MacArthur story reworked in this new historyDavid Halberstam, who died in a traffic accident last year, made his name as a reporter during the Vietnam War. His latest book, “The Coldest Winter,” is about the Korean War.
The name itself conjures up images of the conditions that soldiers on both sides had to endure.
But the book goes beyond a mere chronological narrative of the battles that took place.
Just as he did with “The Best and the Brightest” in 1972, a definitive account of the Vietnam conflict, Halberstam tackles the political decisions made in Washington that influenced events here at the beginning and during the Korean war.
Halberstam’s dissection of General Douglas MacArthur is meticulous.
In Korea, MacArthur is a hero. The Incheon landings that he orchestrated are widely thought to have changed the course of the conflict.
Yet MacArthur’s subsequent drive north proved disasterous, according to the author.
An entire U.S. division was brought to its knees when Chinese forces isolated U.N. forces after the allies pushed to the Chinese border.
The picture we get of MacArthur is of a man who didn’t care much about the Korean Peninsula.
He was too immersed in his role playing god in Tokyo, Halberstam argues.
This lack of interest, coupled with a complacent atmosphere in the U.S. military following victory in World War II, led to major strategic blunders.
“The headquarters sent the Twenty-fourth Division, acknowledged by consensus to be the weakest and least well prepared of the four divisions in Japan, into Korea first because it was based at Kyushu which was the closest to the peninsula,” Halberstam writes.
In the book, officers acknowledge that the “officers, men and equipment” of the 24th division had “gotten the last pick of everything because it was stationed the farthest from Tokyo.”
Halberstam also points out the underlying racism that had added to the near-destruction of U.S. forces at the beginning of the conflict.
He depicts an overconfident MacArthur who greatly underestimated the enemy.
“If Washington will not hobble me, I can handle it with one arm tied behind my back,” said the American general, a phrase that captures the mindset of many other senior U.S. officers involved.
“Again, there was, thought captain Fred Ladd, then an aide to Major General Ned Almond, a deep and pervasive racism that ran through the American Army, a belief that gooks could not stand up to Americans.”
Another section relates that “If there was a fault line in Korea in those critical hours, it fell between those in the field being punished so harshly and those in Tokyo reluctant to admit that they had blundered into a catastrophic trap.”
The book does a great job painting the cold winter warfare that took place and the Chinese tactics, a treat for anyone interested in war history.
The author depicts the carnage of trench warfare in graphic detail through the eyes of the enlisted men, while the incompetence of the officers draw shudders of horror from the readers.
One of the great strengths of this book is reporting on the political games the administration and MacArthur played.
At times it seems Halberstam is on a personal crusade against the American general.
In the end, this message becomes repetitive, one of the only drawbacks of the book.
But other than that, he does a great job of bringing a forgotten war into the forefront. Halberstam shuffles back and forth between the battlefield, where the soldiers fought over a meaningless piece of land, and Tokyo, where their actions were dictated.