Monday, March 24, 2008


While it is likely to be perceived as a military history, David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter* is really a political story that will appeal to those who do not read military history. Halberstam examines the domestic political scene, the mistakes and the personal conflicts that led to what was an unnecessarily large loss of American (as well as Korean and Chinese) lives.

The story centers around General Douglas MacArthur, who despite a flash of brilliance (or luck), nearly brought terrible defeat to the United States. His sycophantic court almost never provided meaningful intelligence, which led to a complete misunderstanding of the likelihood of Chinese intervention. Racist views about Asians led to a false understanding about Korean and then Chinese fighting capabilities. Strongly held political views placed far too much importance on Taiwan and the failed Chiang Kai Shek regime. His flagrant disrespect to the President and the Joint Chiefs should have seen him retired faster than it did.

The only thing that MacArthur got right was the Inchon landing, which is likely the only thing that Americans today remember about the war. Halberstam shows the serious of terrible mistakes that make up the rest of the story. Of course, had the rest of the government played its role as it should, MacArthur would have been reined in much earlier. Congressional Republicans come out poorly, but they are not the only ones.

Halberstam was not out to write a comprehensive story of the war and it battles. He actually points the reader to Clay Blair's The Forgotten War for that. Instead, he focuses on key turning points of the war including the defense of the Nakdong River, the Inchon landing, the Chinese attacks at Unsan, Chosin and the rest of the north and finally Chipyong-ni where the battered US 8th Army figured out how to fight the Chinese.

In each battle, Halberstam focuses on the experiences of soldiers and officers caught in battles they often should not have to fight. It is amazing how little was given to the forces defending the Nakdong and how unprepared the Army was in the far north. These battles were every bit as difficult as those fought in the Second World War but they remain almost completely unknown outside of the military.

The book is a warning and a sad reminder that what happens on the battlefield, as in Vietnam and Iraq, is very often the outcome of debates and conflicts in Washington DC.

*Powell's is bundling the book with its Out of the Book Film about the book. The trailer of which is below.

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