From a Newtown Literary contributor: Gordon Haber
About “Troopship,” or Why I Am Writing About the Korean War
In January of 2020 my father died. I’d already been working on stories set during the Korean War. But it wasn’t until his death that I realized that the stories were about him.
Maybe not him exactly, but about his generation. My dad was an individual. He was a victim of shitty circumstances—abuse, poverty, and neglect. He could also be self-centered and a total pain in the ass. His Army service was in relatively cushy West Germany, not Korea, although to hear him tell it, his mere presence was enough to keep the Soviet Union from invading.
As I got deeper into my stories, I saw that my work was less about the war and more about the men who came of age in the 50s. It was about how they defined their manhood, how their rigid ideas about masculinity allowed them a certain confidence. I don’t write this with envy. My father’s generation was marked by racism, homophobia and misogyny. And while my dad was generally a decent person, he wasn’t free from these attitudes. It was a source of near-constant frustration and embarrassment. And yet, at the same time, he was a Jew, with some measure of hatred directed towards him.
But he had a firm sense of loyalty and responsibility. When it came to the draft, you didn’t hear a lot about deferments in his generation: “There was no fucking question about avoiding the service,” he said. “It was what you did. And it was a way of getting the fuck out of Brooklyn.”
As a writer, I felt I needed to look these complications in the face. I had to write about American soldiers as they were, not as we wish they had been. It would be more honest and hopefully more interesting. “Troopship” is about a young Jewish American draftee on his way to the Korean War. Some details come from what my father told me about the troopship that took him to Germany. Others were drawn from interviews with veterans and firsthand accounts. I guess you could call it historical fiction. But my goal was to convey the hopes and fears of a nineteen-year-old recruit in 1950.
My dad didn’t read much fiction. I’m not going to pretend to know whether he would have liked the story or not. But he would have appreciated the attempt to understand him better. “Troopship” is dedicated to his memory, with all its complications and affection.