A Christian who fled communist North Korea in his youth, Chae Myung Shin commanded the second largest foreign contingent in the Vietnam War, a force of 50,000 Marines and infantrymen sent to aid Saigon by South Korean strongman Park Chung Hee. Critics allege that South Korean troops massacred thousands of innocent civilians--a claim Chae dismisses as communist propaganda. Excerpts:
Fighting the Viet Cong
I was strongly against General [William] Westmoreland's search-and-destroy strategy. The Viet Cong [VC] were not in uniform, so how could we search for them? Even the South Vietnamese couldn't do it. Instead, we used [small] bases to protect rice-growing areas and VC-controlled villages. We told the local people not to go out after sunset because at night we would kill anything that moved. So nobody came out. We sent in medical teams, and we dug wells. Then people began to like us. At night, we set up ambushes along the roads, just like we said we would. The next day we would repeat the pattern.
The Invisible Enemy
In Vietnam, you couldn't classify who was innocent and who was VC. There were kids and pregnant women with hand grenades in their pockets. Sometimes, entire villages would fight against us. When an American patrol arrived, villagers would say they were friendly. People brought out bananas and coconuts, and the soldiers would put down their weapons to eat. Then the VC would throw grenades to kill them.
Massacres and My Lai
How can Vietnam prove that the [people we killed] were innocent? We lost 5,000 troops to their VC. The Vietnamese have built monuments with the names of our victims. So I ask: how many of those people were innocent, and how many were their war heroes? It is impossible to classify them. Once, when some of my troops were out on patrol, they searched a village but found no VC. Then someone threw a grenade and killed the platoon leader. My soldiers got very angry. Their commander was dead, so they started shooting. You could say that we killed innocent people. But they also killed us. For our survival, we had to shoot. It's a very delicate matter, who is VC, who isn't. Take Lieutenant [William] Calley at My Lai. [Calley was court-martialed by the U.S. Army for instigating a massacre at My Lai in March 1968 in which 504 unarmed Vietnamese were killed.] I can understand [how] that happened. Calley tried to get revenge for the deaths of his troops. In a war, this is natural.
We don't have to compensate anyone. It was a war. The Vietnamese government says we killed a few thousand civilians. What about the people killed after the communists took over? Two million Cambodians. The 100,000 boat people who drowned trying to escape Vietnam. I've been very busy contacting veterans' associations and retired generals to discuss this issue. I'm very worried that young people are not trying to understand historical realities.