayed for an hour. After take off, Dunwood confronts one of the self-important officers, calling him a “candy a** sonofabitch.” I cheered the hardly admirable Dunwood. The officer he confronted? Fleming Pickering’s beloved Captain Kenneth “Killer” McCoy. I understood Dunwood’s anger at McCoy. McCoy slept with his wife, wore clean, pressed uniforms and got shuttled around like a VIP while Dunwood and the other grunts get crapped on and ordered to say, “Thank you, sir. May I please have another?”
The novel seemed really inconsistent. If MacArthur truly was a genius and Pickering genuinely believed it, why did he need to launch a covert operation before the invasion at Inchon? I guess Pickering kept it secret from MacArthur because he did not want MacArthur to think the CIA was working under him like everyone else did. But toward the end of the novel, Pickering decides to let MacArthur in on it, anyway. If Pickering had told MacArthur about McCoy’s intelligence report about an impending communist invasion of South Korea in the first place, he could have saved himself a lot of stress. A few months in a POW camp will serve the unbelievably stupid Malcolm Pickering well.
While the novel shows subordinate dissent in petty matters such as whether the the First Division will get the double-ply Charmin or not, it offers absolutely no dialogue on the necessity of United States intervention in Korea. The North Koreans are communists! We must burn their freedom-fearing bodies in a hail of napalm! Recently I read Theodore Rex, and even around 1900, there was dissent over United States involvement in the Philippines. Roosevelt justified the imperialist actions with the "debased" nature of Philippine natives. How much more dissent would there be in the 1950s, even inside the ranks of the military? No need for debate. Ken McCoy picks up a flawed rifle and gleefully kills a few Koreans.
Griffin ends the novel poorly. He deprives the audience of the payoffs we have been expecting. The only things I liked about the novel were Griffin’s explanations of military peculiarities, such as the height requirement for the Honor Guard and the rule that Marines only salute outdoors. Fleming Pickering’s personal guard shows an amusing, almost motherly concern during Pickerings’ extended absences. The moments I enjoyed were all too brief and sparse, wholly conquered by the novel’s insignificance and boredom.