ANDREA PLATE WRITES — “We are Ambassadors who represent our country on and off duty,” General Robert Abrams, Commander of US Forces South Korea (USFK), tweeted over the summer about his decision to extend the curfew suspension period for furthef review regarding troops’ behavior, rather than revoke it for good.
The good general was referring to a sordid news story—one that was bad for Abrams’ reputation, for the 28,500 American troops stationed on the peninsula and for the South Korean citizenry. Just five weeks earlier, the 1 to 5 am curfew had been lifted for a 90-day trial run. But then an intoxicated soldier attempted to steal a taxi and assault a Korean National Police Officer. He was tasered, turned over to the American military and charged with assault. Procedurally, everything went as it should have, according to the South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the host country and the US military.
“A majority of our servicemembers do the right thing,” remarked a seemingly defensive General Abrams. But the majority does not rule when it comes to the USFK. Why didn’t Abrams rescind the curfew for good, as the troops had hoped? “To ensure we are making the correct decision,” he demurred. Provost Col. Marshall Fivian tried to further explain: the number of violent and disruptive crimes perpetrated by US troops had not changed significantly since the curfew had been lifted. Meaning, it hadn’t dropped.
Where there is hysteria, there is history. The original USFK curfew rose from the ashes of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. First billed as a “readiness recall, the message was clear: Attention, soldiers! Protect and defend! (plus, the unspoken, implied threat: Quit getting drunk! Leave the locals alone!).
No one likes a curfew. The word itself has a tortured etymological history, from Old French (“cuevrefeu” meant ‘to cover’ + ‘fire’) to Middle English (“a regulation requiring people to extinguish fires at a fixed hour in the evening, or a bell rung at a particular hour,)” to today’s troops’ interpretation: “Unfair,” and “Wish I’d been sent to Japan.”
Nevertheless, the initial curfew held for nine years, was suspended for one, then slapped back a year later in 2011, when news broke that two intoxicated soldiers had committed two high-profile rapes of two very young girls.
The public was enraged, of course. Attacked by their [supposed] protectors! By comparison, South Korean troops are more disciplined. Naturally, then, the June 3 announcement that the Command Combined Forces would relocate to Camp Humphreys—a safer 70 kilometers from the central city—was welcome news.
But the move would not happen overnight. Leave it to the US military and the Department of Defense to come up with a quick interim fix: a four-hour curfew (1 to 5 a.m.). Leave it to the US federal government to make an already slippery slope more slippery, even slipshod. Curfew penalties included verbal warnings at the very least, while “courtesy patrols” — duos of US military and Korean National Police — readily roamed the streets of hotspot Itaewon, less so at less alluring locations. Is that fair to the troops, or to hard-working businesspersons whose livelihoods depend on thrill-seeking military men?
It was all so confusing! Can Korean-born spouses of American soldiers roam free? (Yes, although there’s no such written rule). Can individual commanders impose unit curfews at will? (Yes, despite the overall rule). Can exceptions be made? Yes, no and it depends on the case. What’s a Rubik’s cube compared to a giant ball of government red tape?
Truth is, American soldiers are unstoppable. They sneak past restrictions by hiding out in cars and bathrooms at 24-hour coffee shops. Or, as an exasperated contributor wrote on Rally Point, the American online professional network dubbed “LinkedIn for the military,” some are “compulsive curfew violators,” like the PFC who was demoted for human trafficking but somehow kept his convoy going: “No amount of time spent with the military police deterred him.”
Because you can fight crime, but you can’t fight military culture. Alcohol runs thicker than blood among the troops. Group binges breed feelings of brotherhood, manhood, machismo.
In time, military culture will change—when more women step up to serve and are promoted; when more MOS’s (military occupation specialties) are opened to women; when substance abuse and military sexual trauma are integrated into military training. But that will take decades.
In the meantime, our Armed Forces must remain strong and cannot afford further shrinkage. Fewer opportunities for fun could prompt fewer men to enlist (word gets around). 8.3 million served during World War II; roughly 1,055,600 (Active Duty and Reserves) serve today.
The generals deny being Draconian. They say a fast-evolving military must adjust to changing times, and they need gunnery soldiers to be ever alert.
What will happen December 17, when the trial suspension period ends? Will the curfew be permanently levied, or lifted?
We know what the soldiers want. And their families. And the contract workers. And even some officers who take great pride in the troops, for all their human imperfections. A no-curfew vote would be a vote of confidence for all— just in time for Christmas, when not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse…. Or soldier. Or military spouse…. If all goes well. But can it?
Andrea Plate is a licensed clinical social worker and author of the new book MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs (Marshall Cavendish Intl). She teaches part-time at LMU and is the special adviser to Asia Media International.