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Even casual newspaper readers  will recall the brief firestorm of controversy that was ignited several years ago when these AP reporters revealed the details beyond an incident from the Korean War in which US soldiers intentionally gunned down civilian refugees.  After initial shocked denials from all the predictable quarters came word that there was more truth than not to the report and President Clinton went through one of his regular, ritual apologies, effectively ending the story.  Except that is for the survivors, both on the Korean and American sides, and for these journalists who have now produced a capable but strangely deficient book length account of the events surrounding the massacre at No Gun Ri.

The book is capable in the sense that it represents a clear and concise account of the early days of the Korean War : how ill prepared US forces were; how poorly trained; how badly they underestimated the North Korean Army; how little they understood the nation of Korea and its people; etc....  Using a combination of first hand accounts, official military records, and professional histories, they develop a portrait of a US force which was besotted by victory in WWII, utterly unprepared to fight in Korea, and made up largely of uneducated young men led by commanders who lacked combat experience.  The predictable result was that when this force met the North Koreans in battle they were sent reeling backward in a disorganized retreat--they "bugged out."

To this chaotic situation were added two more factors which helped to lead to the atrocity at No Gun Ri : first, the conflict was a civil war between peoples of the same race, a different race than most of the Americans; second, enormous numbers of refugees were displaced by the conflict, and the great majority seem to have fled South into the American lines.   The first factor made it difficult for US troops to figure out who was friendly and who hostile.  The second created a situation which was extraordinarily dangerous to all concerned.  I'm unaware of any like situation in the midst of war, in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps even over a million, refugees converged on an army that was actively engaged in hostilities.  The authors tracked down orders from US commanders ordering troops to fire upon refugees including one issued to First Cavalry Division that states : "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."  The callousness of this command must shock our sensibilities--particularly as we sit here, safe and sound, fifty years after the fact--but it is understandable, though distasteful, when you consider the danger that refugees were causing to the troops.  Unfortunately, the authors barely discuss such danger, simply taking it for granted that the refugees should have been allowed some kind of free passage.

In these regards the analysis in the book is only naive, but elsewhere it is either politically slanted or else self serving.  Political orientation comes into play in the discussions of domestic anti-communist efforts--who still refers to Alger Hiss as an "alleged" spy ?--in the overly harsh portrayal of Syngman Rhee's admittedly authoritarian South Korean regime and overly charitable assessment of the Communist North Koreans as sort of nationalist economic liberals--the depiction of the communists as the more popular regime is especially hard to square with the fact that the refugee flow was seemingly all headed South--and in the general attribution of racist motivations to America and American troops.  It is possible to both note the role that race may have played in the war and even in the incident, and to still acknowledge the fact that 33,000 Americans died preserving South Korean freedom.  Considering how little the US had to gain from a South Korean victory, this was a pretty remarkable sacrifice.

But all of this might be forgiven if the authors had something sufficiently interesting to say about the implications of the atrocity itself, but this is where the book is a real let down.  It may be a natural and understandable impulse for the authors to want to believe that this career-making story was unique, but it is quite wrong.  The idea of war crimes is relatively new and awfully silly.  In the words of the always direct Albert Jay Nock :

    [B]y no conjuration can warfare be thought of as either more or less than organised assassination
    and robbery.

In earlier times, mankind was at least more honest about this simple truth.  Only in the 20th Century have "statesman" dressed up their postwar grievances in the guise of warcrime trials and the like.  In this regard, it is helpful to keep in mind that if Germany had developed the atomic bomb first, it would have been Churchill and FDR on trial at Nuremberg.

In an unfortunate overreach, the authors say that one of the important things about the American treatment of civilians is that it marked a radical departure from traditional notions about the treatment of noncombatants.

    This violated the laws and customs of war.  The prohibition against targeting noncombatants--in
    this case, citizens of an allied nation--is so basic a principle that it is part of customary,
    non-codified international law, but it was also spelled out in U.S. military pamphlets, which cited
    the 1907 Hague Treaty's admonition that 'hostilities are restricted to the armed forces of

Oh, really ?  Tell it to the citizens of Nanking, Stalingrad, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The events in question after all occurred in July 1950, just five years after a World War in which 50 million (a majority of them civilians) were killed, in the middle of the Chinese Communist Revolution which eventually claimed nearly as many and the Russian Revolution with its 20 million victims.  Before we treat these poor GIs as complete aberrations, we might want to take note of the fact that the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were artificially swollen with civilians because these cities had been preserved from normal bombing so that we could get better damage estimates when the atomic bombs were dropped.  If the measure of atrocity is to be the departure from the Hague Treaty, then Truman belongs in the dock before these guys.

Instead the authors treat the atrocity at No Gun Ri as if it were something unique in the annals of war.  If true, it would tend to make their big scoop even more sensational, but such incidents are the very stuff of war.  They quote one thirteen year old eye witness as saying of the American GIs :

    They didn't appear to be people who would kill fellow human beings.

But, of course, killing is what they'd been trained to do and why they were there in the first place.  That the killings they performed in this incident were unnecessary and horrific is a tragedy, but it is hardly surprising, nor should it truly shock us.  One is reminded of the excellent closing argument by the defense counsel in the film Breaker Morant, a recreation of an actual warcrime trial in the Boer War--one of the century's first ugly conflicts, which gave us the first concentration camps, commandos and dumdum bullets, all in a war between white European Christians.  The soldiers on trial are accused, and are clearly guilty, of executing prisoners and murdering a missionary.  Their attorney does not seek to deny or excuse their crimes, but instead argues that they are part and parcel of war :

    The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures.  The barbarities of war are seldom
    committed by abnormal men.  The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal
    men in abnormal situations; situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed
    and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.  Soldiers at war are
    not to be judged by civilian rules...  Even though they commit acts which calmly viewed
    afterwards could only be seen as unchristian and brutal...[W]e can not hope to judge such matters
    unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations, as these
    men, whose actions are on trial.

Personally, I believe that it was a mistake for America to participate in any of the wars of the 20th Century.  WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam--there was nothing at stake in any of these wars that was really important to our national interests, certainly not worth giving American lives for, and wars always involve these usually unacknowledged kinds of dehumanizing actions.  But it is the very lack of a true national interest that makes our willingness to fight in these wars perversely noble.   And having sent our young men to fight and die in these wars, I'm at least uncomfortable judging their actions in combat some fifty years later by our current peacetime standards of justice.  Tell the truth, I'm kind of impressed that we haven't become so inured to these kinds of things that we just accept them as a matter of course.  The outrage, however short-lived, that reports of No Gun Ri and of the similar atrocity that former Senator Bob Kerrey participated in while serving in Vietnam is almost reassuring.

And let's not kid ourselves here : such killings do not happen solely in the wars that we generally disapprove of, like Vietnam and Korea.  The famously reticent vets of WWII are more likely than not silent for rather complicated reasons, including unwillingness to fully discuss everything they did.  Actions like these (or, similarly, acts of cowardice), perpetrated by scared, lonely, stressed out men may in all likelihood reveal nothing about the men.  Unlike common criminals, there is no reason to believe that men who participate in war crimes are generally any less moral than any of the rest of us.  Nor is there any reason to believe that, given the same type of conditions, any of us would behave any better than they, no matter the war, or its popularity.

The core of this book, the recreation of the events at No Gun Ri, remains compelling reading, if for no other reason than the caution it should provoke when next we consider sending American boys to some foreign land.  However the book not only fails to advance our understanding of the events, it actually obscures comprehension.  They apparently believe that the incident was a product of racism,  anti-Communist psychosis, and the inferior quality of US fighting forces.  But this ignores too much.  Yes, as the authors estimate, 7th Cavalry may have committed a heinous blunder and gunned down between 200 and 400 innocent refugees, but it is also true that when they returned to Japan in December 1951, 7th Cavalry had lost 1,080 MIA/KIA of their own, fighting for a country they'd probably never heard of until they were sent there and securing a future for the South Korean people which subsequent events showed to be comfortable by any measure and downright luxurious by comparison to their neighbors to the North.  On balance, they, and we, can be proud of their service, though not of this particular unfortunate episode.


Grade: (D)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Bridge at No Gun Ri (Henry Holt)
    -ORIGINAL STORY : Bridge at No Gun Ri (SANG-HUN CHOE, CHARLES J. HANLEY and MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press Writers)
    -Bridge at No Gun Ri : an AP Special Report
    -ARTICLE : Records Show Ex-GI Couldn't Have  Witnessed No Gun Ri (Charles J. Hanley, June 1, 2000, AP)
    -AWARD : Pulitzer Prize : Investigative Reporting 2000
    -ARTICLE : Associated Press Expose of Korean War Killings Wins Investigative Pulitzer (Beth Gardiner,  Associated Press,, April 10, 2000)
    -PROFILE : How they got the Korean War atrocity story :  With a year's worth of digging, a team of stolid AP investigators searched records and interviewed survivors to piece together a horrifying story. (Sean Elder, September 30, 1999, Salon)
    -PROFILE : The Bridge at No Gun Ri :  Martha (Snyder) Mendoza--B.A., individual major (journalism and education), Kresge '88--is part of a Pulitzer Prizev at war are not to be judged by civ winning team  that uncovered a chilling chapter of the Korean War  (Karin Wanless, Summer 2000, University of California Santa Clara Review )
    -US Army Report of the No Gun Ri Review
    -ETEXT : Statement of Mutual Understanding Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on the No Gun Ri Investigations. January 2001
    -Online NewsHour: Incident at No Gun Ri Special Report
    -SPECIAL REPORT : The No Gun Ri Investigation (US News)
    -ESSAY: No Gun Ri: 'Massacre,' Media and Conflicts of Interest (Dave Eberhart, Jan. 4, 2003,
    -Special Report  No Gun Ri Massacre (Asia Source, November 02, 1999)
    -COVER FEATURE : No Gun Ri (Korean American Journal, November 1999)
    -LINKS : Web resources (US News)
    -ESSAY : The Bridge at No Gun Ri : Did panicky American G.I.s massacre Korean civilians at the beginning of the Korean War? (MARK THOMPSON, OCTOBER 11, 1999, TIME)
    -ESSAY : No Gun Ri: What they're saying : Experts grapple with reports that the U.S. committed  war crimes during the Korean War (Alicia Montgomery, Oct. 1, 1999, Salon)
    -ARTICLE : U.S. veteran meets with No Gun Ri survivors (Associated Press, 11/05/99)
    -ARTICLE : Survivors of Korean War massacre by US soldiers seek investigation (Esther Galen, 17 November 1999, World Socialist Web Site)
    -ARTICLE : Survivors say U.S. regrets over No Gun Ri killings fall short (CNN, January 12, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Digging Too Deep at No Gun Ri  : AP's massacre exposés survived corporate pressure and criticism--but not apathy (Seth Ackerman, September/October 2000, FAIR)
    -ESSAY :  No Gun Ri: a soldier's perspective  (Patrick Roe, October 8, 1999, The Seattle Times)
    -ESSAY :  The Harder Lessons of No Gun Ri (Col. David R Hughes (U.S. Army Ret.), 10/1799,
    -ESSAY : A Korean's view of No Gun Ri (Kim Yong Geun, OCTOBER 6, 1999, Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY :  No good news from No Gun Ri ( Jerry Lembcke, The Asian Reporter, June 20-26, 2000)
    -ESSAY : U.S. Troops carried out mass-killings of civilians in Korea (Seán Mac Mathúna, Flame Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Why No Gun Ri Won't Die (Eric Alterman,, June 01, 2000,
    -ESSAY : No Gun Ri :  Exploring reactions to the Korean War tragedy (Jason Ma, Asian Week)
    -ESSAY : War Crimes Have Lingering Costs: The Case of No Gun Ri (Senior Analyst Nicholas Berry,  February 22, 2000, Center for Defense Information : Asia Forum)
    -ESSAY : Wounded (Charles Lane, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Bridge at No Gun Ri (Velisarios Kattoulas, Far Eastern Economic Review)

    -Korean War.Net
    -Korean War 50th Anniversary Home Page (Defense Department)
    -Remembering the Korean War (US Army Center for Military History)
    -Korean War Historical Documents (Steve Carroll)
    -SPECIAL REPORT : Korea : the Forgotten War (CBS News)
    -TIMELINE : The Korean War: 1950-1953 : A brief timeline (Asian Week)
    -Korea (International Action Center)
    -LINKS : Korean War (University of Louisville)

    -Center for Defense Information
    -ARCHIVES : Military (FAIR)
    -The 30 or so worst bloodlettings of the Twentieth Century (Twentieth Century Atlas)
    -Famous American Trials : The My Lai Courts-Martial  1970 (UMKC Law School) Directory | My Lai : A complete listing of Salon articles on My Lai
    -The My Lai Massacre ("The 20th Century" by David Wallechinsky)
    -'Blood and fire' of My Lai remembered 30 years later (CNN)
    -ESSAY : One Awful Night in Thanh Phong (GREGORY L. VISTICA, April 25, 2001 , NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Bob Kerrey, War Criminal? (Gabriel Schoenfeld , Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Medal of Horror : In a rare display of agreement, no one in Washington feels able to judge Bob Kerrey now that his war record is a matter of national debate. Are we the cowards? (TUCKER CARLSON, New York Magazine)
    -ESSAY : BATTLE FOR HISTORY : The Consequence of War  Bob Kerrey confronts an arrogance long familiar to Vietnam vets. (JAMES WEBB, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Bob Kerrey's Vietnam War (Mackubin Thomas Owens, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : Who Made Bob Kerrey Do It? (Nat Hentoff, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Kerrey agonistes : Is the ex-senator baring his soul and spinning his story? (John Leo, US News)
    -ESSAY : Body Count (Robert Dreyfuss, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Is it time for a Vietnam truth commission? : Suppressed atrocities haunt victims, perpetrators and politics alike. That's why unshrouding the secret history of Sen. Bob Kerrey and the Vietnam War is imperative. (Bruce Shapiro, Salon)
    -DISCUSSION : Bob Kerrey and Vietnam (Timothy Noah and Jacob Weisberg, Slate)