Op-Eds by Jim

The Bridge at No Gun Ri

October 6, 1999
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

I do not know what happened to the civilians at the bridge near the village of No Gun Ri, although it seems clear from recent Associated Press reports that many of them died in the early days of the Korean War as their country was being ripped apart by a communist invasion and the U.S. Army was thrown into disarray.

An official investigation into the incident, in which members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry Regiment are alleged to have gunned down hundreds of Korean refugees, is forthcoming. Piercing questions will be asked, and from the gauzy memories of five decades ago some answers will be given. Did the refugees die from American bombs and bullets? If so, were the deaths deliberate? If they were, were they the result of battlefield realities that left them caught in the middle? Were the American soldiers ordered to keep refugees off the road and away from the bridge so that a retreating army could move south before it was annihilated? Were the refugees attempting to move, by day or night, into the American perimeters? Or were the American soldiers simply having a little target practice, shooting off precious ammunition to see if they might kill a woman here and a kid there as the world was falling down upon their heads?

And another question, of present-day interest: Is some team of lawyers trying to squeeze millions out of a long-ago tragedy of the sort that seems always to accompany battles fought where other people live?

Far More Brutal

For all the talk of civilian casualties in Vietnam, the war in Korea was far more brutal. More than two million Korean civilians perished during the three years of fighting, amounting to some 70%, of the overall death toll. The massive, sudden invasion from the north flattened every major city, threw hundreds of thousands of refugees onto the roads, and left little time for American and South Korean forces to reconstruct firm lines of defense. A retreat was underway in 100-degree heat as the military sought to regroup far to the south, around the port city of Pusan. North Korean soldiers dressed in the white robes of farmers frequently mixed among the refugee columns in order to disrupt American and South Korean units. The Army’s logistical lines were extended and often interrupted. Hospital care and even medevacs for the wounded were usually out of the question. Whole companies ceased to exist, and officer casualties were particularly high.

The casualty figures provide the starkest evidence of the intensity and confusion of that first month. In July 1950 the U.S. Army lost 2,834 soldiers killed (including those who died while captured or missing) vs., 2,486 wounded, probably the highest killed-to-wounded ratio since the Civil War. (Ratios by the end of the war were one killed for every four wounded.) We do know that during this period American air craft deliberately strafed columns of refugees on the roads. We know also that the soldiers at No Gun Ri were given orders that no refugees were to cross their lines, and that they were to fire at those who attempted to do so, using “discretion in the case of women and children.”

Such orders, excised from the chaos that created their necessity, fall heavily on the minds and consciences of those who have never been called upon to make the Hobson’s choice of combat: Do I protect my men and lose my innocence? Or do I keep my innocence and lose my men? This thin, un-breachable line separates those who went to war from those who stayed behind. America is a lovely place to have such debates as we sit in brightly lit offices next to our computers under the whir of air conditioners and HEPA filters and sip on herbal tea or Snapple. What is a war crime? On whom shall we pass judgment as we peer back through the mists of history? Were civilians killed? Is that enough for condemnation? What standard shall we in our wisdom erect for those who had little hope of even seeing tomorrow when the world turned suddenly ugly and they pressed their faces far into the dirt while the mortars twirled overhead and the bullets kicked up dust spots near their eyes.

So, test yourself. Your men are dying. The lines are shrinking. You are running out of food and even ammunition, trying to hold a position for a day or two as your army shrinks ever nearer to Pusan. Civilians are everywhere, thousands upon thousands of them. They are starving and they are afraid, and some of them are in fact not civilians. They clog the roads as the trucks and jeeps stall in the heat, trying to wend past them. They want to go to Pusan, too. They want to sleep inside your perimeter. They need your food. They dream of your protection. But the only true protection you can give them is to defeat the invading enemy. If you take even 10, you will be unable to care for your own people. And if you take 10, you will be besieged by 10,000. You have a mission to perform. But they are desperate, and you cannot speak their language. They are going to swarm your perimeter. When they come, what do you do?

Is deliberately killing a civilian a war crime? It certainly wasn’t when we fire bombed Dresden and Tokyo, taking hundreds of thousands of lives in the name a “breaking the enemy’s will to fight”. Perhaps the greatest anomaly of recent times is that death delivered by a bomb earns one an air medal, while when it comes at the end of a gun it earns one a trip to jail.

Protocols of War

And yet, most importantly, we are nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles that we proudly carry to the battlefield. The wanton use of force, and especially the deliberate killing of any soldier or civilian who is under one’s actual control is, indeed a crime. This was the distinction in My Lai, for despite the unassailable fact that most of the villagers killed in the massacre were part of a highly organized communist cadre, they were under the physical control of the soldiers who killed them. In other circumstances, had any of these same villagers ignored the rigid protocols of war understood by both sides, such as moving near an American perimeter at night, running from a combat patrol or signaling with lamps after dark, they would have been killed with impunity. Every American who fought in such highly contested civilian areas has his own memories. Few of them are happy. But wars in populated areas cannot be fought without such rules.

Those who struggled daily — and nightly — with these, incredible moral distinctions were rewarded upon their return from Vietnam with the same vitriol that is now being directed at the soldiers who fought at No Gun Ri. One hopes for a greater sense of wisdom as the facts are assessed and judgments are made. Otherwise, the only lessons seem to be: Make sure you fight in a popular war. Make sure you use bombs instead of bullets. And make sure you win.