No closure at No Gun Ri

Casualties: Last word on 1950 Korean War disaster leaves inevitable gaps.

January 12, 2001

THE JOINT Korean-U.S. investigation into the 1950 No Gun Ri incident at least concluded that it happened.

That vindicates the Korean survivors who always said that civilian refugees fleeing toward U.S. lines had been shot and strafed under a bridge by U.S. troops.

It reverses years of U.S. denials that such an atrocity had occurred and validates the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 Associated Press report supporting survivor accounts.

The joint statement said the U.S. troops were undertrained and new to combat, commanded by leaders with limited experience, unprepared for North Korean weapons and tactics, and "legitimately fearful of the possible infiltration of North Korean soldiers who routinely entered American lines in groups disguised as civilians in refugee columns."

Due account is paid the victims in the Korean authorities' compilation of 248 dead, wounded or missing. Their identity and humanity are affirmed.

But the origin of the orders in the U.S. chain of command is not made clear after 50 years. In that sense, if there was a cover-up, it remains; for mistakes that undoubtedly were made -- it is safe and easy to say years afterward -- the finger of blame is not pointed.

That is not surprising where war is concerned. It was never tidy or nice. The notion that war always consists of a blameless right incapable of atrocity, and a wicked wrong incapable of decency, was ever false. Flawed humans acting on fear, uncertainty and orders make up both sides.

President Clinton's statement yesterday of deep "regret that Korean civilians lost their lives," will leave the survivors unsatisfied. But it should offend no U.S. survivors of that collapsing front, doing their duty as best they could, for it blames none.

Truth is always the first casualty of war. That this casualty has been partly -- only partly -- restored, 50 years on, is a tribute to the persistence, as well as the imperfections, of human memory.

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