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Page 5
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Notes From the Boonies

By Paul Wisovaty

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It was the late, great Groucho Marx who said, "I wouldn't want to belong to any organization that would have me as a member." Fortunately, VVAW is a little more liberal with its membership criteria; Joe Miller would sign up a werewolf if he could come up with twenty bucks and shave his palms before a chapter meeting. But on a new twist to that standard, I belong to one area organization which is real close to kicking me out. As someone other than Groucho once observed, therein hangs a tale.

The Korean Wars Veterans National Museum and Library Association, based in Tuscola, Illinois, has been working for four years to raise money to build a museum right here in Douglas County. They have a board of directors of about fifteen really nice guys, all Korean War vets from around Illinois, and for the past couple of years I've been the board treasurer. I should say that the only reason that I've been involved at all — being the only non-Korean War vet among the officers — is that they need someone local to co-sign the checks. Since I have a hard time saying no to anyone, I agreed to perform this unpaid function. I show up at the quarterly meetings, sign the checks, and generally keep my mouth shut, as befits someone who doesn't really know shit about the Korean War.

Pretty boring story so far, right? Stay with me. A couple of years ago, right after the No Gun Ri story broke, I wrote letters to the editors of both the Tuscola and Champaign-Urbana newspapers, saying about what you should expect I'd say: we did it, we refuse to acknowledge it fifty years later, and not only is the Great Wizard of Oz in Washington lying about it, he's even scapegoating our Korean War vets in the process. (The Wiz, by the way, was Bill Clinton, not Junior, although I strongly suspect that the latter isn't about to print a retraction anytime soon.)

Well, I just found out that someone has reproduced one of my letters on her website. And right under the reproduction of my letter is the statement, "This man is actually serving as treasurer of the local museum board." This is followed by the observation that I obviously have little respect for Korean War vets. I have to say that I am not pleased by this accusation.

I certainly bear no ill will toward my fellow vets from Korea, to include those who served at No Gun Ri. (My unit, the 3/5 Armored Cav, did some things in 'Nam that I'm not real proud of either.) But it wasn't the PFCs and sergeants and lieutenants I was going after. As John Kim put it in his Fall 2002 book review in The Veteran, "The No Gun Ri slaughter was a deliberate result of a refugee control policy of the U.S. 8th Army and MacArthur's Far East Command." John added that the U.S. Army's conclusion (January 2001), following what it said with a straight face was a thorough investigation of the incident, was that "U.S. commanders did not issue oral or written orders to shoot and kill civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri." My recollection is that the Army also conceded that "an unknown number of civilians were killed at No Gun Ri." Well, you've probably figured out the problem by now. The Army admits we zapped a very large number of civilians at No Gun Ri, but is totally at a loss to explain how that happened. The only possible inference, based upon the Army's twin conclusions (bunch of civilians dead; no orders from HQ), would have to be that the enlisted guys and lieutenants just went nuts and did it on their own. Damn sad story. You send a bunch of guys from the boonies into a war zone, without good West Point training, and that kind of stuff happens. As John notes in his book review, Slick Willie "offered his 'regret,' but no apology." (I guess an apology would imply that we did something wrong.)

As I'm sure you figured out before you read this, what we got is My Lai one war and eighteen years earlier. Nobody above the rank of captain knew nothin' about nothin'. I guess that's one of the perks of getting to issue orders from Division HQ. It's hard to hear the screams of the dying over the jukebox at the officers' club.

Unfortunately, my fellow vets in the Korean War Veterans Association are unlikely to look at it this way. I suppose I can understand that they're unwilling to admit that their government committed war crimes. (Actually, I can't.) But what I really cannot understand is their inability to see that their own government, in its "thorough investigation" of the events at No Gun Ri, sold them down the river.

If you're wondering how anyone could justify the slaughter of two to four hundred women, children and old men who posed no threat to U.S. forces, be warned that the pro-war guys have an explanation. There were reports that some North Korean soldiers disguised themselves as civilians in an attempt to make their way south, and that those North Koreans were among the civilians at No Gun Ri. The argument is that it was necessary to take out a few hundred civilians in the interests of taking out the North Koreans. (As some of my 'Nam peers liked to say, "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out.") I hope that I don't sound like too much of a bleeding heart if I suggest that that is an insane argument. As John Kim pointed out in his article, weren't we supposed to be there to protect civilians? Of course, we might turn that scenario around. If a number of ROK troops did the same thing in an effort to make their way north, and the North Koreans used that as justification to do what we did at No Gun Ri ... well, this requires little elaboration. (I'm not even sure why I'm wasting your time with this paragraph.) Finally, if that explanation could be given any spin of legitimacy, then why didn't the Army jump on it and admit giving the orders? As Yossarian learned in "Catch-22," if you're caught doing something disgraceful, and for which you should apologize, the practical thing to do is to brag about it. It's also the cheaper and easier way to go: no fussy reparations issues to deal with, no grieving widows and such to whom to send form letters expressing your "regret." Or, I guess you could take the middle ground, which of course is what the Army did. They simply don't know what happened.

So here I sit, waiting for my pink slip from the Korean War Museum Association sometime this week (or, waiting for a bunch of 70-year-old guys to come after me with pitchforks and chase me to the top of a windmill) I honestly do feel bad about it, but it could be worse. I could be one of those people who believes that the United States government is never wrong.

Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.

Paul Wisovaty emcees on Memorial Day (Chicago, 2003)

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