Monday, August 04, 2008
Large numbers of people died during these attacks:
South Korean investigators, matching once-secret documents to eyewitness accounts, are concluding that the U.S. military indiscriminately killed large groups of refugees and other civilians early in the Korean War.
A half-century later, the Seoul government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has more than 200 such alleged wartime cases on its docket, based on hundreds of citizens' petitions recounting bombing and strafing runs on South Korean refugee gatherings and unsuspecting villages in 1950-51.
One episode is especially disturbing:
News reports at the time hinted at such killings after North Korea invaded the south in June 1950. But the extent wasn't known. Commission member Kim Dong-choon, in charge of investigating civilian mass killings, says there were large numbers of dead — between 50 and 400 — in many incidents.
As at No Gun Ri, some involved U.S. ground troops, such as the reported killing of 82 civilians huddled in a village shrine outside the southern city of Masan in August 1950. But most were air attacks.
In one of three initial findings, the commission held that a surprise U.S. air attack on east Wolmi island on Sept. 10, 1950, five days before the U.S. amphibious landing at nearby Incheon, was unjustified. Survivors estimate 100 or more South Korean civilians were killed.
In clear weather from low altitude, "U.S. forces napalmed numerous small buildings, (and) strafed children, women and old people in the open area," the commission said.
Investigator Kang Eun-ji said high priority is being given to reviewing attacks earlier in 1950 on refugees gathered in fields west of the Naktong River, in North Korean-occupied areas of the far south, while U.S. forces were dug in east of the river. One U.S. air attack on 2,000 refugees assembled Aug. 20, 1950, at Haman, near Masan, killed almost 200, survivors reported.
"There were many similar incidents — refugees gathered in certain places, and there were air strikes," she said.
The declassified record shows the Americans' fear that enemy troops were disguising themselves as civilians led to indiscriminate attacks on "people in white," the color worn by most Koreans, commission and AP research found.
In the first case the commission confirmed, last November, its investigators found that an airborne Air Force observer had noted in the "Enemy" box of an after-mission report, "Many people in white in area."
The area was the village of Sanseong-dong, in an upland valley 100 miles southeast of Seoul, attacked on Jan. 19, 1951, by three waves of Navy and Air Force planes. Declassified documents show the U.S. X Corps had issued an order to destroy South Korean villages within 5 miles of a mountain position held by North Korean troops.
"Everybody came out of their houses to see these low-flying planes, and everyone was hit," farmer Ahn Shik-mo, 77, told AP reporters visiting the apple-growing village. "It appeared they were aiming at people."
At least 51 were killed, the commission found, including Ahn's mother. Sixty-nine of 115 houses were destroyed in what the panel called "indiscriminate" bombing. "The U.S. Air Force regarded all people in white as possible enemy," it concluded.
"There never were any North Koreans in the village," said villager Ahn Hee-duk, a 12-year-old boy at the time.
If there is one consistent theme associated with US military involvement since World War II, it is the willingness of US forces to exploit the reasons for the intervention as a justification to kill large number of civilians, usually non-white ones. George Carlin addressed this subject with characteristic ruthlessness in a monologue about the First Persian Gulf War.
The Gokgyegul attack occurred in January 1951, as retreating U.S. and South Korean forces struggled to stop the North Koreans, massively reinforced by Chinese troops, from penetrating deeper into South Korea.
Declassified U.S. military records show that the Americans, on guard against possible enemy disguised as refugees, were blocking South Korean civilians fleeing the fighting. Air Force pilots were told to view "people in white" — the color most civilians wore — as potential enemy.
Ordered to evacuate south by local officials, the villagers one early January day left this secluded hamlet, among snowy, humpbacked hills 120 miles southeast of Seoul, but were stopped just 3 miles away at Hyangsan by U.S. 7th Infantry Division troops.
"Across a stream there were U.S. soldiers with a tank. They blocked us," said Cho Tae-won, 85, another resident of this village, which is dominated by a Cho clan. A declassified U.S. regimental document confirms a roadblock was established there.
Cho and his younger brother, Cho Kook-won, were finally allowed to pass, after pleading that as government employees they would be targeted by the North Koreans. But the rest of his family and other refugees had to turn back.
"My feelings were indescribable because not all of us could go," said the white-haired, frail Cho Tae-won.
In the following days, fearing bombings, the Yeongchun villagers left their homes again and moved into the nearby 85-yard-long cave, named for the "crying" sound of its intermittent stream. Outside, they tethered cows and stacked household goods.
"People thought they'd be safe inside," said Cho Tae-won. But on Jan. 20, at 9:50 a.m., two or three Air Force F-51 Mustangs struck, the U.S. record shows.
"They dropped oil drums" — gasoline-gel napalm bombs — "and then the fire incinerated everything and spread into the cave," Cho Byung-woo, 66, told Associated Press reporters visiting the site, today a quiet place of chirping birds and fluttering Confucian prayer flags.
His father saved the 9-year-old boy, but from a ditch outside, young Cho witnessed more carnage as U.S. jets strafed fleeing villagers with .50-caliber machine guns. He saw a bullet slit open a young friend's belly.
"His bowels spilled out. His mother fell down and cried over his body in the shower of bullets."
The absent Cho brothers lost their father, a teenage sister and brother, and Cho Tae-won's 2-year-old son in the attack, they said. Survivors say there were no North Koreans near the cave and surveillance pilots who flew overhead for days should have known that. American pilots claimed in after-mission reports to have killed "troops" and "pack animals." But six days later a U.S. ground patrol reported finding 75 refugee bodies instead.
The truth commission concluded "well over 200" civilians were killed.
Gokgyegul remains a hallowed site. "For years, when it rained, water flooding out of the cave carried the bones away," said Cho Byung-woo.
As the oft-paraphrased lyric of Moloko states, the faces change, but the game remains the same. And the game is tragically quite simple: substitute Rumsfeld for McNamara and McArthur, Iraqis and Afghans for Vietnamese and Koreans, Bush for Johnson and Truman, Fallujah for My Lai and Gokgyegul. Over 58 years have elapsed since the beginning of the Korean War, a war that, incidentally, that has never formally ended, and the US military continues to conduct operations that treat the lives of civilians as acceptable collateral damage.
What are the reasons for the persistence of it? Of course, there are no doubt many, but recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan highlight an important one, and that is the unquestioning acceptance of perceived danger by US troops as a defense against the killings of civilians. A subjective sense of peril, no matter how implausible, irrational or excessive, is sufficient to relieve troops of any responsibility for their actions.
For example, as I recently observed in regard to Iraq, if a convoy erroneously travels down a civilian roadway near Baghdad airport, experiences a vehicle breakdown and encounters some Iraqi bank employees traveling to work as they had always done after passing through a high security checkpoint, then, they can kill them because they perceive themselves to be in danger, rendering it just an extremely unfortunate and tragic accident.
Consistent with a policy apparently similar to the one adopted in Korea in 1951, US forces are killling large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan through air strikes as well. One need only click upon the Afghanistan label at the bottom of this post to find several examples. The concept of people in white constituting an amorphous enemy that must be subjected to immediate attack appears to be a quite flexible and enduring one, capable of being adopted for use in subsequent conflicts with predictable results.
Will there be Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Iraq and Afghanistan some day? And, if so, how much more will we discover about the operations of US forces in these conflicts? Given what we already know, one shudders involuntarily. And, if Barack Obama becomes President, how many more horrors will be perpetuated in Afghanistan in a misguided, amoral effort to produce something that can marketed as a victory in the War on Terror?