The Cepia Club Blog

The Cepia Club Blog: The Cepia Club believes individual awareness and activism can lead to a peaceful and prosperous world. This blog contains the pertinent literature, both creative and non-fiction, produced by the Cepiaclub Director and its associates.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review of: Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter,America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

A skilled writer, David Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007. As good a writer of people’s history as there has been for 40 plus-years, Halberstam’s loss to the world of free-speech and skeptical reason is great. For his last published book, Halberstam choose the Korean War as a subject, and he compels the reader in the beginning the worthwhile reason he wrote it, and why the subject should not be forgotten.
Halberstam wrote for the single most important reason of a group of men (and women, but not many) between America’s “greatest generation” and their unconditional victory in World War II, and the “wasted generation” whose innocence and moral clarity were sacrificed to no good end in Vietnam. The generation of Americans who served, fought, were wounded or who died in Korea has received most of the time “asterisk” mention in the annals of Cold War history. The mere belittling in historical memory the size of the first “hot” conflict of the war between liberalism and communism disgraces the honored dead the dutiful sacrifice of the “Middle Generation.”As history has relegated it to a limited-war for minimal objectives, it nonetheless took the lives of a million-plus soldiers and civilians in the villages and towns, the slopes and the valleys of the Korean peninsula, including almost 40,000 American dead in 3 years.
It was a war fought badly from the perspective of national policy. The first goal, to stop a communist invasion of South Korea, and to keep South Korea in the “free world,” but governed by a dictatorship, perhaps from the start disconnected the resulting reality from the first cause. Once the counter-offensive at Inchon in September 1950 lead to the retreat of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), the goal was achieved within weeks. From that point, arrogance of command, the vanity of one man more than any other–General Douglas MacArthur–lead to the disaster of over-reaching what should have been a short war. Despite warnings from the recently-established People’s Republic of China not to threaten their security by marching across North Korea to the Yalu River’s border with Manchuria, and despite the Chinese test-battle against the US First Cavalry Division (Dismounted) in mid-October of 1950, a month later President Truman got an entirely “new” war from the one in which he intervened.
MacArthur high in his office in Tokyo, Japan, refused to see what did not willfully believe. In November, once several Chinese army groups attacked front, flank and rear of the entire United Nations army command under MacArthur, the “dumb s. . .o. . . b. . .” (as Eisenhower once referred to him) lost his nerve, blamed others, and was about to the retreat to Japan. Then, in the form of a new, excellent, field commander on the ground, Lt. General Matthew Ridgeway, the loss was redeemed, the war “stabilized,” and it became a muddy, cold, miserable and senseless slugging, a murderous attrition of trench warfare and artillery like World War I.
Not to be outdone by a better, smarter and more well-esteemed subordinate, MacArthur called for the beginning of “World War III” with nuclear weapons to prove he was not wrong. In spring 1951, he ended up sabotaging (on purpose?) delicate back-channel chances for a cease-fire. Overstepping his boundary from “pure” military strategy (strategy IS logistics), he crossed into the realm of setting political policy for the civilian Administration whose president he disdained. Truman is no less at fault for the creeping policy, and for the narrow choices forced on him by MacArthur. Waiting far too long until no redeeming success politically or militarily in the Korean War remained, America’s “coldest winter,” Truman fired MacArthur in April 1951.
Having played in Marshal Stalin’s game of diplomatic twister, both China’s Mao and President Truman remained without clear ability to end the war with a creative initiative. Without clear compromise, and long-abandoning the moral principle behind the policies, the war continued. Having victory consumed by vanity and jealousy–for partisan political reasons–the communists and the liberal democracies (and “friendly” dictatorships), continued the slaughter, physical and emotional, for another 26 months of pounding slog, exploding mud and ice, and maimed and dead all around.
In the armistice of July 1953, what each side got ended pretty much at the stalemate achieved in the politics of war and peace and the front lines themselves gained by summer 1951. But heroic and tragic men (and women) served America in a “tie.” The status quo became good enough. At least Truman set one important precedent: nuclear combat has not happened as a result of his doctrine after Korea. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been good enough reminders since then. However, as Bismarck said, woe to policy makers who end in a war far removed from the moral clarity with which they began it.
In the very flow of story, narrative, biographical sketches, and readable political and military history, Halberstam creates a vivid picture of this mini-titanic struggle of a Middle Generation. Diverse reading its is, of allies and communists alike. From the level of the chief executives and chairman, to the commanders in the field, to the humble privates fighting a war they did not choose, nor one they well understood beyond a foxhole, Halberstam does a good deal of justice to the time and the place.
As a news paper reporter in South Vietnam in the early 1960s, under fire before US escalation, Halberstam’s definitive book on the policy failure of that conflict stand him in good stead for a popular history of a policy failure for the war before. Perhaps in an untimely death, he has left us a final warning for wars of the future: No matter what enemy chooses us, or which ones America chooses itself, war’s only predictable pattern is the constant that it destroys, humanity and humanity’s conscience in the end. Choose the battles carefully, America, and hold all leaders, cowards and heros alike, accountable for the overt sin of waging war if waged for greed of more or fear of losing what they have.


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