The Coldest Winter

>> Sunday, December 02, 2007

I finally finished David Haberstam's The Coldest Winter today.

It's an engaging read. Regrettably, despite having focused on Sino-American relations when I was an undergraduate, I have to confess knowing relatively little about the Korean War. That is to say, I certainly knew when it occurred and what the larger ramifications were, and how it affected foreign policy for China and the United States, but I couldn't have told you a hell of a lot about the on-the-ground conduct of the war or why it turned out the way it did. Picking up Halberstam's book at this late date was an attempt to fill that gaping hole in my knowledge.

Which puts me in the position of saying "it's a good book" without being able to vouch for the accuracy of Halberstam's reporting or the validity of some of his conclusions. I can say it's well-written and enjoyable reading. But I can't say whether Halberstam is fair to General Ned Almond, for instance, who Halberstam regards as grossly incompetent.

The biggest criticism I can level at the book is one that I can't put much heart in: I would have to say that Halberstam doesn't exactly maintain a clinical detachment and wears his biases on his sleeve. He's not necessarily objective. But his biases also appear to be my biases, by and large--if he wants to use the Korean War to take the piss out of the Bush administration, I have no problem with that.

Consider this quote:

[Gen. Douglas MacArthur's HQ] had doctored the intelligence in order to permit MacArthur's forces to go where they wanted to go militarily, to the banks of the Yalu [the river defining the border between Korea and China]. In the process they were setting the most dangerous of precedents for those who would follow them in office. In this first instance it was the military that had played with the intelligence.... The process was to be repeated twice more in the years to come, both subsequent times with the civilians manipulating the military.... In 1965, the government of Lyndon Johnson manipulated the rationale for sending combat troops to Vietnam, exaggerating the threat posed to America by Hanoi, deliberately diminishing any serious intelligence warning of what the consequences of American intervention in Vietnam would be... and thereby committing the United States to a hopeless, unwinnable post-colonial war in Vietnam. Then, in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush--improperly reading what the end of the Russian empire might mean in the Middle East; completely miscalculating the likely response of the indigenous people; and ignoring the warnings of the most able member of the George H.W. Bush national security team, Brent Snowcroft; and badly wanting for its own reasons to take down the government of Saddam Hussein--manipulated the Congress, the media, the public, and most dangerously of all, itself, with seriously flawed and doctored intelligence and sent troops into the heart of Iraqi cities with disastrous results.
-The Coldest Winter, pp. 390-391

For those who expect a little more objectivity in a historical account, or who feel that historical perspective dictates that we wait some unspecified-but-long time to evaluate the present, a paragraph like that one smells. But, you know what? I agree with every word of it. And what good is history, anyway, if it doesn't allow us to evaluate the present? And, anyway, Bush is the one who has kept invoking comparisons to Truman--a president who was unpopular but vindicated by history; perhaps, as Halberstam suggests (or presents in his indictment), the more apt comparison would be to Douglas MacArthur, a distant and vainglorious leader who lived in a bubble of unreality from which he attempted to manipulate "facts" to buttress his "reality" even as American soldiers died. Hey, don't blame me or Halberstam: Bush is the one who wanted to be like a Korean War-era leader, I doubt it would have occurred to either one of us if Bush hadn't been so persistent in bringing it up.

The only other fault I can find is to wonder if the book wouldn't have been tighter if Halberstam had the benefit of a few more months, but this is all-too-forgivable: as you may know, The Coldest Winter is Halberstam's last book, the author having died in a car accident only days after turning in what is noted (in an afterward) as the "final corrections" to the volume. There are, however, passages where the author essentially repeats himself, almost word for word, mere paragraphs after something is stated. Perhaps, if his life hadn't been ended so sadly and suddenly, he might have gone through the book one last time (or his editor might have had a chance to call him to ask about the duplications), and some passages cleaned up. As things stand, however, this is only a quibble, and the book certainly can be considered a high note for Halberstam to have ended his career upon.

The Coldest Winter is worth a read, pick it up some time if you have a chance.


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