Halberstam’s Coldest Winter

cldstwntr.jpgIn days gone by, my commute via train served as a twice-daily opportunity for me to enjoy fairly long blocks of uninterrupted reading time. It’s been over four years since I left that routine, and since then I have welcomed the reduced commuting time as I missed my reading time and the people with whom I shared the commute. That is a roundabout way of saying that the reading I do now is grabbed in smaller chunks and occurs over much longer periods of time. Case in point – David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, which I just finished tonight having started it the week after Christmas. Some people might conclude that such a slow pace reflects not enjoying the book, and I assure you that was not the case.

This book is Halberstam’s last book (a fact he presumably did not know during the ten years he worked on it), and it stands as a very eloquent monument to his skills as a storyteller and historian. Korea is famous for being the forgotten war. In an age when social studies have blotted out the foundational issues of any course of history – politics, diplomacy, and war – Korea presents too many ambiguities for many people to approach it. Did the U.S. win or lose? Who were we fighting? Were the Chinese put up to it by the Soviets? How could the victorious U.S. Army of 1945 have become the ragtag force facing its own Korean Dunkirk just five years later? How can an American military icon like Douglas MacArthur stumbled into disaster on such an epic scale when so many warnings were available to him? And on and on. America likes its wars clean and quick, and Korea was slow and dirty. No wonder it took so long for the Mall in Washington to gain a Korean Memorial.

What appeals to me most about this book is Halberstam’s careful efforts to place the war in multiple contexts – militarily of course, but also within the framework of Truman’s foreign policies and the nation’s domestic politics. The compromises that would mark the end of the war grow out of some domestic issues – notably the ‘loss’ of China – that remained a part of our politics long enough to influence our entry into Vietnam, linking this tale to Halberstam’s notable volume The Best and the Brightest. A good storyteller can take historical events and cover them across one dimension, such as economics, or art, or science. However, the mark of a careful hsitorian is the careful integration of multiple contexts to firmly fix his topic within its time and place. This triangulation across disciplines may not seem that hard, but it is so rarely done well that I think of it as a real mark of accomplishment. (Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb and McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom are two elegant examples of historians writing fluidly across multiple disciplines).

By examining the war through a series of perspectives, including insight into the decisions and leaders behind China’s entry, the reader gains a fuller sense of the frustrations of the soldiers in the field and their immediate officers about the way in which our forces were committed, equipped, deployed, led, and often times squandered. The images of MacArthur and his staff court in Japan are shocking to contemplate. More devastating, we are shown how MacArthur’s faults are not aberrations of age, but rather lifelong habits. In particular, the 1942 acceptance by MacArthur and his senior staff of substantial cash ‘gifts’ from Philippine leader Manuel Quezon is something about which I have not read elsewhere, and is simply appalling. (It should come as no surprise that Eisenhower, when offered the same bribe, declined it and noted the incident in a memo to his Army personnel file.)

Halberstam’s penchant for interviewing sources gives the actual battle accounts of this book a vivid clarity. The sounds of Chinese bugles and trumpets will rng in your ears as the Chinese trap is sprung on the unprepared American troops as they marched towards the Yalu. The same attention to detail is devoted to the descriptions of men summoned to duty with no equipment or training suitable for the task ahead. Watching these men improvise in the face of deeply disheartening battlefield losses is one of the great success stories of American martial history, and it is told here in ways that are both noble and humane. There is no false glorification of the job these men undertook.

This book seeks to be a one-volume history, and so it condenses all sorts of details that can be found in other accounts. The author is upfront in his goals for the book, and I do not think that is a bad thing. If anything, this book will serve as a stepping stone into the literature of the Korean War. Books like Simmons’s Dog Company Six and Russ’s Breakout are obvious follow on volumes. Whether you are a reader who plans to stop at one volume or intends to embark on the whole Korea canon, I think you will find Halberstam’s book an insightful, rewarding work.

Burns recommends “With The Old Breed”

From the transcript of an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post, featuring Ken Burns, following the premiere of the first episode of his documentary The War.

Boston, Mass.: If you had to pick one war-related book and movie (fiction or non-fiction) for a commander-in-chief to read and watch before making a decision to go to war what would they be? My book would be, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and my movie would be, “Saving Private Ryan” (although there are several others of note).

Ken Burns: That’s easy, my book would be “With the Hold [sic] Breed” by Eugene Sledge and the film would be our film. As Gen. Schwarzkopf told us after our Civil War series was aired, he was grateful for our approach that the arrows on our maps were real human beings.

The typist botched the title – it is With The Old Breed – but that is one of the books I read this August. I strongly encourage you to add it to your reading list; it is a truly eye opening account of war in the Pacific.

Edwin Howard Simmons, Dog Company Six

008966.jpgSome time past, I indicated I would be posting reviews of books I have been reading. I have been reading, slowly, but I have not really done a good job with the reviews. My old perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good problem.

This past May, I read an obituary in the Washington Post of a Marine named Edwin Simmons. I will not repeat any of it here, apart from this one line which caught my eye:

He also wrote a novel, “Dog Company Six” (2001), which Leatherneck magazine called “the best autobiographical novel to come out of the Korean War.”

With a reference like that, how could I not hop over to Amazon and buy a copy? Exactly.

I finally read it this week, and it was an interesting book. For no good reason, I had been expecting a book about Marines in combat, and while that does take place in the course of the book, the actual combat is not the focus at all. The narrator, Bayard, is a reserve captain, recalled to duty at the start of the Korean War, where he is assigned to the unit for which the book is titled. Much of the tension throughout this book builds on Bayard’s reserve status, and how that sits with the career Marines with whom he serves.

Rather than give away anything, I will say that the book is a very human, detailed look at command, at leadership, and at American culture in the decades leading up towards Korea. More than anything, what struck me about the book was how subtle and unexpected it was, and how that flies in the face of the larger-than-life, anything-but-subtle image that so many people hold of the Marines (and that at least some Marines hold of themselves, I suppose). Simmons’s work casts light on a side of the Marines that is too often overlooked, and I suspect that is why Leatherneck magazine spoke so well of it.

If what the reader wants is a shoot ’em up about Inchon and Chosin, this is not that book. If, on the other hand, the reader wants to see a vivid slice of life of a Marine rifle company, of the dynamics among the officers, the NCOs, and the men, and of the effect of leadership on the leader, then you will find this a rewarding, nuanced book worth your time.

SimCity Meets French Enron

The American nuclear power industry is so quiet, so below the radar, that I cannot fathom turning on my TV and seeing a cheerful depiction of nuclear enrichment and power generation. In some ways, that’s too bad and in others, it’s just as well.  This ad looks to me more like an SNL parody than an actual commercial people in France look at on a regular basis.

If you are at all interested in the issues of nuclear power and nuclear proliferation, and the difficulty of predicting the future, I strongly encourage you to read McPhee‘s The Curve of Binding Energy (or here). Three Mile Island derailed the future that so terrified Ted Taylor, but while America has ducked some of his concerns, many of them still lurk ahead of us. It’s a very absorbing read.

Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other

VDH Cover

Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, Random House, 2005.

A gift from my parents, this book covers events that I should know better than I do, given my background as a history major. Alas, I ducked the classics, and stuck with modern American history, especially when taught properly, as it was by Jack “Politics, Diplomacy, and War” Chatfield. [He’s sure to be the basis of his own post at some point, so I’ll stop there (other Chatfield groupies will surely recognize how hard that is for me.)] This book does focus in large part on Thucydides, and his ground breaking efforts to chronicle what was the world war of his time. I learned a variety of things in this book – the amazing scale of the war, the surprising length and ferocity of the conflict, the durability of an olive tree, the seasonal limitations of fielding an army in an era of such modest logistics, and the changing nature of warfare as the participants goals and capabilities changed over time. Modest, seasonal armed demonstrations gave way to prolonged sieges, and strict societal divisions fell aside, shifting the actual risk of death from an elite few to the population at large. Hanson is a very forceful, compelling author, and he brings dignity and humanity to events that happened in a world so far removed as to be unimaginable. Highly recommended.


A million years ago, when I commuted to Philadelphia and had no kids, I read.  I read a lot. It was the major benefit of the commute, especially because in that dark age, before iPods and podcasts, I was not tempted to listen to anything. Alas, now I read so little that I am self-conscious about it. Self-conscious about how rapidly even good books put me to sleep, for example. Having admitted this about myself, I should explain that I do still read, just slowly, in the same manner that glaciers used to move before the earth started getting so toasty. What do I read? History, mostly, although more biography in the last few years, I suppose. Public policy, too, and my old flame – developmental histories of aircraft or other high-technology projects. At some point, I will assemble a list of some of my favorite books, but for now, I’m planning to stick with what I’ve been reading over the last year.

Rather than attempt one mega post which will take me forever to write, I figure I’ll cover each book in its own post.   We’ll see how far I get with this.