By: Charles J. Hanley, The Associated Press
In what fate made his final book, David Halberstam remembered a “forgotten” war, exploring the 1950-53 Korean conflict with 719 pages of foxhole-level heroism and command-level folly. It’s a work destined to endure as a popular history of one of America’s most unpopular wars.
But “The Coldest Winter” also represents a missed opportunity to tell the whole story. It is a book about Korea that largely ignores the Koreans, a chronicle of war that forgets war’s greatest victims.
The publisher reports that the acclaimed journalist put the finishing touches to this last of his 21 books just five days before he was killed in a California automobile accident last April 23, at age 73.
10 YEARS OF WORK
A product of 10 years’ on-off work, the book is described as a companion to his celebrated “The Best and the Brightest,” the 1972 examination of the men who led America to disaster in Vietnam, where Halberstam’s war reporting had won him a Pulitzer Prize.
Like that earlier book, “The Coldest Winter” weaves together detailed portraits of more than a dozen key players caught in the web of war, from President Harry Truman and China’s Mao Tse-tung to the field generals in Korea.
It unsparingly exposes the foolishness and arrogance of U.S. strategy and strategists – in failing to prepare a pared-down Army for the war that began when North Korea invaded South Korea, in misreading signals that China would enter the war, in sending U.S. troops into North Korea and a Chinese trap in the record-cold winter of 1950-51.
Halberstam saved his harshest words for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a mid-century icon whose luster has long since faded under historical scrutiny. The book cites the World War II hero for “carelessness,” “hubris and vanity,” and finally “madness” in ordering the calamitous northern offensive in defiance of Washington’s wishes.
At the other end of the fighting spectrum, in the trenches, “The Coldest Winter” shows Halberstam at his best.
From searching interviews with aging U.S. veterans, this seasoned storyteller produced bone-chilling episodes about the courage and sacrifice of ordinary soldiers, often the “last men out” tales of a defeated, retreating Army.
Beyond those interviews, Halberstam apparently did no primary research, instead deftly synthesizing dozens of secondary sources, such as Clay Blair’s encyclopedic history, “The Forgotten War,” and the 1993 book “Uncertain Partners,” on the Chinese-Soviet-North Korean relationship. Halberstam set the Cold War stage well, but it’s far from a comprehensive look at the Korean War.
Notable battles – Taejon, Yongdong, Heartbreak Ridge – are missing. Many U.S. units get short shrift. The desultory final two years of the three-year conflict, leading to the 1953 stalemate and armistice, are covered in a few paragraphs.
Most glaringly, the war of “The Coldest Winter” plays out on a Korean peninsula seemingly emptied of its common people, in a landscape where armed men kill only each other.
In reality, scholars estimate as many as 2 million North Korean civilians and 1 million South Korean civilians lost their lives in the conflict, many at the hands of U.S. forces.
Journalistic and academic research in the past decade has confirmed large-scale U.S. military killings of innocent refugees, and summary executions of thousands of political prisoners by a brutal South Korean regime, and more executions by the invading North Koreans. Retreating U.S. forces “scorched the earth,” laying waste to the North Korean countryside. The Air Force’s bombs leveled virtually every city and town in North Korea – “and South Korea, too,” a general boasted.
In a 2-inch-thick book on the Korean War, one that devotes six pages alone to MacArthur’s mother, there’s not a hint of these mass slaughters – except for one enigmatic line in one soldier’s letter home.
“To liberate’ South Korea we’re destroying it and its people in the course of war more than we are the North Koreans. All Koreans hate us,” a U.S. colonel is quoted as writing, leaving uninformed readers mystified.
The Halberstam byline on this volume is sure to revive interest in a neglected chapter of U.S. history, and restore a bit more pride in thousands of American veterans in their 70s and 80s who, in some cases, still feel the tingle of frostbite from that “coldest winter.”
But “The Coldest Winter” will also further crowd the shelves of military histories attesting to the truth of what Walt Whitman observed after the U.S. Civil War: “The real war will never get in the books.”