I know little to nothing about the Korean War. I guess I really only have three associations for it. Of course I think of the Korean War as the sham setting for MASH, which even little kids watching reruns recognize is really about Vietnam (and by the way, that’s really confusing when you’re a kid). The next thing I know is that it was the first war where helicopters became important. And finally, I remember a woman I worked with who told me once about an uncle, who fought in the war when he was seventeen, was wounded, came back, and in her words, “never really recovered.” And he was bitter that the war that had so changed his life was so forgotten, so little talked about, so lost between history’s two favored conflicts of the 20th century, World War II and Vietnam.
The Korean War is easily lost in the shuffle. It was a strange conflict, not as clear as WW II, and, taking place at the dawn of the television age, not as viscerally in-your-face as Vietnam. But it’s worth taking the time to unravel, because it is really a piece of the Cold War; in fact, you may say that it gives lie to that name in a way. The general implication of the term “Cold War” is that it was a war not fought by soldiers, but was rather a standoff between governments. The war in Korea, though, was fought with all the big West vs. East players, though—the US, China, and in a shadow role, the USSR—and they believed they were engaged in a struggle to save the world from (depending which side you were on) communism or capitalism.
So along comes The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s last book, and about as in-depth a primer on the Korean War as I could hope to find. This is a big, detailed book, and I would embarrass myself trying to refight the war in my own words. Suffice to say that Halberstam goes into all the reasons why the war started, why the US got involved, and why China got involved—the US neglected to include South Korea in their defense perimeter; Kim Il Sung in North Korea decided to take this opportunity to assert himself and attack; Kim, a military incompetent, took advice from China and Russia, with Mao, particularly anxious to make an impression on the world after chasing Chiang out to Taiwan; the US, fearing a repeat of the hesitation of the ‘30s that led to cries of appeasement and world war, entered to try to stop it before Korea was lost to communism, and thus the rest of Asia (ostensibly) to follow.
There are plenty of battle descriptions here and they are all miserable. Korea was a tough landscape for war—mountainous and bitterly cold. The US was not prepared for the weather and to be honest, the military was not in great shape. When WW II ended, there had been a huge outcry to rush demobilization of the troops and those that were left were poorly trained and unprepared for war. Defense budgets had been pared. The greatest leaders had been pushed into government jobs, and those that were left were horded by Macarthur in his Tokyo empire.
The real strength of this book is not the facts about the reasons for war, or the depictions of battle, but the portraits of the people involved. The most notable is Macarthur, the arrogant hero of two other wars, whose confidence in himself and his view of the world helped turn the war into more of a mess than it had to be. Macarthur was a 19th century man, with a view of Western superiority that made him constantly underestimate the Asian players in this game. He succeeded with the amphibious assault on Inchon, but it was a success that made the situation worse because once that worked, he believed all his ideas and plans would work, and no one felt they were in a position to challenge him at that time. But they should have. Macarthur tried to fight the war in Tokyo, using maps where inches were miles, and mountains were dark shadows. He force the soldiers into situations where they couldn’t win, and worst of all, refused to believe that China was entering the war even as he was confronted with stark, hard evidence.
Macarthur ruled by fear and those that succeeded with him were those that yessed their way to the top. In Macarthur’s army, no one rose on merit, but instead rose by how much they sucked up to him. The result was Macarthur putting one of his untalented toadies, Ned Almond, in charge of a corps that subsequently became involved in some of the most disastrous battles of the war. And when more competent men challenged him, Almond had them removed, thus compounding his mistakes.
Macarthur and Almond come off as the villains of the piece, but there were others making bad choices as well. Truman, for never having the courage to remove Macarthur until it was almost too late; those in the government who resented Truman and didn’t want to give him any help; Mao, for, well, being Mao and pushing his own soldiers to the brink; Stalin for never offering anyone quite enough help; the China lobby in the US, who kept believing in a mythical heroic Chiang who would come to the rescue if they just gave him a little more money an equipment.
But there were also heroes, like Colonel Paul Freeman, commander of the 23rd Regiment, who put in impossible situations constantly by his leadership, made as many good decisions as he could and always looked out for the welfare of his men; Matt Ridgway, who stepped in and took over for Macarthur when things were at their worst, and helped turn the war around; and of course the many ordinary soldiers who survived and fought as best as they could under horrific conditions and often inexplicable orders.
This book is often fascinating, often frustrating; it’s amazing how pettiness and politics that is better suited to junior high can play out and end in the deaths of powerless men. It’s also very useful—there are lots of maps, for which I am eternally grateful. I can’t tell you how many books about wars I have read that have almost no maps, leaving me constantly feeling lost. There also is a nice glossary in the beginning of military terms, particularly how many men are in a corps, platoon, regiment, etc. (this is the type of thing where when I try to ask Dad, he returns with, “Which war? Which front? Who was in command? What year?” Now you see where I get my annoyingness.).
I know more now about the Korean War than I did before, though of course not everything or even close to enough. The story of this sad, gray, unloved conflict is well-suited for this melancholy autumn. I recommend it, though with the warning that it’s a big, dense, detailed book. If you’re looking for light reading, this isn’t it. If you really want to learn something and are willing to spend the time, it’s worth it indeed. And I guess that’s all I should say, all I have to say.
In other news, the show is going well; audiences seem to be enjoying it (equal parts laughs and screams; nothing like a little fake blood around Halloween). Otherwise all else is sad. I make many mistakes and I pay for them over and over.