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It’s fitting that we should have begin this as a discussion about infiltration and collateral damage, because I’m giving an abbrevated version of a much longer post on the “shocking new revelations” about No Gun Ri. That’s probably for the best, because if you examine the reports in light of the deeper historical record, there’s nothing new in them.
I remember when No Gun Ri was first reported during my first tour in Korea. It began with an AP report that won a Pulitzer Prize before it emerged that several of the alleged witnesses weren’t even there, and that one of them, Ed Daily, was mentally hard to place anywhere. The Pentagon commissioned a very detailed and well researched (but poorly written) report, which was completed in January 2001, and which has been publicly available ever since. Here’s what the report found:
Finding: Although the U.S. Review Team cannot determine what happened near No Gun Ri with certainty, it is clear, based upon all available evidence, that an unknown number of Korean civilians were killed or injured by the effects of small-arms fire, artillery and mortar fire, and strafing that preceded or coincided with the NKPA’s advance and the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the vicinity of No Gun Ri during the last week of July 1950. These Korean deaths and injuries occurred at different locations in the vicinity of No Gun RI and were not concentrated exclusively at the double railroad overpass.
Some U.S. veterans describe fire that lasted for a few to fifteen minutes. Some Korean witnesses describe fire day and night on the tunnel for as long as four days. Because Korean estimates of the length of time they spent in the tunnel are so inconsistent, the U.S. Review Team drew no conclusion about the amount of time they spent in the tunnel.
The firing was a result of hostile fire seen or received from civilian positions or fire directed over their heads or near them to control their movement. The deaths and injuries of civilians, wherever they occurred, were an unfortunate tragedy inherent to war and not a deliberate killing.
Beyond the fact that some civilians died throughout that area that day, the report concluded little else about why, who, how, when, or how many. Although no one was able to sort out all the inconsistencies to figure out what exactly happened at No Gun Ri on July 26, 1950, the report did find much detailed evidence about U.S. policies toward the hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees. Some of that stuff makes for disturbing reading, particularly some of the orders given by individual units, but often not communicated widely, to treat all persons in certain areas as the enemy. I won’t hesitate to call orders like that unlawful, but it was the Pentagon — not the AP — that reported those facts, which are far more damaging than anything in Muccio’s letter. Here’s the full text of Amb. Muccio’s letter:
The Foreign Service of the United States of America
July 26, 1950
Dear Dean: The refugee problem has developed aspects of a serious and even critical military nature, aside from the welfare aspects. Necessarily, decisions are being made by the military in regard to it, and in view of the possibility of repercussions in the United States from the effectuation of these decisions, I have thought it desirable to inform you of them.
The enemy has used the refugees to his advantage in many ways: by forcing them south and so clogging the roads as to interfere with military movements; by using them as a channel for infiltration of agents; and most dangerous of all by disguising their own troops as refugees, who after passing through our lines proceed, after dark, to produce hidden weapons, and then attack our units from the rear. Too often such attacks have been devastatingly successful. Such infiltrations had a considerable part in the defeat of the 24th Division at Taejon.
Naturally, the Army is determined to end this threat. Yesterday evening a meeting was arranged, by 8th Army HQ request, at the office of the Home Minister at the temporary Capitol. G-1, G-2, Provost Marshall, CIC, the Embassy, the Home and Social Affairs Ministries, and the Director National Police. The following decisions were made:
1. Leaflet drops will be made north of US lines banning the people not to proceed south, that they risk being fired upon if they do so. If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot.
2. Leaflet drops and oral warning by police within US combat zone will be made to the effect that no one can move south unless ordered, and then only under police control, that all movement of Korean civilians must end at sunset or those moving will risk being shot when dark comes.
3. Should the local tactical commander consider it essential to evacuate a given sector he will notify the police liaison officers attached to his HQ, who through the area Korean National Police will notify the inhabitants, and start them southward under police control on specified minor roads. No one will be permitted to move unless police notify them, and those further south not notified will be required to stay put.
4. Refugee groups must stop at sunset, and not move again until daylight. Police will establish check points to catch enemy agents; subsequently Social Ministry will be prepared to care for, and direct refugees to camps or other areas.
5. No mass movements unless police controlled will be permitted. Individual movements will be subject to police checks at numerous points.
6. In all cities, towns curfew will be at 9 p.m., with effective enforcement at 10 p.m. Any unauthorized person on streets after 10 p.m. is to be arrested, and carefully examined. The last item is already in effect.
John J. Muccio
Several inaccurate lines of reporting emerge from this report, including suggestions that it blows apart a Pentagon whitewash. Yet those same terms were specifically spelled out or can easily be inferred from the policy I quote below, agreed the same day between Muccio, the Army, the U.N., and the Korean government. This policy was published in the original Pentagon report:
Part I: Effective immediately the following procedure will be adhered to by all commands relative to the flow or movement of all refugees in battle areas and rear areas. No refugees will be permitted to cross battle lines at any time. Movement of all Koreans in groups will cease immediately. No areas will be evacuated by Koreans without a direct order from Commanding General EUSAK or upon order of Division Commanders. Each division will be assigned three National Police liaison officers to assist in clearing any area of the civilian populace that will interfere with the successful accomplishment of his mission.
. . . .
Part III: Movement of Korean civilians during hours of darkness. There will be absolutely no movement of Korean civilians, as individuals or groups in battle areas or rear areas, after the hours of darkness. Uniformed Korean police will rigidly
enforce this directive.
Part IV: To accomplish the procedure, as outlined in this directive, leaflets will be prepared and dropped in all areas forward and rear of the battle line to effectively disseminate this information. National Police will further disseminate this information
to all Korean civilians by means of radio, messenger, and the press.
All you really need to infer is that Amb. Muccio cabled his boss about it, and how exactly an Army at war was suppose to enforce it.
Another line of bad reporting is that this proves that No Gun Ri was not an accident, as the Pentagon claimed. To the extent that the Pentagon really claimed anything, this letter refutes nothing, because it says absolutely nothing about what happened in No Gun Ri, which took place on the same day the policy was formulated and the letter sent to Rusk.
Most eggregiously, the reports lose track of two essential facts: (1) who started the damn war to begin with; and (2) numerous documented occasions on which the North Koreans dressed combatants in civilian clothes, mingled among civilians, or drove civilians ahead of their advancing forces. The Pentagon report documents twenty such specific incidents, including these:
A message from Headquarters Eighth United States Army (EUSA) dated July 11, 1950 — “Reports from Korean sources state North Korean soldiers are changing into civilian clothes and coming through lines in American sector with rifles concealed under clothing. Refugees moving from front and flank must be searched to apprehend any such personnel.”
Message No. 1 from 24th Infantry Division G-2, 122200 July 1950 — “reports confirmed by reliable sources indicate that North Korean troops in small groups enter homes along line of advance, reappear in civilian clothing concealing small arms and infiltrate to our flanks and rear for the purpose of harassing our troops.”
. . . .
Message from Commanding General, EUSAK, dated 191435K July 1950 — “One report in west sector NK troops entered our lines posing as peasant refugees carrying unassembled firearms and uniforms in bundles.”
. . . .
A message from S-2, 35th RCT to G-2, 25th Infantry Division, 301100 July 1950 — “Soldiers from 1/35 which has just returned from 27 RCT mentioned that two women had been caught in their area — one woman carrying a bag of hand grenades, the other carrying a radio of the SCR 300 type.”
The North Korean Army used these tactics systematically and deliberately, in direct and grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Given the condition of its armor and artillery, North Korea clearly could afford to dress its troops in uniforms, as required by the laws of armed conflict. The North Koreans’ employment of such tactics is of inestimable legal significance, because the legal duty the U.S. Army allegedly violated here was the requirement to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Under those circumstances, this appears to have been an impossible task much of the time.
The news for the Army is thus pretty mixed, but this week’s report — based on a document that was declassified in 1982 — adds nothing to it. The hellish circumstances of July 1950 had caused some U.S. commanders to issue orders I wouldn’t hestitate to call unlawful: orders to consider all persons in certain areas to be enemy (something the new reports don’t even broach). Fortunately, the worst of these orders were either not distributed or were quickly countermanded by the July 26th policy, which, ugly as it reads, it legally defensible. The 26 July documents call for the Army’s best efforts to avoid civilian casualties, including the evacuation of civilans from the battlefield, leaflet drops to warn them away from U.S. positions, radio broadasts to the same effect, and as a last resort, warning shots.
Now, if you fire warning shots at someone during a war and they keep coming, you are reasonably entitled to infer something called “hostile intent,” which makes it legal — if agonizing — to fire on those persons. You and I weren’t there, but of course, this is a sterile post-hoc discussion of legalities. Still, I can’t help thinking how glad I am that I wasn’t there. Mind you, “fog of war” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a defense for rules designed to control an inherently foggy condition in which refugees tend to figure prominently. While incompetence is no defense for some of the U.S. Army’s ruthless responses to North Korea’s use of refugees as human shields, Amb. Muccio’s letter and his discussions during those days suggest only that he was attempting to bring a panicked, desperate Army back into conformity with the Geneva Conventions.