Tuesday, November 01, 2011

246 (2011 #51). The Coldest Winter

by David Halberstam

I bought this book (subtitled America and the Korean War) as a gift for my father - he is a Korean War veteran (Air Force) and wanted to read it.  He passed it on to me when he was finished.

The Coldest Winter focuses on what led up to the Korean War and how it began (in late June, 1950), and the terrible winter of 1950-51, when the arrogant General Douglas MacArthur insists on a drive all the way to the north Korean border with China, with devastating results. MacArthur, along with his toady underling Ned Almond, and a few other officers, come off very badly in this book (as does Chairman Mao).

Halberstam, a journalist in Saigon during the Vietnam War, is best known for his book on that conflict, The Best and the Brightest.  Some of his more liberal leanings are obvious in this book.  However, its strength is in the innumerable interviews he did for this book, mostly of the men who did the actual fighting, and not just the generals and politicians trying to run the show.  This made the narrative, despite its 657 pages, quite readable.

One passage (on page 533) really stood out for me:
That was one of the great mysteries of combat, the process of going from green, scared soldiers to tough, grizzled, combat-ready (but still scared) veterans.  Some men, a small percentage, never made it...They were incapable of or unwilling to bread out of their civilian selves.  Most men, however, whether they liked it or not, went through that transformation.  They might regret it when they came home, and it might be a part of their lives they never wanted to revisit, but they did it.  This had become their universe, and it was a small and brutal one, cut off from all the things they had been taught growing up.  Most important of all, it was a universe without choice.  No one entirely understood the odd process--perhaps the most primal on earth--that turned ordinary, peace-loving, law-abiding civilians into very good fighting men; or one of its great sub-mysteries--how quickly it could take place.
If you are looking for a history with lots of details on all of the battles in the Korean War, this is not the book for you.  As already mentioned, it focuses on the period from June 1950 to April 1951, and virtually ignores the last two years of the war.  There are many maps in the book, most with military symbols explained by Halberstam at the beginning of the book (along with a glossary of military terms). I appreciated these even if I did not always understand them. There was plenty of battle description in the book for me, enough to make me further ponder the wisdom of war. Halberstam used more abbreviations in the book than I would like, although those who read a lot of military history probably don't need explanations.

I know very little about the Korean War before reading this book.  I definitely understand a lot more about how it began, and how its ending led to the Vietnam War (and later conflicts in Third World countries).  I would like to read another book about the Korean War, particularly one that focuses on the contributions of the Air Force to the effort.  Halberstam provides an extensive bibliography, so I imagine I can find a suitable source.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I borrowed the book from and will be returning it to my father, a Korean War veteran.]

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