November 18th, 2007

reading, activism, writing

Book #44: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam

"Home by Christmas" was the promise that U.S. soldiers heard as they pursued the north Korean army though it's own country. General Douglas MacArthur had said so, and if he was speaking with such confidence, who could argue? MacArthur and his staff were so certain, in the fall of 1950, of a quick and total victory they didn't order the troops to bring their winter uniforms as they tore north. In the frozen and mountainous terrain, shrouded in snow and punishingly cold, thousands of soldiers suffered from severe frostbite, many died.

Filled with fascinating detail, Halberstam's book, The Coldest Winter, chronicles the Korean War from the perspective of U.S. soldiers, the administration of U.S. President Harry Truman, MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters, Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong, north Korean General Kim Il Sung, and Russian General Secretary Joseph Stalin. The history of any war is extremely difficult to reduce to a book and the late Halberstam bit off a big chunk when he decided to proceed. He passionately describes the awful conditions for U.S. servicemen and the horrendous loss of life -- especially for the Chinese infantry.

Halberstam's method of creating a dramatic retelling of incidents from facts and interviews, including his view of the thought processes of some of the world's most important leaders, left me wondering. For any book that has an extensive bibliography as this one, how could the author fail to mention the recently exposed and well documented suffering of the Korean people?

In fall 1999, the Associated Press ran an expose of U.S. war crimes in Korea. The authors of that article won a Pulitzer prize for their research that turned up U.S. military documents showing a systematic disregard for the lives of Korean civilians. In fact, according to the documents found by Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, Martha Mendoza and AP researcher Randy Herschaft, documented in the book The Bridge at No Gun Ri, Korean citizens were deliberately targeted.

The war crimes were perpetrated by both the U.S. and south Korean military and include the execution of civilians, prisoners, non-combatants, children, and others. If one is trying to truly understand the conflict in Korea, it's important to continue looking. Just as the My Lai Massacre helped define the tenor of the Vietnam War, the incidents at No Gun Ri expose the true nature of the U.S. war and occupation in Korea.