The Battle of Koje Island

by James P. Cannon

[First printed in the Militant, June 16 1952. Reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator.]

THE WHOLE story of Koje Island is not yet known, but from the few scraps of information which have been blown out of the prisoners’ compounds, like hot rocks from a heaving volcano, the world is becoming uneasily aware of awful and fateful events transpiring there, with the premonition of more to come.

Through a breach in the military censorship the world is catching glimpses of a conflict of gigantic proportions in which ordinary men, as often before in history, play big parts because of the things they represent. In the great crises of history some men always, rIse above themselves and attain the stature of heroes. That happened In our own history—in 1776 and again in 1861. In the men who made these two revolutions young America saw the magnified image, of itself.

The same thing appears to be happening now once again in a far-off land, and we are witness to it. The transcendant issues of our century are being dramatized on Koje Island in human terms, as in a heroic epic which has for its theme the death agony of an old social order and the birth pangs of a new one. Colonial oppression and struggle for national independence; western supremacy and Asian self-assertion; war and revolution — these are the colossal Involved in the confrontation of white and yellow men across a barbed-wire barricade.

Outwardly it would appear that the struggle Is unequal, outcome foreordained. The American army, which never lost a war goes into the battle of Koje Island with much better equipment than the “Ragged Continentals” of 1776, who defended their land and their homes with an odd assortment of old muskets and sticks and stones, and a more impetuous policy than the patient General Washington’s strategy of attack and retreat to wear out the enemy and keep his own army in being.

For the battle of Koje Island we needed a different kind of general and we found him. To the atta-boy applause of the editorial writers, who unfortunately can’t leave their desks to take part. General Boatner has proclaimed a crack-down and he has the stuff to make good with it. Press dispatches bristle with accounts of the formidable array of armament he has brought up for use against prisoners of war who persist in waving their own banners within the compounds. There are daily reports of prisoners being killed and wounded since Boatner took charge and announced a “get tough” policy.

Things are moving to some kind of a show-down in this battle of Koje Island; and the American people, with the historic memory of Bunker Hill not yet entirely obliterated, would do well to ask for a little more information about what we are fighting for there. We have heard the explanations of the brass hats. The captured “gooks,” it seems, are “surly” and “fanatical”. They “don’t know who’s boss” and they have to be shown. The compounds have to be split up into smaller units so that the prisoners can be “screened” more effectively. The improvised banners, waved from sticks, inside the compounds, must come down. These are our declared war aims at Koje.

The prisoners’ side of the story didn’t come through yet, although a UP dispatch of May 21 reports that they made a strenuous effort to tell correspondents what it is. “When the prisoners inside saw new.,, men arrive they set up a clamor to be allowed to talk to them,” says the report. “One shouted in English: ‘Let us talk to these war correspondents! ‘ Authorities refused.” Could this incident, buried in a long dispatch, have been a correspondent’s indirect way of telling the world that the whole truth is not coming out because he and his colleagues are not allowed to send it?

As the climax approaches, the papers are full of information about the battle plans of the forces outside the barbed wire. The New York Times, June 9, reports: “General Boatner has shaped lip a full-scale offensive with all the troops under his command. . . . The plans call for battalions of infantrymen with fixed bayonets to crash through the barbed-wire barricades into the compounds, supported by several Patton tanks and under the protective range of machine guns.”

That ought to do it. Military doctrine says that, other things being equal, superior fire-power prevails and decides. What chance then, remains for the Koje prisoners who have no fire-power whatever? They have no chance at all—if other things are equal. But could it be that the prisoners keep their morale unshaken in the face of superior force because they think that the other things are not equal? That they have on their side some intangibles not comprehended by the military mind—some secret weapon more powerful than a bomb, some moral force generated by the things their banners represent and symbolize to them?

If that is the case, history tells us that such men will not be easy to conquer. History also tells us that men so inspired can lose a battle and still win the war. The most dangerous animal on earth is the man who has nothing to lose and is convinced that he has everything to gain. That’s the trouble with the ill-starred American adventure in Korea — it is up against men like that, who are convinced that their historic hour has come; that they have great allies; that hundreds of millions of their kindred are behind them because they are in the same fix.

Such a conviction can make all things possible. From such a conviction comes the fanatical courage of the Koje prisoners — you can even call it heroism and you won’t go wrong — to face all the military power of America unarmed and defiant. Yesterday they knew nothing, with no rights that a white man was bound to respect. But a mighty revolution, coming up like thunder out of China and echoing throughout the entire Orient, has changed all that. Revolution has made new men out of them, lifted them to their feet and inspired them to sing and firmly believe: “We have been naught, we shallbe all!”

That may be the secret weapon of the prisoners of Koje Island.