I have been reading David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter:
One cannot read Halberstam’s book without being reminded, on virtually every page, of the grave situations that face soldiers and civilians in
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
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.)