Monday, September 02, 2013

Halberstam's The Coldest Winter

What you immediately feel in David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War is anger. He is really ticked off at Douglas MacArthur, whose megalomania and hiring of lackeys led to the needless deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers. He then blamed disasters on absolutely everything and everyone else rather than on himself. By the time you get to his firing (around page 600) you practically drip with disdain.

One of the great problems with Douglas MacArthur, something that had bedeviled those who had dealt with him for years, was that he did not always tell the truth...The truth posed a great dilemma for a man who always had to be right (p. 613).

I have read very little on the Korean War, but I suspect this argument is not terribly original. After all, MacArthur was fired and he is on record as saying such things as the Chinese would never enter the war, generally based on racism. But Halberstam does a great job introducing you to many, many people, some famous, some just privates following the orders coming from Tokyo (as MacArthur disliked going to Korea). The book is chronological and organized as very well-written vignettes. That includes Harry Truman, who had an aide go to the Library of Congress and get him information on how Abraham Lincoln had fired George McClellan.

It is a book squarely on the side of the soldiers, not focusing on the details of battles (though it does do that to a degree) but rather what they were experiencing, how they felt, how cold they were, how confused. I kept thinking of The Best and the Brightest because so many people were dying because of the decisions of political elites who thought they were much, much smarter than they really were. That, it sadly seems, just never seems to end.


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