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It was a ghostly sound, echoing through the darkness of a Korean night. It was the distant sound of a bugle, and it terrified the youngest soldiers because of what it always foreshadowed: another relentless "human-wave" attack by thousands of Chinese soldiers.

If anything symbolized the madness of the Korean War, it was the human-wave assaults. Many soldiers thought the Chinese fighters were crazed by drugs or alcohol. How else could they charge unarmed into near-certain death, hurling themselves against the machine-gun fire of their enemies?

"They were like a tide, ceaselessly crashing on the shore, one after another," said Ju Sung-ro, a 73-year-old South Korean veteran, recalling a Chinese attack in 1951.

"If one wave was destroyed, the next unit went forward, and then the third unit. They had no guns, only grenades, so they needed to get within 25 metres of us. We were firing all the time, yet they kept coming and coming. Their faces were expressionless. The barrels of our machine guns were turning red and warping from the overheating. We had to pour water on our guns to keep using them. I was surrounded by the human wave, and I was sure I was going to die. And all around me, I could hear the Chinese singing."

As the world approaches next Sunday's 50th anniversary of the ceasefire that finally halted the first military conflict of the Cold War on July 27, 1953, the veterans are still reliving the horrors of the war. Their most vivid memories are the human-wave attacks -- the savage tactic that reversed the momentum of the war, thwarted a U.S. triumph and helped trigger the Cold War arms race that became the largest military buildup in history.

In North America, it is often called the Forgotten War, but the Korean War had immense geopolitical significance for the superpowers. It was also the third-bloodiest international conflict of the past century. Among the dead were more than one million Chinese and North Korean fighters, more than 110,000 South Korean soldiers, several million civilians and about 37,000 Americans. Also killed were 516 Canadians, the fourth-highest death toll among the 16 countries in the U.S.-led coalition.

No peace treaty was ever signed, so the two Koreas remain technically in a state of war today. Their heavily militarized border region is still one of the most dangerous flash points in the world. About 37,000 U.S. troops have remained on the peninsula to help the 650,000 South Korean troops in their confrontation with 1.1 million North Korean soldiers.

But now, for the first time in 50 years, the Pentagon is preparing to move its troops southward, out of North Korean artillery range. The redeployment has sparked speculation that Washington is considering a pre-emptive missile strike against nuclear facilities in North Korea. Some influential U.S. conservatives have raised that possibility, even though it could trigger massive retaliation and another bloody war on the Korean peninsula -- this time with nuclear weapons on the table.

In the early months of the Korean War in the fall of 1950, a senior U.S. commander contemptuously dismissed the enemy as "a bunch of Chinese laundrymen." The Americans boasted they would be home by Christmas, a war of six months.

But the Chinese army had carefully studied the Americans' weaknesses.

"Their men are afraid to die, and will neither press home a bold attack nor defend to the death," concluded a Chinese military strategy bulletin in late 1950. "They depend on their planes, tanks and artillery. At the same time, they are afraid of our firepower. They will cringe when, if on the advance, they hear firing."

The human-wave tactic was intended to exploit these weaknesses, and even half a century later, Korean veterans cannot forget the resulting assaults.

The attacks usually began around midnight with the eerie signal of the bugle. Then the night erupted into a weird cacophony of drums, whistles, flutes, gongs and wild shouts, as the Chinese sought to panic their enemies and disguise the target of their thrusts.

It was oddly effective. Soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition acknowledged they were nearly driven mad by the bugles and whistles as they awaited the inevitable attack.

Then the infantry assault began. Because of a weapons shortage, the poorly equipped Chinese often carried nothing more than crude grenades. They hoped to pick up guns from dead enemy soldiers as they rushed forward, stepping over corpses of their fellow soldiers.

Indoctrinated in revolutionary ideology, the Chinese soldiers were following Mao Tsetung's theory of "man over weapons." They were willing to suffer extraordinarily heavy losses in what they saw as an anti-imperialist struggle, a fight to protect their newly created Communist society.

The human-wave attacks were one of the biggest reasons for the stunning Chinese battle successes in late 1950 and early 1951, when they pushed U.S.-led forces out of North Korea and advanced southward until they had captured Seoul.

"The Chinese treated their soldiers as bullets, not as humans," said Park Joon-kyu, a 73-year-old former South Korean army captain. "There were so many of the Chinese, constantly attacking us, like ants. Our officers didn't know where to dig in or how far to retreat, because we couldn't guess how many men they had. When we heard the bugle at night, we couldn't tell whether they were close or far away, and we couldn't tell what direction they were coming from."

Veteran Kim Hyung-san, 76, remembers killing dozens of human-wave attackers in a single day. "They were so close to us, only 20 or 30 metres away, that we didn't have to throw our grenades. We only had to pull the pin and roll the grenade toward them. After the battle, we pushed their dead bodies into bomb craters, perhaps 500 or 600 corpses in a single grave."

The North Korean soldiers seemed equally fanatical. Mr. Ju often saw them chained to their machine-gun positions with iron shackles. They had been ordered to fight to the death, and the chains were a guarantee that they would not retreat.

After suffering heavy losses in the first Chinese offensives, the U.S. military eventually responded with its own brutal methods, including the so-called "meat-grinder" strategy, in which the Americans supported their advances with massive co-ordinated firepower from artillery, tanks, mortars, and close air support. It was criticized as a policy of slaughter and attrition, but it helped the Americans recapture Seoul and make slow territorial advances in mid-1951.

The United States also made extensive use of napalm, dropping more than 40,000 tonnes of it from bombers, sometimes literally showering the North Korean and Chinese troops with fire, causing death and injury from severe burns and carbon-monoxide poisoning. With their padded-quilt uniforms, the Chinese were particularly vulnerable to the jellied gasoline. A U.S. officer said later that it set the Chinese ablaze like the wick of a Coleman lantern.

It was the first fighting war of the nuclear era, when both superpowers had nuclear weapons and the world came perilously close to an atomic catastrophe. U.S. president Harry Truman confirmed publicly that he was considering the use of nuclear weapons in late 1950. The U.S. supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur, asked for 25 nuclear bombs to be used against targets in North Korea and China in December of 1950. His request was denied, but U.S. generals continued to consider the nuclear option throughout the war.

The final two years of the conflict were dominated by trench fighting, often under incredibly arduous conditions.

"It was hand-to-hand fighting, and very tough," Mr. Park said. "If the enemy captured a trench one day, we would capture it back the next day. I could only tell the North Koreans by their hair -- they had shaved their heads -- so if I saw someone with no hair, I stabbed them with my knife. It was frightening."

After protracted negotiations, the armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953, with the new division line just slightly north of the prewar border. Geographically, little had changed. But the Korean War had a far-reaching influence that continues to this day.

The war may have helped to stop the expansion of communism in East Asia, but it also paved the way for the Cold War's worst excesses. It fuelled the McCarthyist persecutions in the United States and it encouraged military-backed regimes to stay in power in South Korea for decades.

By helping to end isolationism among American conservatives, the Korean War set the stage for U.S. tactics over the next half century, including the anti-Communist interventions in Vietnam and Central America and the latest "pre-emptive" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Korean War was a key precedent for the "peacekeeping" and "peacemaking" missions of later decades. The U.S.-led coalition in Korea fought under the banner of the United Nations, with authority from the UN Security Council. Yet for all practical purposes it was an American command structure -- foreshadowing the U.S.-dominated "coalitions of the willing" that have characterized recent conflicts.

This year is not only the 50th anniversary of the armistice but also the 50th anniversary of the formal alliance between the United States and South Korea. And it has been a year of historic change, with Washington announcing plans to move its troops away from the North Korean border for the first time since the war.

If North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il launches an attack on South Korea, his troops will no longer face an immediate tripwire of U.S. forces. This will allow the United States to make a more flexible and mobile response to any North Korean attack, but it also causes anxiety among older South Koreans who fear that the alliance is weakening and their country is becoming more vulnerable to attack by the North.

"I'm very worried about it," said Lee Bong-won, a 78-year-old war veteran. "The American forces at the border have stabilized our country. If they move south, it means that the civilian population of Seoul would become the target of any war."

As history fades from people's memories, South Koreans are no longer unified by the threat of another war. The older generation is still hostile to North Korea, but many younger people have become more distrustful of the United States, especially after two young girls were killed by a U.S. armoured vehicle in South Korea last year.

Polls have found a widespread anti-American and antimilitary sentiment among young South Koreans. About 75 per cent of young people dislike the United States, while about 25 per cent of older Koreans feel the same way. Up to 80 per cent of young South Koreans would refuse to enter the military if conscription were abolished, and about 20 to 40 per cent would refuse to fight against North Korea if a war broke out.

"Young people think North Korea will never attack us," said Suh Jung-kap, president of the Retired Colonels Association in Seoul. "They have no concept of war. But the Korean War is an unfinished war. Until Kim Jong-il is gone, the war is not over."

In recent years, South Korea has tried to educate its young people about the war, requiring "group study" of the conflict, including seminars, summer camps, essay and poem contests, school lectures by veterans, battlefield visits, and week-long student stays with army units. But young people are still largely indifferent. In the country's monthly civil-defence drills, when air-raid sirens wail through Seoul and all citizens are supposed to stay off the streets, most young people stroll around nonchalantly, ignoring the sirens.

By contrast, many older South Korean conservatives would welcome another war with North Korea. They believe the regime in Pyongyang would quickly collapse if the United States launched a pre-emptive strike on the North's nuclear facilities.

"If it fires its artillery weapons or nuclear missiles, it would be the last day of North Korea's existence," said Lieutenant-General Seo Kyung-suk, a teacher of military history at Seoul University. "We must not be intimidated. North Korea's nuclear weapons are just an empty threat. I'm willing to take the gamble."

The widening gap between the generations is starkly evident in the South Korean city of Uijongbu, home to a major military base near the Demilitarized Zone. In interviews there, younger people said dialogue and negotiations can solve problems between North and South.

"The North Korean people are our brothers," said Chung Seung-chul, 21. "We shouldn't push them, we should talk to them. The United States is more of a threat to peace than North Korea is."

Just down the street, however, 81-year-old Park Sung-jun still remembers the horrors of the Communist occupation in the early days of the war, when most of South Korea had fallen to the invading forces. He once saw North Korean soldiers gathering a crowd of people, separating the rich people, and killing them with axes and sharp bamboo sticks, chanting "capitalists, capitalists." He is afraid the same nightmare could happen again if U.S. troops are withdrawn from the border region.

"These days the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, and they are more dangerous than ever. We can't trust them. They are evil."

The War Without End

SATURDAY: A family's journey

TODAY: The ghosts of war

TOMORROW: China's greatest victory

WEDNESDAY: Canada's forgotten veterans

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