Audiobook Review: The Coldest Winter

My copy of the book.

Often when I delve into nonfiction books, I’m reading them because I want to learn more about something I don’t know much about; sometimes, things I know virtually nothing about. Audiobooks are particularly well-suited to this endeavor, too, I think. So, my most recent audiobook listen was of the esteemed journalist, David Halberstam’s, 2007 book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. Because of my ignorance, if my review misrepresents anything from the Korean War, that is my error and not Halberstam’s.

Thing is, I’m in good company: Most Americans, and even prior to writing the book, Halberstam himself, don’t know much about the Korean War, which is why it has the unfortunate distinction of being referred to as, “The Forgotten War.” The Korean War, which lasted just three years from 1950 to 1953, led to the deaths of 40,000 American soldiers (and another 100,000 wounded), scores more North and South Koreans, Chinese, and United Nations forces killed and wounded, and estimates of 1.2 million civilians on both sides killed. In three years. That is a lot of carnage in three short years, and a lot of carnage to be “forgotten about,” particularly when you add in the reverberations the Korean War had going forward for American domestic and geopolitical politics, as well as the fate of the North and South Koreans.

Broadly speaking, though, I think it is forgotten about because it is sandwiched between the “good” war with a strong sense of purpose, objective, and a united, invested public in WWII, and a war that had a lot of public investment from the opposite direction in Vietnam. The 1950s in general are seen as an idyllic time, a time in which both political parties still, in 2022, pine for in one way or another as something worth returning to again, so, I don’t think that image is compatible with a bloody, brutal, wrongheaded war beginning that decade. It gets compartmentalized in that way, perhaps.

And I can’t quite wrap my head around how wrongheaded the Korean War was from all sides.

From the American vantage point, what if we told a bunch of young men who just fought a brutal war in the Pacific during WWII (and Europe) to turnaround a mere five years later to fight an unclear war in Korea, and we’re not going to ensure they have the best equipment or leadership? Because that is precisely what we did. As Halberstam outlined, the mighty American Army of WWII was not the same force that went into Korea, even though it was only five years later. The Americans just weren’t ready for what was to come. Specifically, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur viewed a potential war with Korea not only through a racist lens whereby he undervalued and underrated the skillset of the “enemy,” and thought the war would be over in three weeks, but that once it got going, it would be worthwhile to continue further North into a broader war with China in mainland Asia. That is beyond ridiculous, and would eventually lead to his sacking by President Harry Truman over “irreconcilable differences” on policy.

From the Korean perspective, Kim Il-sung thought his forces, if they reunited South Korea, would be greeted as liberators by the South Korean peasantry, and most wrongheaded, that the Americans wouldn’t come into Asia to defend South Korea. To be fair, Halberstam points to then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s comments six months before the Korean War started as something of a “green light” to the Korean dictator. Acheson in his speech said the American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific as a line running through Japan, the Ryukyus (a chain of Japanese islands that stretch to Taiwan), and the Philippines, neglecting to guarantee military protection of the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Kim Il-sung’s counterpart in the South, Syngman Rhee, had the same goal and hope in mind: Being the powerful leader of a unified Korea, so I’m sure he was agitating to have the United States involved to ensure that end goal, but was likely frustrated that Americans weren’t committing nearly the same level of weaponry and heavy weaponry to the cause as the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin were to the North Koreans.

To the Russians, Stalin initially withheld his own “green light” and backing of Kim’s desire to invade the South, primarily because unlike the North Koreans, they worried about American involvement escalating into a conflict with the Soviet Union. Once America was bogged down in that quagmire (a word Halberstam brought back into popular use, but with respect to the Vietnam War), Stalin viewed it as an opportune moment to distract America from the happenings in Eastern Europe.

Finally, to Mao Zedong, the dictator of China, the Chinese would be willing to lend support to the North Koreans in the war, even if it mean clashing with the Americans, partly because life is a bit more expendable in China. Or as it was put by the West: Life in Asia was thought of as cheaper. Mao himself had statements that indicated as much. Mao was also overconfident about his military success. My understanding as well was that there was a sense of communist solidarity going on here between Mao, Kim and Stalin, although they all were paranoid and distrustful of each other. In that way, the communist world wasn’t as monolithic as the West thought, Halberstam said.

Broadly speaking again, it is deeply tragic how much brutal war is dictated by overconfident men with wrongheaded assumptions, and how often that pattern seems to repeat itself. It is staggering to consider how many humans were killed by their governments through wars, famines, and genocides in the 20th century. Other tropes that were used was declaring “mission accomplished” early on (Kim, I believe), and arguing (as Mao did, I believe), that we need to “fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here.” America would go on to repeat similar mistakes and tropes based on arrogance and a belief in being greeted like liberators in Vietnam and Iraq. Heck, we’re still seeing a similar thought pattern play out with the Russian invasion of Ukraine: overconfidence, underestimation, and a belief that the war would be over quickly.

Going back to MacArthur, he does not come across well in this period by Halberstam. Aside from his aforementioned racism toward the Koreans and Chinese — or as Halberstam calls Western leaders, both political and military, at the time, “men of the white world racism,” he’s also depicted as narcissistic, boastful, someone who takes the credit undue to him, exceedingly petulant, and someone who isn’t afraid to bypass the usual “rules” if it means getting his way against the President of the United States. And it’s not just a political thing or a personal character Halberstam is examining here: He’s giving this context to show how MacArthur’s character and political maneuvering influenced his poor decision-making on the battlefield directly leading to unnecessary American death and carnage. It was a bad position to be in where people thought to question MacArthur, would be tantamount to questioning a command from God. MacArthur had his own “cult of personality” in that way.

Prior to the going deeper into the minute-by-minute battles in the Korean War, I appreciated Halberstam setting up all of what I’ve outlined here from the pivotal characters to the political and geopolitical climate at the time post-WWII, and as a window into the beginnings of the Cold War. I thought it was particularly intriguing that prior to the North Koreans invading South Korea, the United States government’s concern was about … Iran, and that the entire Middle East would fall to the Soviet Union. The domestic political situation is also interesting because as the Korean War is developing, Joseph McCarthy emerges on the political stage back home to start calling everyone a communist. I look forward to eventually reading another one of Halberstam’s books, The Fifties to learn more about that “idyllic” decade.

As we get into those minute-by-minute recounts of the bloody battles, I was both sad and moved. Sad because of how dumb war is; there is no elegant way to put it. And how vain this particular war felt, although more on that in a moment. But moved because of the individual heroic bravery of the men who were there fighting it, nonetheless. Sure, American military might was renowned and feared because of the amount of weaponry and ammunition we had, but in various battles, the Army men were outnumbered by the Chinese in such ways that the men would refer to them as “hordes.” Once they had a handle on fighting the Chinese, they referred to it as “killing two hordes today.” Aside from being outnumbered, these men were also fighting in a terrain they were unfamiliar with, mountainous and vast, and in weather that reached many degrees below zero at times (hence the title!). Men I recall from the book who Halberstam singled out for bravery included Graham Hutchinson of Charlie Company (that company would go on to infamy in the Vietnam War), or the McGee brothers, who fought so valiantly that one of the battles was known as the Battle of McGee Hill, where Paul McGee was one of the last men out. Halberstam mentioned in his Author’s Note at the end the many people he interviewed to get the facts of the Korean War, but perhaps even more importantly, the “feel” of the Korean War, and Paul McGee was one of those men.

Another one of the men who astounded me was Gene Takahashi, a platoon leader. First, he was put in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, but that experience only seemed to bolster his sense of wanting to prove his Americanness. Once in the military, his racist company commander gave him “every miserable assignment the Company had.” That still didn’t deter him. Once the Korean War started, he was the leader of Love Company, a segregated African American unit. His unit was overrun by the Chinese, where most of his unit was killed, and him and his master sergeant were captured. He was in a Chinese prisoner of war camp. He managed to escape! He spent two days behind enemy lines before finding the Americans again. What a man and life.

Halberstam’s writing is achingly beautiful and sad, and achieves his aim of capturing the “feel” of the Korean War. As the Americans are surprised and ambushed by the ferocity and skill of the North Koreans, and then the Chinese, there are battles where the Americans are retreating. Well, when you’re retreating, you take your wounded with you. That makes the retreat slower, but it is the honorable thing to do. Halberstam recounts a moment where one officer “undressed” himself by suggesting they leave a wounded man for a helicopter to come pick him up tomorrow, knowing full-well there would be no helicopter rescue. His other men knew it, too, including Ritter, a radio man. Ritter defied that thinking, and him and the others helped the wounded man out. Ritter would survive.

I found scenes like that moving because Halberstam, leaning on his interviews, talked about how the battlefield tests a man: Will he meet the challenge of something as uniquely awful as war, or will he crumble? And as it happens, sometimes the loudest ones proclaiming their toughness are the first to crumble, while those who may seem the weakest by physical stature are the most courageous. When you’re talking about meeting the challenge, you must talk about the Marines. The Marines showed this courage in what is considered one of the most important battles of the Korean War, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where the Marines were surrounded by the Chinese, a force of about 30,000 compared to the Chinese’s 120,000. Something I found neat was how the Air Force dropped bridges into that space, and the engineers on the ground were able to reconfigure it. How cool is that? Anyhow, in that one battle alone, 17 Medals of Honor and 78 Service Cross Medals were awarded.

Meanwhile, somehow, there is someone Halberstam depicts on the American side I despised more than MacArthur’s arrogance and racism, and that was Lieutenant Edward Almond, who was the leader during the aforementioned battle (he underestimated the Chinese force and urged his men on). He was awful. He was galivanting around with his heated toilet, steaks flown in from Tokyo, and the finest wines. That is awful for the optics and message it sends to those soldiers on the frontlines. Almond also made a lot of bad battle decisions (he would disperse the units into smaller units rather than larger units, for example).

It was such a breath of fresh air while listening to this book when Halberstam talked about General Matthew Ridgway, who was brought in to “clean house.” He succeeded MacArthur. The most important thing about Ridgway is that he believed in intelligence-gathering, which is wild to think that was a stark contrast to others. He also believed in respecting the capabilities of the enemy. He seemed like an important figure to ensuring the Korean War didn’t get worse than it already was.

In his Author’s Note, in detailing his process and approach to the book, Halberstam gives a quasi-defense against the argument that the Korean War was a war fought in vain. That it didn’t matter since it ended without much seemingly gained. He argues instead that a.) South Korea, contra its Northern counterpart, developed into a vibrant, developed country, and b.) that the men who fought were still honorable in their fighting, and that in and of itself matters and ought to be recognized and remembered.

Some areas I’m still interested to learn more about coming out of Halberstam’s extensive, moving book is what the other parts of the American military were doing. There is a lot of focus on the soldiers on the ground, for good reason, but I would also be curious to know what members of the Air Force and Navy were doing during the war (aside from dropping in bridges!). I’d also be interested in knowing the motivations behind the United Nations forces, like the French, Dutch, British and others who also fought and died in Korea. The French amused me, though, because Halberstam talked about how boisterous they were in battle (so much so, that the Americans were kind of looking at them sideways), and how they were still using bayonets. Bayonets! I also didn’t realize napalm was used in Korea, not first used in Vietnam, like I previously thought. I would be curious to learn more about the evolution of warfare during this time. Researching it, I see napalm was actually first used in WWII! Go figure.

On a sad note, I learned from the Afterword after the conclusion of the audiobook, which was marvelously read by Edward Herrmann, that Halberstam died before the book was officially published. It was a seed in his brain going back to 1962 or thereabouts, and was developed for about a decade between the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was killed in a car crash while on his way to interview a National Football League Hall of Famer for his next book about football (I also didn’t Halberstam had written so many sports books!).

Overall, if you are interested in learning more about the Korean War from someone who obviously cared deeply about his subjects, ensuring they aren’t forgotten, and was exceedingly skeptical of the powers-that-be who send such men to die in war, then I think you will “enjoy” this audiobook, inasmuch as one can enjoy a book detailing the very human tragedy of war.

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