by Michael Anft
Nations that ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Case in point: Nearly 20 years before the horrors of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, American soldiers shot down hundreds of unarmed, innocent refugees--many of them women and children at a railroad trestle in South Korea during the beginning of what came to be known euphemistically as the Korean Conflict.
Now that the United States is facing a new "conflict," we're hearing terms such as "collateral damage" and "civilian casualties" again and wondering how much or how many of them are morally acceptable. For that reason, the publication of The Bridge at No Gun Ri couldn't be more timely.
The culmination of 17 months of work by three Associated Press reporters and a cadre of researchers, Bridge painstakingly and often artfully re-creates the four days of hell that hundreds of fleeing denizens from two villages endured in July 1950 before most of them succumbed to U.S. air strikes, shrapnel, and high-powered bullets. Many children who survived the attack did so by nestling their bodies into the piles of the dead.
Like all good reporters, Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza provide us with context. In this case, the circumstances are shocking and redolent of an American ethos that was racist toward Asians and fat and happy from living off the spoils of World War II. Some of the GIs from the Army's 7th Cavalry torn away from comfy guard jobs in post-war Japan, where they got bloated on beer and traded cigarettes for sex had been in Korea for all of five days before taking out the bridge and killing the people who tried to hide underneath it. The soldiers were poorly armed, poorly trained, and poorly supplied. They were poorly motivated, fighting people for whom they had no true animosity. Their commanding officers were given divisions to march, even though they had never before led men into battle.
But the AP team does more than examine the atrocity at the bridge. Their research shows that American forces, out of an apparently misplaced fear that North Korean communists were hiding among the refugees, gave orders to fire on "everyone trying to cross lines," including civilians. One green general, Hobart Gay, ordered his men to blow up a bridge over the Naktong River to prevent refugees from crossing it. Hundreds of them were already on it when the order was carried out. (One desperate group of refugees made a large, crude sign reading americans, we are not communists in hopes they would be allowed to flee south to safety.) The incident in No Gun Ri was hardly an anomaly.
This sort of investigative reporting, unflattering as it is to Americans' usual distorted sense of their history, isn't always welcome. After the AP first reported on the No Gun Ri incident in September 1999, other media began questioning the veracity of some of the story's sources. (The initial stories won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.) U.S. News & World Report and Stars and Stripes claimed in May 2000 that some of the soldiers interviewed for the story were never at No Gun Ri. The New York Times chimed in with criticism as well before concluding that the story was true and that Army documents indeed confirm that Army brass gave orders to cut down noncombatants.
As some have already pointed out, the real scandal isn't that one of the story's 40 military sources may not be trustworthy, but that very few U.S. newspapers picked up on subsequent AP reporting on war crimes against civilians in Korea. The timing is ripe now for a reconsideration of the armed forces' past behavior in such conflicts, particularly when the foe in question this time around is culturally and religiously very foreign to us just as the Koreans were 50 years ago.