from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #22: Wikipedia and the Army, Part II – Officers

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The link that led me to the page of General Hammerstein-Equord was the following quote from 1933 while in Truppenführung. I came across it while reading about Hanlon’s Razor*, which was referenced in an earlier draft of my second chapter.

I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!

To put it in simple terms:

Clever + lazy = very highest command
Clever + industrious = highest staff
Stupid + lazy = regular staff
Stupid + industrious = menace

His scheme for the classification of officers sounds similar to the Korean Army reality except that it is lacking other factors, such as arrogance, kiss-assery, and powers of “delegation” (making other people do your work), but I guess these other factors could fit under either the “clever” or “lazy” categories.

I would also switch “clever + industrious” with “stupid + lazy.” All of the industrious officers I met during my two years were all of low rank. Whether it was that officers tend to lose their work ethic when attaining a certain rank or some other explanation is inconsequential. In the context of the Army, being clever means you don’t have to be industrious. If you are both when there is no need to be, you are an oxy-moron.

“All officers are trash.” Although we had many other names for officers, “trash” was the most common epithet for the class of soldiers whose insignia were silver- (commissioned officers) or gold-plated (NCOs) plastic. Of course there were exceptions to the rule, but in the context of the Army, kindness can be related to stupidity and, as they were often industrious as well, they were almost all of low rank and young age.

During my two years in the Army, I served under three different company commanders: Captain Jin at the HHC, pre-deployment; Captain Park at the 1st Construction Company; and Captain Ryu at the HHC, post-deployment.

Captain Jin

Captain Jin was my first company commander after leaving basic training. He was a man to be feared. On the older side for a captain, he had a chip on his shoulder and a face to match his hideous personality. His face was bloated and ruddy, like a waterlogged corpse, sunburned as it lies washed up on the beach. His large, bulbous eyes were at once vacant and piercing.

Spittle would spray from his lips whenever he was on one of his tirades. I was the recipient of one of these sessions of verbal abuse during my first months as a private at the HHC. My crime? I had given a brief telephone interview to a reporter at The Seattle Times about my situation. I had been frank when I was expected to shut up, grin and bear it, or lie at the very least. I didn’t realize what I had done; those first few months were very lonely for me and I was just happy to speak to someone, anyone, in English.

“You do anything like this again, any little fucking thing, if I even hear your fucking name, you’re on the next jeep to military prison, you little shit!” His exploration of the complexities of Korean curses still eludes my ability to translate. “You got that?!”

The late Peter Jennings expressed an interest in interviewing me shortly afterward, but I declined. Now that it is over, I realize that I should have done it, but I was in a bad place at the time. I could barely handle life as a private; I didn’t think I could make it through military prison and an extension of my term of service.

The first time I was in that office was during my enter interview my first week in Daegu. I had expected an officer and a gentleman. Instead, I got Captain Jin. I’m sure he knew of my situation but he didn’t give a damn. The entire interview was perplexing; it consisted of him only asking me questions about my views of homosexuality. I didn’t realize why until later in the week when I met PFC Ballerino, who asserted he was gay and therefore wasn’t allowed to work or shower with the other conscripts. Ballerino had studied in the States and Captain Jin peppered me with questions that day because Hollywood had taught him that America was a land of loose morals.

Captain Jin was promoted to major shortly after I returned to the HHC after my deployment to Afghanistan. The promotion to major meant he was going to a staff position. He belonged to the “stupid + lazy” category. Regular staff.

This character from a series of animations from reminded me a lot of Captain Jin. Same voice and manner of speaking, similar appearance.

Captain Park

Captain Park was the officer with the least seniority out of all the officers deployed to the Korean Support Group in Bagram. As a result, he suffered from a severe inferiority complex which he took out on his men, for his own sadistic satisfaction and in attempts to impress his higher-ups. That and his manic-depressive mental state made for a very frustrating company life.

He was an ape, with the characteristic elongated upper lip, abnormally large and round ears, and lanky, uncoordinated limbs. He could have been an extra in The Planet of the Apes and there would have been no need for makeup. Like man’s closest animal relative, his eyes were dark and deep as if they were almost capable of human emotion. Rage was the most common expression of that emotion.

One day, I stopped by the squad B-hut to pick up my notebooks and the moment I walked through the door, I knew something was wrong. I could hear his thick, warbly voice in its angered tone – a tone lower than its normally high pitch. I looked under the partition and could make out the hands and feet of my company mates in push-up position.

“Don’t look down on me. I’m your GD company commander.” He didn’t have the aptitude for cussing that Captain Jin had. “I told you to cut your hair. Why don’t you listen to me?”

There was a dull noise and then a succession of thuds.

“Get up! I’m not done with you.”

Captain Park had kicked the conscript closest to him and they had gone down like dominos. Not wanting to alert the angry gorilla of my presence, I tiptoed to my shelf, picked up my notebooks, and then crept back out the door. (He had pointed out that my hair was too long in the last evening call.) I went straight to the shipping container that was our barber shop and shaved my head.

The thing was, we had the shortest hair out of all the companies. It was like Mr. Burns in the “Homer at Bat” Simpsons episode. Poor Don Mattingly didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He shaved his head and still got kicked off the team. The guys in that tent cut their hair and still got the shit kicked out of them.

Captain Park took extra efforts to make my life difficult, mostly because he felt he had no control over me. I was assigned to the Intel/Operations division and was almost always busy doing random shit for the other officers, all of whom were more powerful than Park.

Captain Park belonged to the “stupid + industrious” category. He tried too hard, making our lives difficult in the process, and that is exactly why he will never get anywhere in the Army.

Captain Ryu

Captain Ryu was not only the most decent company commander I had, he was a genuinely nice guy. It’s a rare thing for an officer to treat conscripts as human beings, and we were like abused animals, extremely wary of him at first. However, the kicks and raps on our noses with rolled up newspaper never came. The day I was discharged, he shook my hand and gave me a heartfelt “Congratulations.” And he meant it.

When I was a month away from my promotion to sergeant, I went on a short term deployment to our Battle Simulation Center on base as an interpreter for a joint ROK-US exercise. Even though I had spent more than a year and a half in a full immersion Korean-learning environment, I still couldn’t speak intelligibly. I could barely participate in basic conversation; I have no idea how they expected me to interpret reports about oil pipelines and the status of Patriot missile systems. As a result, Ken, the other linguist from the HHC, was the preferred tool of the officers and I focused my energy to pretending to work while working on my entry to a translation contest held by The Korea Times.

My translation was awful (I was guessing half the time) and unfinished but I sent in my entry anyway. And won a prize. It was the equivalent of a pity-fuck, but as I’ve established before, I’m not above accepting anything that gets thrown my way. I was called by the editor who asked me to come to the award ceremony, but I was unwilling to waste any of my leaves for a lame ceremony when I had already confirmed I was getting paid regardless so I told him I couldn’t go.

The next day, the company had to clean the officers’ club and set up a banquet for some event the base commander (4-star general) would be attending. I saw Captain Ryu making the rounds and I decided to see if I could get him to give me a couple days of free leave. When I saw him approaching, I started wiping down the windows furiously in a show of diligence.

“Good work, Sergeant Beck.”

“Thank you, sir.” He was primed for the request. “May I ask a question, sir?”

“What is it?”

“I just won a prize in a translation contest and was asked to attend the ceremony. Could I have a day of leave to attend, sir?” Requests had to be made small.

“Of course.” His response shocked me. There was no scrutiny as to the veracity of my claims. “Take a few days. Tell the office I said so.” Holy shit.

He went with me to meet a reporter for an interview, he approved my award leave to attend the ceremony, and when the base commander ignored the positive publicity I gave to the Army, he gave me another award leave afterwards. He was a saint.

The sad truth is that Captain Ryu will probably never get anywhere in the Army either. I’m sure he is a smart guy, but as I mentioned earlier, kindness equals stupidity in the Army. Stupid + industrious. Life isn’t fair. I know that too well.

St. Francis of Assisi: The animals loved him but his treasures were only in heaven

* Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”


One Response

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  1. Hi there,

    I’m an editor with asia! magazine (, and I’d like your permission to republish this post on our site. Could you please e-mail me for more details?

    Thank you.

    Best wishes,

    Bernice Tang

    December 5, 2010 at 6:58 am

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