Thursday, July 10, 2008

Halberstam on the Korean War

I have been reading David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (Hyperion, 2007), a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in history. As Max Frankel wrote in his review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in September 2007, Halberstam’s book “evokes the nobility and crazy heroism of outnumbered American grunts in a dozen of the war’s critical engagements, cinematic scenes that alternate with crisp essays about the mindless way the war began, the reckless way it was managed and the fruitless way it ended.”

One cannot read Halberstam’s book without being reminded, on virtually every page, of the grave situations that face soldiers and civilians in Iraq right now (or of the great loss we suffered when Halberstam died in a tragic car accident a few days after finishing this book).

But to me, the most compelling part of The Coldest Winter is the way in which it reveals what Halberstam calls “the nobility of ordinary people” (660) in the crucible of war. The Coldest Winter’s gripping narratives of battle scenes and soldiers’ struggles are classics of military history. His re-telling of the battle at Chipyongni in February 1951 (514-86) deftly assesses both the origins (strategic necessity) and extraordinary costs (the lethal stalemate that soon set in) of a major victory for UN forces in the central corridor of Korea. Halberstam easily moves from generals (the American Matt Ridgway and his Chinese counterpart, marshal Peng Duhai; the charismatic Frenchman Ralph Monchar) to captains (Stanley Tyrrell, leader of a successful rescue that led the survivors to make a banner proclaiming, “when in peril, send for Tyrrell”, 530) to sergeants (Ed Hendricks, who recalled stacking frozen bodies into trucks like “a giant jigsaw puzzle” after the deadly winter battle, 585) as the battle plays out.

Comparable stories of the horror and heroism of the war in Iraq are already in popular circulation; consider the new HBO mini-series (premiering this Sunday, July 13) based on journalist Evan Wright's Generation Kill (Putnam, 2004).

Halberstam’s doggedness in pursuing sources is an inspiration (especially for me, since I see the inside of an archive, or sit across from an interviewee, all too rarely). The brilliant section on Chipyongni relies heavily on an interview with Paul McGee, one of many veterans Halberstam tracked down. In his author’s note, Halberstam reports that he almost called off his visit to McGee, who was an unsung Army lieutenant in the battle, because of fatigue, bad weather, and inconvenience. But he decided to keep the appointment and was rewarded with perhaps the most remarkable interview that appears in the book (“it was as if he had been waiting for me to come by for fifty-five years, and he remembered everything as if it was yesterday”, 661). Halberstam even used McGee’s thoughts on the duty of a soldier to close out his epilogue.

As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said in a Penn lecture to aspiring historians, serendipity doesn’t strike in the shower. (But note you no longer have to go to the Maine State Library, as Ulrich did, to find Martha Ballard’s diary; it’s here.)