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No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident (review)
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Journal of Cold War Studies 8.2 (2006) 176-177

Robert L. Bateman, No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002. xvii + 302 pp. $22.95.

This book operates on a number of levels. At its simplest it attempts to explain the circumstances leading to the No Gun Ri incident during the early stages of the Korean War in July 1950, when American soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment were alleged to have opened fire on and killed several hundred Korean civilians. When Robert Bateman was investigating this story as part of a wider study of the regiment (George C. Custer was perhaps its most famous commanding officer, and his celebrated "last stand" has recently been subjected to similar probing), he encountered frequent examples of puzzling and, he eventually concluded, conflicting evidence that brought him to question whether the incident had even taken place. His growing doubts were crystallized when the Associated Press (AP) published a major exposé of the alleged incident, claiming that this "war crime" had been concealed for the better part of fifty years. The AP journalists who "broke" the story were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. Bateman ultimately concluded that no massacre of Korean civilians had actually occurred and that the AP journalists had failed to treat their sources with the circumspection and skepticism that should be the hallmark of quality investigative journalism. Had they done so, they would have come to understand that their star eyewitnesses had never been at No Gun Ri at the time of the supposed incident and that one witness in particular was a spectacular case of the self-created heroic veteran whose type has recurred frequently in the context of the Vietnam War.

Along the way, Bateman discusses the nature of military history, gives a potted history of post-World War II developments as they affected the U.S. Army, and describes in some detail the chaotic situation that preceded the purported massacre at No Gun Ri. Although none of these parts of the book offers anything particularly new to specialists in the area, each contributes to a wider understanding of the context, which Bateman claims characterizes the third model of military history he identifies; namely, "political-military history" (p. xv). Throughout the book Bateman, who began his inquiry while serving as an officer in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, inserts himself into the narrative and into his explanations of how such a false account—deriving in no small part from false and deliberately manufactured memory—came to be accepted as truth. What might at first appear to be an irritating personalization of the investigation and a self-centeredness akin to that of the "witnesses" he has unmasked is in fact an essential part of this fascinating story. Bateman is remarkably frank about his own early naiveté and willingness to believe what he was told; he describes his own mistakes even as his doubts grew; and he makes no damning moral judgments about those who he came to realize were central to the manufacturing of the story. The only exception is the journalists—print and television—whom he roundly (and justifiably) criticizes for their slovenly research and, even worse, for their unwillingness to admit their mistakes when the error of their ways was exposed.

When Bateman began his inquiry, he was a serving officer. As the mass experience of military service fades into the background of American life, fewer and fewer of those who write on military matters will do so on the basis of first-hand experience. That experience by itself, of course, is no guarantee of accuracy, let alone impartiality, but in this case it does give the author insights into military procedures and records that might well escape the civilian writer. Bateman's forensic explanation of what can be gleaned from various records, and his almost obsessive interrogation of those records—and, by implication, of those who failed to understand what the records could tell—is one of the most interesting parts of his book.

The other recurrent theme that deserves further investigation across multi-war experience is that of the fake veterans...