Thursday, May 22, 2008

What We're Reading: The Coldest Winter


When I was in high school, American history stopped pretty much after World War II. The historical events that were a part of the lives of my teachers were not considered part of the story. Perhaps they were simply overlooked because they were familiar to those who had written the textbooks, or maybe they were studiously avoided because they were unsettled in historical perspective, too recent and therefore too ambiguous and controversial for the classroom.We would soon get draft notices to serve in a war in Vietnam without any understanding of its historical prelude, a war we had never discussed as any part of our school curriculum.

The teaching of history has not much changed, and this is a marked failing of our educational system, for it seems that the exploration of recent history is precisely the thing that makes possible a population engaged and participatory in the major political events of the day. As historical scholarship, it is the most exciting period of the past because it is formative, the earliest attempt to establish an understanding and consensus of the events of our time. Being contiguous with those events, it is capable of producing the most empowering rewards of historical inquiry.

David Halberstam died in a tragic car accident about a year ago. This was the kind of history he wrote and for which he will be remembered. The Coldest Winter: America and Korean War was published shortly after his death and will take its place along with The Best and the Brightest, The Reckoning, The Powers that Be, and other classics of Halberstam’s remarkable body of work in contemporary history. As in other Halberstam books, there is the ever present desire to understand the dominant ideology and intellectual strains, the political calculations and misunderstandings that formed events, to identify missed opportunities and the persistence of misunderstandings, to calculate the consequences of personal hubris, and to make visible the ghosts that still walk the halls of power. Korea has become widely thought of as America’s forgotten war. Halberstam thinks the nation has forgotten it with some deliberation. It was a crisis at the beginning of the Cold War with which neither the United States nor its enemies was politically prepared to deal, where the nation stumbled into choices that ended up critically defining directions in American foreign policy and domestic politics that would continue to prove problematic for a generation to come. Halberstam finds in the events surrounding Korea the nexus of the domestic politicization of American foreign policy as the country grew into its new and unfamiliar role as a superpower. The blunders of Truman’s state department and the stubborness and miscalculations of Douglas MacArthur gave an opening to the Republican minority as it struggled to regain a footing in domestic politics after so many years of dominance by the Democrats. Events in China and Korea ushered in the bitterness of the McCarthy era. A witness to all of this, the diplomat George Kennan expressed worry about how the complex issues of foreign policy could ever be considered independent of the simplifications and cast for political advantage that are found in the highly charged political atmosphere of a democracy. It is a question that persists, it would seem, in American foreign policy and domestic politics.

But the Coldest Winter is not just about the prescience or mistakes of leaders, Halberstam intends it as well as a tribute to the soldiers who fought there. His book includes descriptions of some of the key battles that are informed by both official records and by interviews he conducted with veterans. We get a picture of the war drawn with sympathy for the soldiers who fought, soldiers who were too often poorly lead by those in command, their lives ventured for the sake of advancing military careers or partisan political advantage. Korea was a war of concentrated brutality. In three years an estimated 33,000 Americans lost their lives, 105,000 were wounded. The South Koreans lost 415,000 killed and another 429,000 wounded. The North Koreans and Chinese may have lost as many as 1.5 million killed, a result of those forces accepting greater casualties in order to even the field against the U.S. advantage in artillery and air power. McArthur was fond of saying that “there is no substitute for victory,” but Memorial Day is not about what was won or lost in any war, a matter that always seems to become more uncertain and ambiguous with historical distance, but is rather a meditation on the price that was paid. It is hard to read The Coldest Winter and not feel that any kind of peace, even the uneasy peace that ended the war in Korea, was not a blessed substitute for victory.

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