Books about war don’t always rise to the level of compelling literary narrative, often because they are wedded to the intricacies of how specific battles are won and lost on specific pieces of terrain. There’s some of that in The Coldest Winter, but Halberstam masterfully uses the crises for U.S./UN forces in Korea to support and drive his narrative--illustrating the brutal horror and folly that made this war one of the worst America ever fought. He switches perspectives artfully: Sometimes he quotes the memories of soldiers embroiled in the destruction of a platoon; at other times he probes the cabinet-level intrigues in the Truman administration...or he examines Truman’s decisions and background...or Douglas MacArthur’s...or Mao’s... This is a long, rich, splendid book. It tells the tale of how we inadvertently invited North Korea to invade South Korea, how our forces were virtually crushed and driven off the peninsula, how MacArthur brilliantly struck back and then overreached and ended up losing tens of thousands of his soldiers to slaughter by the Chinese. Not often is a writer able to tell a war tale from both a soldier’s perspective and a president’s. It’s just too demanding, takes too much skill. But Halberstam succeeds. His portrait of the ultimately self-deluded egotist MacArthur is if not Shakespearian, then sub-Shakespearian, which more or less is what MacArthur had in mind: he wanted to be seen as an historical, legendary figure who conformed to and in some ways transcended his predecessors: Napoleon, Hannibal, etc. But ultimately the flawed MacArthur, surrounded by boobs and sycophants and petty staff tyrants, became so divorced from reality that he sent whole divisions to their death. He was too arrogantly racist to realize that the Chinese could and would enter the Korean war and could and would fight more skillfully than his American troops. The pictures of Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Matthew Ridgeway, who took over after MacArthur’s failure, are equally well presented. None of them really knew what they were getting into when the decision was taken to defend South Korea at all costs. As so often has been the case in other instances (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), American policymakers knew their objectives, but not whether they were realistic and attainable. The problem was and remains America’s superior industrial and technological capability. We can do anything in those dimensions. What we can’t do is rub out entire societies determined to hold onto their land, fighting at night, fighting along the flanks, fighting with little regard for loss of life. Halberstam is generous in acknowledging the critics at the time, expert at pointing out how the Republicans goaded and prodded Truman into being “tough,” and fantastic at placing a given soldier or officer’s personal story at the right place in his comprehensive narrative. You can’t know war unless you have seen it through a soldier’s eyes, but you also can’t know war unless you have come to terms with the lofty and excruciating heights of power where presidents and dictators make colossal decisions that once made, can’t be unmade. I was born during the Korean war. As a child, I recall it still being referred to as a police action, a term Truman used to obfuscate what America was doing. Then Korea became “the forgotten war,” embittering those who fought in it. Halberstam revives and vivifies the Korean war as it must have been. A few years ago, my son, who is a war buff, and I were talking with a Korean war vet. My son was recounting some of the battles, some of the crucial turning points, some of the ways in which the war was decided at a macro-level. The vet wanted to talk about the fact that for weeks and months he had no idea what he was doing, that he was a radio man who almost never had good connections, or any connections at all, and that he couldn’t coordinate with units as close as a few hundreds of yards away. They were both right, in their way. Halberstam tells the story both upstairs and downstairs. He gets into the fog of war and the fog of policymaking, he dramatizes the pernicious effects of pernicious personalities, he makes you stop and think: Do we want to do this again? No war should be forgotten; every one of them should remain embedded in our memory. This is a book that makes a hefty contribution to ensuring such is the case.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund