No vulgarity without the comic
Her lover, Corp. Charles Graner, earlier received ten years. At his trial Graner was testifying how he had beaten a Military Intelligence (MI) prisoner “almost to death” with MI present, but his testimony was interrupted by the presiding judge. I haven’t heard of any MI personnel, or any other officers, being charged with specific crimes or dereliction of duty. And so it goes. It’s rotten, like the war itself is rotten.
There were a lot of stories about American brutality toward prisoners and the dead during WWII, particularly in the campaigns against the Japanese. There were very few, none that I can recall, about such deeds during the Korean campaign. They surfaced again in Vietnam. Americans intentionally killing innocent unarmed civilians from the air in “free fire” zones, and the ground, the mutilation of the dead -- particularly the cutting-off-the-ears of Vietnamese corpses -- appeared to be commonplace.
I was in Korea and Vietnam both. The filthiness of the campaign in Vietnam was intensified by the irregular nature of a large part of the military that apposed the Americans, the Viet Cong. Not knowing who the battlefield enemy is complicates the situation for those serving the regular forces side. I was there for seven months in 1968 and I never saw Americans mutilating Vietnamese dead, but the stories were everywhere, and a lot of them turned out to be true.
In Korea I was present at the mutilation of a Chinese corpse by an American soldier. I was with Fox Troop, 7th Cavalry. We were in the mountains north of Seoul in a beautiful pine forest. After a fire fight that had lasted all morning, we had occupied a key point on a ridgeline. We had set up a perimeter, our wounded were being carried back down the mountain by Korean bearers, and we were resting and keeping our eyes open. Three of us had been shot, one of us through the face, but no one killed.
The Chinese was on his back in the trees, his padded vest soaked though with his blood. I didn’t see him die. Captain Grey and a couple of us were sitting on a fallen tree trunk. One of our guys kneeled down beside the Chinese and began doing something odd. After a moment we understood he was cutting off one of the fingers of the Chinese. Someone said he wanted the ring the Chinese was wearing for a souvenir. He had tried to pull it off and when he couldn’t he took out a pocket knife and began sawing at the finger. It wasn’t easy. Little ribbons of red and white flesh blossomed from the finger.
The souvenir hunter was from Tennessee. He was one of our favorite guys. Tall, strong, good looking, good humored. He was maybe twenty-two, twenty-three years old. A year or two older than me. He had a natural presence. His pocket knife was not meant to cut through bone. We watched him struggle with the amputation. A couple of us murmured our small sense of dismay.
Captain Grey shook his head a little from side to side. He didn’t approve of what he was watching, but he did not tell Tennessee to stop it. None of us said anything directly to him. Later that afternoon the mortars began coming in and we forgot about the finger.
Captain Grey was from Brooklyn. He wore a blond gunfighter’s drooping moustache. He was a family man, in his mid-thirties. He was humane and brave and had a sense of humor. We all liked and respected him. He and I shared several interesting experiences and I felt close to him. But then the Chinese killed him one afternoon on another mountainside. And so it went.
Looking back on the finger-cutting incident, I believe Captain Grey should have stopped it. At the time, we just thought it vulgar, not worth having a row over. Looking back on the incident, I believe I should have said something myself to Tennessee. I didn’t.
Vulgarity is okay, it can be wonderful, if it has a sense of the comic about it, otherwise. . . .