David Halberstam alternated between books the size of tanks and books the size of bicycles. In the inimitable manner that the famously ambitious author constructed his first sort, The Coldest Winter comes at you not like one but two of the actual tanks that rumble across its pages—in formation with each other, yet posing separate challenges to the reader in their path.
Tank No. 1, H-Company, is a literary and human event, the last massive tome by David Halberstam, a final book, by Halberstam the writer, the one you keep hearing about, the guy whose sentences, and, of course, they were sentences, always broke in on themselves to add “and one more thing” before tacking on five more.
Reading such prose, and loving or leaving Tank One, is a matter of taste. For some, The Coldest Winter will trigger words like “epic,” “magisterial,” “sweeping.” For others, it will drive distracted eyes to marking every unnecessary “was,” “had” and “is,” every sentence written first forward, then backward and sideways. It will make them wish for a software program to sweep the extras away so Halberstam’s magnificent reportage—his undisputed gift—stood out.
Then there’s Tank No. 2—a 700-plus-page take, not an overall history—on the Korean War. Contrary to Halberstam’s observation here that the Korean War remains a “black hole” in American history and memory, it does not. While it may have produced fewer books than World War II or Vietnam, those it did provoke, from Clay Blair’s The Forgotten War to Chaim Potok’s I Am the Clay to Stanley Weintraub’s MacArthur’s War, amount to more than what many countries have ever issued about their greatest generation. For that reason, The Coldest Winter demands scrutiny for its conclusions and achievement in the light of past work, not as history written on a blank slate.
The Coldest Winter impresses and moves most when it sticks to its most convincing embedded narrative: the incredible hardship and misery faced by American troops forced to fight in Korea under horrific conditions—bad weather, questionable leadership, dismal logistics, and a constantly misjudged enemy.
To his enormous credit, Halberstam spent years tracking down Korean War veterans, taking down their stories straight, understanding their perspective. Like war correspondents before him, Halberstam learned from his own coverage that you can’t trust generals the way you can ordinary soldiers to tell what happened plain, simple and honest. His fresh, detailed material on the U.S. military’s disastrous retreats and defeats in Korea—which arguably too much outweigh accounts of their triumphs—rivet one in not the fog but the hellfire of war. You will not soon forget the tales of platoon commander Paul McGee, radio operator Bruce Ritter, Col. Paul Freeman, or many others.
Political stretches of the book, about key figures behind the war such as Mao, Kim Il Sung, Harry Truman and Stalin, stitched together from Halberstam’s industrious reading of secondary sources, satisfy too, but in the way a good remake does. Much of this history restates standard views. Acheson mistakenly fails to signal in a speech that America will defend South Korea against Communist aggression. Kim Il Sung persuades Stalin and Mao to permit North Korea to try to conquer all of Korea. North Korea attempts to do so on June 25, 1950, by invading the South across the 38th Parallel. The U.S., U.N. troops and South Koreans fight back, pushing the North Koreans back to Pyongyang. Then Gen. Douglas MacArthur makes the fatal mistake of assuming China won’t enter the war on North Korea’s side if he tries to push all the way to the Chinese border, and, in effect, conquer North Korea.
Instead, the Chinese counterattack, devastating U.S. forces. Again, U.S. forces and their allies fight to roll the enemy back—“dying for a tie,” in the soldier’s argot of the time. Finally, the 1953 truce—no peace treaty was ever signed—leaves North and South Korea where they were before the war started, divided by the 38th Parallel.
It’s in judging that circumstance, as well as MacArthur’s leadership of the war and what Halberstam calls “a conflict that was so unsatisfying and distant and gray and brought so little in the way of victories,” that The Coldest Winter raises the most questions.
No one can disagree with Halberstam’s at times implied and at times stated criticisms of U.S. leaders in the Korean War. Generals shouldn’t distort intelligence or keep it from their commander-in-chief. Generals shouldn’t sacrifice the lives of their men for vainglorious goals. At the same time, Halberstam’s portrait of MacArthur so completely demonizes him for “hubris,” “madness” and other defects that it backfires. For a more balanced evaluation, consult the recently published MacArthur: A Biography (Palgrave, 2007) by Richard Frank, a military historian. He thinks “the balance sheet” in regard to MacArthur’s performance “is far more heavily positive” if one is willing to blame anyone else occasionally for MacArthur’s foul-ups.
Halberstam’s overview of the whole war also troubles, even though his book covers only its first year or so. Halberstam writes in his introduction, “When it was all over and an armed truce ensued, both sides claimed victory, though the final division of the country was no different from the one that had existed when the war began.”
That comes close to the fallacy of stating that the Korean truce returned the peninsula to its status quo “at the beginning of the war.” In fact, it returned Korea to the status quo “before the war began. The status quo changed when North Korean troops invaded the South. The men who fought reversed that.
Toward the end of the book, Halberstam seems to acknowledge that. He notes that vibrant South Korea today gives Korean War veterans “a sense of belated validation to their sacrifice.” He writes, “Because they had made their stand, it had not happened again.”
Indeed. Without the Korean War, would a unified nuclear Korea under the North’s control threaten its neighbors? Would China have invaded and taken Taiwan? Halberstam’s acknowledgments of how Korean War veterans see their achievements are too much in their mouths, too little in his. The book’s broad subtitle invites such broad reservations. If it were, “America’s Agony in the Korean War,” or “The Beginning of America’s Korean War,” one would be less inclined to fault the author for such flaws as almost wholly ignoring the role of Koreans in the war, or telescoping the last two years of the conflict.
“In the midst of winter,” Albert Camus wrote, “I discovered within myself an invincible summer.” In the midst of The Coldest Winter you’ll discover an invincible tale of American fighting men exhibiting immense dignity and devotion to duty, told with flair. That story also provides brilliant warmth. It’s well worth clambering into a tank or two to feel it.
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