From the Great Halberstam, Korea as Prequel

Of course, there was a difference: I was a 12-year-old boy who thought America was invincible.

Or was there much difference? In this telling, the president and the egomaniacal general come across as being as ignorant as I was regarding the mind and strength of the enemy. It’s the same old (or is it new?) story of a diminished military, lousy intelligence and worse arrogance. Halberstam tells this sad tale powerfully, though intermittently soars off into flights of sometimes unnecessary biography and analysis. He never uses one word when 13 will do. He writes that Americans were “surprised” at how poorly our troops fought at the beginning, then adds, “it was more than a surprise; it was nothing less than shock.”

So be it. The more important impact of the book involves the way the military works. If The Best and the Brightest was about the hubris and lying of Washington, The Coldest Winter is about the hidden hubris of generals and colonels, beginning with the mad genius and willful stupidity of MacArthur—a man feared by everyone above him, even President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

Much of the book in fact revolves around the weakness of political figures afraid to take on the self-promoting national monument that MacArthur became. Few people my age will ever forget being called into school auditoriums in 1952 after Truman finally dismissed MacArthur for obvious insubordination. We were seated there not to hear the president, but to hear MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” farewell speech to his right-wing idolaters in Congress.

There’s wonderful reporting in this book. As always Halberstam roamed the countryside, interviewing at length (and again and again) the old men who had been in Korea almost 60 years ago. He got their stories, and they tell us what it was like in that place at that time.

What will stick with me, and I hope with many Americans, is from Col. Paul Freeman, West Point ’33, commander of the 325th Regiment, Second Division, United States Army, writing home to his wife, Mary Anne, on September 12, 1950:

“It’s poured for the last three days. … Our artillery planes can’t go up and we are blind. We’re just sitting here, taking it. We’ve already repulsed thirteen attacks in force—ten of them at night. The nights are the worst. The gooks pour in all over, and we continue to slaughter them. The rest of the time we’re continually under fire. … Our losses are terrific. I have left less than 40 percent of what I had on the 31st of August when this particular battle started. Almost all of my company officers have been lost. We are bitter about the whole thing. We fight desperately for all we’re worth; not only because our course is right, but also because we’re fighting for our survival. But it all seems so useless and stupid. To ‘liberate’ South Korea, we’re destroying it and its people. All Koreans hate us. Everyone here is an enemy. We can’t trust anyone. … I feel more and more that we have made a supreme error in committing our forces to this bottomless pit.”

Richard Reeves, author of 14 books and senior lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, was a colleague of David Halberstam at The Times.