One afternoon during the “airing grievances” session [among Chinese POWs in Korea], the medic said something almost incredible, though there must have been some truth to the story. He told us: “When our former division suffered heavy casualties near Wonsan, we rushed over to evacuate the wounded men. There were hundreds of them lying on a hillside. I was naive and just went ahead bandaging those crying for help. But our director told us to check the insides of the men’s jackets first. If the insignia of a hammer crossed with a cycle was there, that man must be shipped back immediately and given all medical help. So we followed his orders. All those men who had the secret sign in their jackets were Party members. We left behind lots of ordinary men like ourselves.”
The audience remained silent for a good minute after he finished speaking. I knew the medic and didn’t think he had made up the story. Wang Yong broke the silence: “The Reds used us like ammo. Look at the GIs, they all wear flak vests on the battleground. The U.S. government cares about their lives. How about us? How many of our brothers could’ve survived if they’d put on the vests like the GIs? Recently I came across an article. It reports that General Ridgway says the U.S. forces could abolutely push the Communist armies all the way back to the Yalu, but he won’t do that because he doesn’t want to sacrifice thousands of his men. Just imagine: what if the People’s Volunteer Army could drive the Americans down to the Pacific Ocean? Wouldn’t Mao Zedong sacrifice every one of the Volunteers to accomplish that goal? You bet he would. Didn’t he already send us here to be wasted like manure to fertilize Korean soil?…
Wang’s analogy of us to human fertilizer revived thoughts I had been thinking for a long time. True enough, as Chinese, we genuinely felt that our lives were misused here, but as I have observed earlier, no matter how abysmal our situation was there were always others who had it worse. By now I understood why occasionally some Korean civilians were hostile to us. To them we had come here only to protect China’s interests–by so doing, we couldn’t help but ruin their homes, fields, and livelihoods. From their standpoint, if the Chinese army hadn’t crossed the Yalu, millions of lives, both civilian and military, would have been saved. Of course, the United States would then have occupied all of Korea, forcing China to build defenses in Manchuria, which would have been much more costly than sending troops to fight in our neighboring country. As it was, the Koreans had taken the brunt of the destruction of this war, whereas we Chinese were here mainly to keep its flames away from our border. Or, as most of the POWs believed, perhaps rightly, we had served as cannon fodder for the Russians. It was true that the Koreans had started the war themselves, but a small country like theirs could only end up being a battleground for bigger powers. Whoever won this war, Korea would be the loser.
I also realized why some Koreans, especially those living south of the Thirty-eighth Parallel, seemed to prefer the American army to us. Not having enough food supplies or money, we had to press them for rice, sweet potatoes, any edibles, and sometimes we stole dried fish and chilies from under their eaves, grabbed crops from their fields and orchards, and even dug out their grain seeds to eat. By contrast, the Americans had everything they needed and didn’t go to the civilians for necessities. Whenever the U.S. troops decamped, the local folks would rush to the site to pick up stuff discarded by them, such as telephone wires, shell boxes, cartridge cases, half-eaten bread, cans, soggy cigarettes, ruptured tires, used batteries. We thought we had come all the way to help the Koreans, but some of us had willy-nilly ended up their despoilers.
War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 301-303