There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Coldest Winter on the bus

Finished reading David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" while riding the bus. By my count, this is the 30th book I have finished since starting my daily commute by public transit in February.

This is Halberstam's last book. He had submitted the final corrections to the publisher just five days before he died in an auto accident in Menlo Park on April 23, 2007. The greatness of this book, the insight Halberstam brings to the topic, his skill as a journalist and historian, makes his death even more tragic.

It is important when exploring history to understand the context within which the decisions were made and the events played out, what the situation looked like to the people at the time. This book does an excellent job. I have read several books on Korea, but this is the first that offers a glimpse into the view of the communist Chinese, who were hungry for international recognition. There also was the tension between Stalin, whose tool North Korea's Kim Il Sung was supposed to be, and Mao, a division that American analysts failed to appreciate in their fixation with a supposed monolithic communist threat.

The Korean "police action," as it became known, is not the stuff Americans wanted to remember, certainly not while the victory of World War II still glowed.

In Korea, the world witnessed the sad state the U.S. military had fallen to, from its ill-trained and ill-equipped troops to its criminally poor leadership, starting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Here was a war in which the overriding theme was "the great bug out," the panicked retreat of American forces in the face of overwhelming forces, at first North Korean and later Chinese. And after MacArthur's victory at Inchon, the Marine amphibious assault that succeeded in turning the North Korean victory into a defeat, everyone succumbed to the fatal attraction of transforming the rescue of South Korea into a grander unification of all Korea, ignoring -- deliberately on MacArthur's part -- what would happen if China entered the war. The final stalemate -- "die for a tie" -- sealed the war's place in American history, a place on a dark, dusty shelf.

Halberstam lays out in detail the players in this drama and the forces that played on them. This is not a book fans of MacArthur will enjoy. But more important is Halberstam's ability to tell the story of the fighting on the front lines where amid the defeat there coexisted great courage.

[Corporal Berry Rhoden] heard Captain Bartholdi plead to Battalion for the right to release his men: "We cannot hold! Repeat we cannot hold! Our only chance is to disband and let every man get out for himself!" Rhoden had relayed Bartholdi's message, wandering if they might somehow be able to send another battalion to the rescue, or perhaps the Air Force could fly some extra missions at the last minute. That was the way, he remembered, it always happened in the movies. But not this night, not on the east side of the Naktong. He and his own men had fought valiantly, but they had started to run out of ammunition after only forty-five minutes of battle, so when Bartholdi spoke those final desperate words, pleading for the right to slip out, he spoke for Rhoden's squad as well. Back had come a voice from Battalion: "Hold your positions at all costs! You cannot disband. Repeat it is imperative to hold your positions at all costs! You must not disband!" Rhoden relayed that message to Captain Bartholdi, and received one last message from him asking for artillery fire or at least illumination fire. But neither was coming. Then both wires went dead. The North Koreans had obviously cut them. Soon Rhoden heard his end of both dead wires beginning to rustle, and he knew that the North Koreans were pulling on them, trying to locate Rhoden's position. So he cut the wires at his end. Let the sons of bitches pull on a wire that didn't lead anywhere. It was time, he decided to try to get his squad out of there.
Korea, when remembered in context, was an important war, a war that set the boundary for the much larger Cold War, which was then just starting. Speaking of the viewpoint of Korean veterans he interviewed for his book, Halberstam said:
They took pride in one additional thing: that if it had not been a victory in the classic sense, in some way what they had done had worked, because it was the crossing of an existing border in the Cold War; and because they had made their stand, it had not happened again."
This book is not a battle-by-battle replay of the confrontation. Halberstam has focused on battles at key points, interviewing survivors and telling their stories. The march of history from China to Korea and from Korea to Vietnam is amply illuminated. Of particular interest for me was the effect that Korea had on the Democratic Party. The resultant political requirement for Democrats to appear tough on communism lead President Kennedy to draw an unrealistic line in Vietnam, embroiling America unnecessarily in an entirely different fight.

This book is highly recommended.

No comments: