The Coldest Winter
“No one wanted to hear about the war when they had first come home, and so they never talked about it, not to their families or to their oldest friends. Or when they did, no one understoodor, worse, wanted to understand.” These lines could have easily been written about the Vietnam or Iraq Wars. Indeed, David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War points out parallels among the three wars and warns against basing foreign policy decisions on rigid ideological truisms. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur’s military staff distorted intelligence reports to the nation’s great detriment; later, in the case of claims that the Tonkin Gulf incident off the coast of North Vietnam was unprovoked or that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the culprits were high-level civilians. Soldiers stationed in Korea thought that the country smelled like human excrement, had little faith in the native “friendlies,” and commonly called them “gooks” (an ethnic slur first used during the Philippine-American War, the United States’ first imperialistic venture in Asia). Colonel Paul Freeman confided to his wife that “to ‘liberate’ South Korea we’re destroying it and its people” and that “all Koreans hate us. Everyone here is an enemy. We can’t trust anyone.” In a 2007 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, cartoonist David Rees has one character say, “I still get pissed thinkin’ about kids dying for squat in a land with unpronounceable names.” To which comes the reply, “Oh, they’re not dying for nothing: Vietnam’s gonna make one hell of an analogy someday.” The same could be said about the Korean War, which military historian S. L. A. Marshall has termed “the century’s nastiest war.” A “black hole” (Halberstam’s words) in the public memory, it has been the subject of few novels or movies (exceptions being the 1972 black comedy M*A*S*H* and 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate). Even so, for twenty years the Korean War has been a fertile scholarly field, and making the author’s task easier were Clay Blair’s The Forgotten War (1987), Max Hastings’s The Korean War (1987), Marshall’s The River and the Gauntlet (1987), Stanley Weintraub’s MacArthur’s War (2000), and William Stueck’s Rethinking the Korean War (2002), as well as numerous memoirs.
Halberstam, the consummate journalist, conducted more than 150 oral histories, and the revelations gleaned from them are what give The Coldest Winter, despite minor organizational flaws, its power, as well as its originality. As Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor concluded, it “stands as a coda to his enduringly famous The Best and the Brightest (1972),” a work also noteworthy for its investigative research. Clearly, after fifty-two years the author still relished unearthing interesting anecdotes and telling insights. Surprisingly, for one who labored so long in a profession whose second nature is cynicism, he retained, in his words, “a respect for the nobility of ordinary people.” Through one interview, for instance, Halberstam learned that Lieutenant Lee Beahler, a World War II veteran, reenlisted because he missed the camaraderie of Army life. His leadership during the battle of Yongsan helped save the Eighth Army from possible annihilation. He came down with encephalitis from a mosquito bite and was still recuperating several months later when his outfit, the Second Engineers, was almost wiped out at Kunari. That mosquito probably saved his life, he realized with feelings of guilt. In his author’s note, Halberstam recalled almost canceling a meeting with former sergeant Paul McGee because of inclement weather, a grueling schedule, and the subject’s initial misgivings. He drove through a snowstorm to McGee’s home and experienced, in his words, “a thrilling moment for me, nothing less than a reminder of why I do what I do”:For four hours it all poured out, what had happened in those three days at Chipyongni when [McGee] was a young platoon leader. It was as if he had been waiting for me to come by for fifty-five years, and he remembered everything as if it had been yesterday. He was modest, thoughtful, and had total recall. The story of how his platoon had held out for so long came out in exceptional detail, along with the names and phone numbers of a few men who had made it out with him and could confirm all the details.
The Coldest Winter book cover is a wrap-around, black-and-white photograph facsimile of shadowy figures trudging down a remote road. Set against a frigid landscape, the scene is hardly heroic but encompasses the author’s goal: to bring to life the experiences of American soldiers who suddenly found themselves in desperate straits. Some never received winter uniforms, even though temperatures...
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