Putting Things in Perspective

Tongduchon, South Korea/November 26, 2002

I went to visit one of the victim’s fathers last night – me, CPT Kim, a translator, and two people from Civil/Military Affairs (one an overweight U.S. Army Major, the other a Korean civilian employee). It’s about a thirty minute drive, down dark and narrow roads, both highway and backwoods. There are no sidewalks the entire way, no guard rails, no streetlights, and people walking all over the place. I imagine making the same trip in a 12′ wide, 60-ton tank.

We arrive at Mr. Shin’s house. He is a rice farmer, but also has cows and pigs. CPT Kim says it stinks; to me it reeks only of nostalgia – the place smells like my house in my youth on a downwind-from-the-dairy day. We’re all wearing jackets and ties, and we take off our shoes as we enter the house. I notice, with restrained horror, that CPT Kim is wearing white tube socks under her business suit. Mr. Shin’s small house is sparsely furnished and I see no closets – only clothes hanging on a wheeled-rack. The floor and ceiling alike covered with a thin layer of yellowed vinyl, and there are, I notice, no pictures of his daughter. A Korean Army Sergeant Major shows up, and we all sit in a cross-legged circle on the floor. The fat major asks B-movie questions (“I trust you have put in a hard day’s work Mr. Shin,“); the translator relays in Hangul, and Mr. Shin answers with a wave of his hand and a series of grunts. I’m in a modern-day tepee negotiation.

Mr. Shin’s son makes an appearance. I guess him to be about eight years old, obviously curious about this delegation planted on his living room floor. He pulls up a soccer ball and sits right next to me, and I can feel his eyes bearing in on my nose (the little bastard). He has a monumental cowlick eerily similar to the one I looked at on a daily basis from the age of six until my recent discovery of hair products. Mr. Shin tells his son to go study, waving his hand for emphasis, and the youth disappears. I notice the father’s hands – he’s a small man, probably 5’5″, about 150 pounds – but his hands are enormous, giving him a stick-figure look. They’re all knuckles and muscle, and I have no doubt the answer to the fat-Major’s original question was a resounding yes.

But we’re here for a reason, unpleasant as it may be, and we have to get down to business. We need Mr. Shin to testify at a court-martial. If a soldier is found guilty of driving his armored bridge-laying tank – a tracked vehicle with a giant metal ten-foot by four-foot bar blocking his field of vision from all but straight ahead at eye-level and directly to his left – in a manner that demonstrates a lack of care for the safety of others which a reasonably careful person would have used under the same or similar circumstances, if that soldier is found guilty, then we need Mr. Shin to tell the world about his 13-year old daughter. We need him to talk about her hopes, her dreams, her friends, her hobbies, how she helped out her mother around the house, how she helped out her dad on the farm, her little brother with his homework. We need him to tell the panel – the jury – about her desires to be a doctor, or a teacher, or whatever it was that she wanted to be. We need him to tell the panel about how she used to wave to the American soldiers whenever they drove by her on these narrow roads, and how they would wave back, or blow their horns, or smile and nod whenever they saw her, right up to the day when one of them didn’t see her. Right up to the day when she was walking on the right side of one of those sidewalk-less, guardrail-less roads, head down, hands over ears, on the way to a birthday party; right up to the day when she didn’t wave, didn’t even look back at the 60-ton behemoth rumbling up the road towards her; right up to the moment when that poor, cursed soldier drove his tank up and over her back, first crushing her and then crushing her friend in front of her, squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste, all of their blood and guts literally causing their 13-year old heads to explode, spilling their brains on to the pavement in front of them. Mr. Shin saw his daughter in that condition, he had to identify her distorted and disfigured body, relying not on his memory of her face, or hair, or particular birthmark on her cheek; but on the fact that she was wearing a red shirt when she left the house that morning, and yes, I’m certain those are her tennis shoes.

This is how I prepare myself for my meeting with the dead girl’s father, this is what I am thinking as I am asking him to testify about his daughter, asking him to tell a jury of American soldiers about his first child, destroyed by a tank not of his country and not of his army, driven by a man that didn’t look like him, or talk like him, or eat like him; driven by a foreigner in a country whose purpose for him ran out with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the surreptitious socialization of China.

Mr. Shin speaks to the translator in a language I do not understand and for which I will never get a feel. His words are blunt and pointed; Hangul is a staccato blast of starts and stops, accented with flying spittle and dramatic hand and arm gestures. The room is quiet as Mr. Shin speaks, four knowing exactly what he is saying, two having a general idea, and only I not having a clue.

Mr. Shin’s answer, I find, is irreconcilable with the events since this horrible accident occurred; the riots, assaults, and terrible, terrible press coverage of American soldiers in Korea; the student protests outside Army camp gates, Molotov cocktails, and dramatic measures US Army officers and politicos – both Korean and American – have taken to appease the seismic shift in Korean-American relations, all in the name of the families of the two girls. All in the name of Mr. Shin, whom I realize has never been asked, up to this point, this eleventh hour for two American soldiers, how he feels.

“Mr. Shin,” the translator begins, “thanks you for coming to his home and talking with him. He wants you to know he is grateful and amazed for all the hard work that you and all the other American soldiers do here. He sympathizes with you for having to leave your families and your country for such a long time, and he is thankful you are here helping to defend his country. Mr. Shin says that the two men in the tank did not intend to hurt his daughter or his family, and he will not have any part of punishing the two soldiers.”

How simple this all could have been; how careless we – and every Korean who beat the nationalist drum in the name of this man’s dead daughter – have been with the lives of this man and his family, and with the career and well-being of an unfortunate American soldier, far from home, defending his own country in a land not his own, where people don’t talk like him, or look like him, or eat like him.

My co-counsel begins to explain to Mr. Shin that this isn’t about intent, this is about simple negligence, about the responsibility to act in a manner that demonstrates an amount of care for the safety of others which a reasonably careful person would have used under the same or similar circumstances. I wonder if she is as equally abrasive and inappropriate in the Korean culture as she is in the American. I wonder why there are no professional requirements for common sense.

We sit for another thirty minutes with Mr. Shin and his Alfalfa-esque son. His wife serves coffee, and apple and persimmon slices on a tray. We talk about his rice harvest, and how helpful the Korean Sergeant Major and the American liaison officer have been throughout the ordeal. We extend to him the opportunity to watch the trial, in a secluded room with an interpreter and an American JAG officer to explain the trial. He says thank you, I will consider it, and we unfold ourselves from his vinyl floor, shake hands, and bow to one another.

Tomorrow, as part of my own job, as part of my own sense of duty and obligation to the defense of my own country, I will prosecute the soldier that was driving that vehicle. As we are driving away, as my co-counsel is on her cell phone complaining to her equally un-impressive fiancé that she has no sentencing case, I wonder why it can’t be more simple.