As I grow older, I often look back and wonder, of all things, what kind of life I would have had if I had been born a girl. The answer, of course, is simple and clear. Women's lives on the whole are not any easier than men's. Nonetheless, I have engaged in that idle speculation ever since I heard that when my mother conceived me, she and my father wanted a boy so desperately that she locked herself in a room at a Buddhist temple and prayed for 100 days. They had enough daughters and felt they deserved a boy.
In Korea at that time (and even now, I might add), a married couple has to have a boy in order to keep the family's bloodline going--for what that is worth.
When the Korean War broke out, and I was drafted into the South Korean army to fight the Communist invaders from the North, my parents prayed for my life in a Catholic Church every day. Shortly before the war, my mother had died and Father married a Christian woman. So, my father moved from the Buddhist temple to the Christian church to pray with my stepmother for my safety. I don't know how influential their prayers were but I somehow survived that brutal war.
During the war, it appeared that women were better off than men, who had to risk their lives on the frontline. Then again, women were not safe either. To back up this point, I'll tell you a story of a girl I knew.
She was the younger sister of the wife of one of my cousins. She was a year younger than I was but girls mature sooner than boys of the same age, as they say. She had apparently taken an unusual interest in a boy--me--when we were still in middle school. I knew for a fact because when our girl servant went to her house on errands, she asked all kinds of questions about me. She even sent me a couple of letters. I couldn't make sense out of what she was trying to say in her letters, but thinking back later, I figured they must have been something akin to a "confession" of love.
The trouble was I was too shy to respond to her approach. I couldn't event look at her without blushing, much less talk to her whenever we met at family gatherings. Then, the war broke out, and I forgot all about her--that was until I heard the shocking and sad news of her death while I was away in the army.
What happened was that while the North Korean forces occupied Seoul, the capital of South Korea, her brother-in-laws--that is my cousin--worked for the so-called people's committee of the city, which was set up by the Communist party.
After the North Korean forces were repelled from Seoul by South Korean and U.S. troops, my cousin was captured and summarily executed by nothing more than a squad of South Korean soldiers. That is not all. They went to the dead man's house and gang raped the girl. Overwhelmed by the shame and despair, she later hanged herself.
Hearing that story, I felt intense anger and hatred toward those who had perpetrated the crime taking advantage of the chaos of war. I also felt a vague sense of regret that I had been unable to reciprocate her feeling toward me. Anyway, the incident showed me that women were not any safer than men nor were their lives any easier.
Throughout the war, brutality and inhuman acts that often led to death were inflicted nonchalantly as though they were routine exercises. And as an infantry solder, I had to witness them countless times so that, in the end, I became very insensitive and callous like most of my fellow soldiers. I simply stopped feeling any sense of outrage or indignation. But those scenes must have been buried deep in my unconciousness; years later, they would float to the surface, as it were, like nightmares.
One of those nightmares also involved a woman. She must have been the wife of a farmer, who had no doubt been hiding in her isolated house near a mountain pass, unable to flee from her village when the other did. She was caught either by a group of retreating Communist troops or by the advancing forces of the democratic South.
As our platoon searched the house, we happened to come upon her body. She was obviously in an advanced stage of pregnancy, and yet she had been raped before being stabbed in her abdomen with a bayonet.
Cynically, the man who committed the crime had stuck a Chrysanthemum in between her legs. The whole scene was so gruesome and sickening, I almost threw up as I ran out of the room. At the same time, I was so totally indignant and angry at all men in general that I had a hard time resisting an urge to shoot one of my superiors, who laughed at me and said, "Hey, kid you have a long way to go to become a real soldier."
How could the man who obviously liked flowers enough to pick one and carry it along with him in the battlefield, turn around the next moment and commit such a beastly and heinous crime? I simply couldn't figure it out.
Talking about war, I have noticed a recurring phenomenon in time of war, namely, the killing of "innocent civilians." Many people, especially so-called humanitarians and other self-righteous persons, beat their breasts and condemn the combatants, including and especially the soldiers of their own country. But as every soldier who has been to war knows "civilian casualties" are often unavoidable, however, regrettable they may be. That actually is one of the reasons, I believe, why so many people oppose war in the first place. But war occurs regardless of our beliefs and wishes.
And once you are at war, you are in it up to your neck.
While I was also in the thick of it for more than and half years during the Korean War, I never shot my rifle in anger, that is to say, I did not shoot with an aim to kill anyone, It was possible someone on the enemy side got wounded or even killed by the bullets I fired blindly, but as far as I know no one was. That means that I was a pretty bad solider. But to this day, I think I was fortunate--fortunate that I didn't have to kill anyone.
Nevertheless, I become exasperated whenever some self-righteous people get upset and condemn soldiers for killing "innocent civilians" without knowing the precise circumstances. Few soldiers in their right mind would kill another human being knowing that he or she was a non-combatant. But in a situation where you have to kill your enemy or get killed by them and where you have to make a decision instantaneously, you have no choice but shoot first and ask questions later. Innocent civilians get killed by stray bullets or shot at when they are forced to become a shield by the enemy. These situation occur often and they are regrettably unavoidable.
But what I cannot forgive or forget are those--soldiers on both sides--who take advantage of the confusion and chaos to commit crimes that have nothing to do with war. They include rape and the killing of innocent and helpless women as well as plundering and stealing other people's valuables with impunity.
After I became a newsman years later, I thought about digging into the aforementioned incident in which one of my distant relatives was brutally killed by a group of soldiers. But I came to realize that investigating such a killing during the war that took place a quarter of a century before and especially by the soldiers of "our own side" was well nigh impossible.
Looking back on my life, I have no particular complaint on the whole. In fact, I feel I have been fortunate in many ways, except when the horrible war ruined what should have been the best period in my life. Because of those bitter nightmarish experiences of war, I have come to believe that we must try and avoid war at any cost.