Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on March 29, 2016. It can also be found online here.
Bringing death to 11 percent of the known world (and terrifying the other 89 percent) is apparently thirsty work, so the Mongols brought booze. Top shelf, at that, all the way from Persia to Korea circa 1300. It was called arak then, and the distilleries cranking out the hard stuff were first established near modern-day Kaesong, the little village that separates the two Koreas, and home to a much haggled-over industrial complex. The drink’s modern descendent is still called arakju around that border town, but countrywide it’s more commonly known as soju (or “burn liquor”). It’s grain- or sweet potato-based, typically about 20 percent ABV, and was the world’s best-selling spirit in 2014. Yes, soju. It’s as ubiquitous in Korea as Wheaties are in the states, except they use soju instead of milk and nobody ever touches the cereal.
Ever since the Khan’s horsebacked hordes rode into Korea 700 years ago, soju has had a distinctly military flavor (although strawberry’s not bad either). The most popular way to drink it in South Korea is to drop a shot glass into beer, a practice known as poktanju, which translates to “bomb drink,” and may or may not be a dig at the North Korean nuclear program. Speaking of which, Kim Jong Un supposedly prefers whiskey and cognac over soju, a fact that makes me start to question his fitness to lead the Korean people. Perhaps to make up for this cultural slight, the North Korean navy features a Soju-class of guided missile patrol boats.
On our side of the DMZ, the guys love the stuff. Korean soldiers assigned to support the U.S. Army in Korea — officially termed “Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army” (AKA, KATUSA) — can buy 12-ounce bottles of soju for about 50 cents. Armed with their $150/month conscript paychecks, particularly hard-charging KATUSAs can swig 10 bottles a day, every day. Some just might: a recent survey of 44 countriesfound Koreans are the world’s most underappreciated drinkers, clocking in at 14 shots/week, while the Russians averaged six, and Americans only 3.3. Pair this with a better-known fact (Korea is the world’s “most wired” society) and it becomes hard to escape the stereotype that Koreans are really awesome cyborgs with four Russian livers.
I witnessed this, clear as soju, beginning with the first time I went out to dinner with a friend in Korea. We went to a “beef and leaf” place (table barbecue), which is like dry fondue, only more efficient and less dangerous than its oily Euro cousin. So we got there, sat down at our table, and took in our surroundings. Full Friday night, not a seat available in the house. We ordered our “bomb drink” components — soju plus maekju (beer) — which the Korean language cleverly halves and combines to form another word, somaek (pronounced “so-mick”). We ordered our somaek, as we saw everyone else doing, and proceeded to drink. What does soju taste like? Well, one description calls it “sweet vodka with a chemical finish,” and that’s about right by me. It’s always drinkable, less severe than vodka neat, and ordering it will get you street cred with Psy.
Towards the end of the night, we glanced at the surrounding tables to view our shortcomings laid bare — every table was full of empties, in orderly rows like tiny boozy formations. The mathematics of epic failure: My friend and I had knocked down a couple bottles of soju and maybe 6 bottles of beer between us (and we were done). Next to us was a table with one man in his 50s and three middle-aged women that had crushed 9 bottles of soju and a glass factory’s worth of beer bottles. It was my “welcome to the NFL” moment, but instead of a linebacker standing over my flattened remains, it was three Korean aunts and an uncle, shaming me.
I asked a Korean officer I serve with why they seem to drink so much. His quick take: relief from the ultra-competitive nature of Korean society. He thought some more, and went on to acknowledge Han — a deep, ominous sense of Korean sadness — likely developed over time in response to so many national and personal tragedies, like the loss of friends and family in the interminable scar the war cut through the Korean people. This is something I, and other soldiers overseas, can relate to. For Koreans, it might be separation from their relatives to the north; for American soldiers stationed here, it’s a similar separation from our families to the east. Soldiers often drink, soju or otherwise, for this reason. This is nothing new. In 1854, Ulysses S. Grant was stationed in the distant west on the Northern California frontier (which must have seemed as far as Korea back then) and wrote to his wife Julia, back east:
I do not feel as if it was possible to endure this separation much longer. By the time you read this, Ulys will be nearly two years old and no doubt talking as plainly as Fred did his few words when I saw him last. Dear little boys — what a comfort it would be to see and play with them a few hours every day!
So he drank.
As do I. One of my daughters, Georgie, is just starting to walk and talk. Sip. The other, Gracie, had a nearly hour-long temper tantrum the other day. Sip. It’s hard for my wife and I to stay connected when we’re 6,000 miles apart and out of sync. Gulp, sip, sip. This separation is what puts me at the bottom of the bottle.
That’s what makes the stuff so potent: For 700 years, across multiple military forces, soju has conquered more soldiers than Genghis ever dreamed of. And it’s all borne from a strikingly simple mixture: equal parts disconsolate soldier, distant separation, and deep sadness. No matter the theater, no matter the duty, a soldier’s gotta drink.