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Chalmers Johnson on America’s Forgotten War

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Posted on Oct 25, 2007
Coldest Winter cover

By Chalmers Johnson

David Halberstam died prematurely at age 73 on April 27, 2007, in a car accident in California.  He will be remembered as one of the greatest American journalists of the 20th century, in the same class as Seymour Hersh, who first rose to prominence in 1969 for exposing the My Lai massacre and its cover- up in Vietnam. Halberstam and Hersh were utterly different in Halberstam’s greater tolerance for establishmentarian thinking, but they will both figure prominently in histories of American imperialism yet to be written. Halberstam became world famous for two books detailing the folly of America’s military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s.  They are “The Making of a Quagmire” (1965) and “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), whose title refers ironically to the well-educated and well-connected professors, RAND Corp. pundits and military intellectuals who crafted American strategy in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration.

“The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” Halberstam’s posthumously published magnum opus on the Korean War, is his 21st book—15 of them best-sellers. It differs from his great Vietnam reporting in that Halberstam had no direct experience of the Korean War (he was 16 years old when it broke out in 1950). It is based on at least a decade of painstaking reading and research, including extensive interviews with people who did participate in the war.  The result is exhaustingly long, often repetitive and not entirely comprehensive (he makes no mention, for example, of the aerial combat between U.S. F-86 Sabres and Soviet MiG-15s over the Yalu River, or of the controversy over China’s alleged brainwashing of U.S. POWs). But Halberstam’s book is powerful and often courageous on the cardinal issues of the time—the Chinese revolution and the failed American response to it, America’s transition from a near isolationist nation to the much hyped superpower of the Cold War, the bungling of megalomaniacs like General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the constitutional crisis engendered by MacArthur’s insubordination to President Truman, and the damage done by the Red-baiting of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his colleagues in Congress’ China Lobby and the press (e.g., Time magazine).


book cover


The Coldest Winter


By David Halberstam


Hyperion, 736 pages


Buy the book


One aspect of Halberstam’s commitment as a historian and the consequent effect on his writing must be dealt with at the outset and then put aside. That is what he conceives of as his duty to present a populist portrayal of the ordinary soldier in day-to-day, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat and endless homilies on courage, fear, leadership, stamina, cowardice and any other emotions and qualities that might be encountered on the battlefield. I call this the Ken Burns-Tom Brokaw school of writing, hero worship, Great Generationism and military narcissism. Even in ordinary doses it is unimaginably tedious and boring. The amount of it in this 700-page book sometimes generated in me a deep regret that I had agreed to write this review. Here’s a representative sample:

“That was one of the great mysteries of combat, the process of going from green, scared soldiers to tough, grizzled, combat-ready (but still scared) veterans. Some men, a small percentage, never made it; they remained green, a burden to themselves and the men around them, in a permanent, hopeless incarnation as soldiers. They were incapable of or unwilling to break out of their civilian selves. Most men, however, whether they liked it or not, went through that transformation. They might regret it when they came home, and it might be a part of their lives they never wanted to revisit, but they did it. This had become their universe, and it was a small and brutal one, cut off from all the things they had been taught growing up. Most important of all, it was a universe without choice. No one entirely understood the odd process—perhaps the most primal on earth—that turned ordinary, peace-loving, law-abiding civilians into very good fighting men; or one of its great sub-mysteries—how quickly it could take place.  One day troops were completely raw and casually disrespectful of whatever training they had received. In basic training, the machine gun bullets that whistled overhead were designed not to hit you. Then they found themselves on a battlefield in places like the Naktong [River]. ...”  Etc., etc., etc. for several more pages.

If you are into this type of writing, you will love this book. If you relish extremely detailed accounts of platoon and company-level combat and have the patience to try to disentangle the various levels of military command, you will find Halberstam’s long chapters on the disasters of the 10th Corps at the Chosin Reservoir and Gen. Matthew Ridgway’s stopping the Chinese advance in January 1951 at Chipyong-ni fully satisfying.

In my opinion, however, Halberstam’s enduring contributions are to the big geopolitical upheavals that the Korean War accentuated and punctuated. As he writes, “[T]he Korean War was never seen in isolation as just a small war in a small country; it was never just about Korea. It was always joined to something infinitely larger—China, a country inspiring the most bitter kind of domestic political debate.” Let me therefore consider three of the larger issues that Halberstam takes up in detail—MacArthur as general, the Chinese revolution, and Truman’s Lincolnesque firing of MacArthur.

On July 10, 1950, only a few weeks after June 25, when a 135,000-strong North Korean army had unexpectedly crossed the 38th parallel and routed the forces of America’s puppet, South Korea, Henry Luce’s Time put MacArthur on its cover. It was probably the worst month endured by the U.S. Army since the Civil War, but, as Halberstam notes, the Time piece “set a new standard for journalistic hagiography.”  Time wrote, “Inside the Dai Ichi building [in Tokyo, headquarters of MacArthur’s Far East Command], ... bleary-eyed staff officers looked up from stacks of paper [and] whispered proudly, ‘God, the man is great.’ General [Edward (Ned)] Almond, his chief of staff, said straight out, ‘He’s the greatest man alive.’ And reverent Air Force General George Stratemeyer put it as strongly as it could be put . ... ‘He’s the greatest man in history.’ ” To find similar writing about a living person, one would have had to travel to Stalin’s Moscow, Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang or Mao Zedong’s Beijing.

By the time of the Korean War, MacArthur had become a political force within the right wing of the Republican Party, and his cult of personality had made him virtually untouchable in Washington. He surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men, particularly in the realm of intelligence, where his G-2, Gen. Charles Willoughby, totally failed to assess accurately the threat that the Chinese might enter the war. Halberstam analyzes all of these issues in great detail. Perhaps the most interesting is MacArthur’s alleged masterstroke, the amphibious landing at Inchon harbor on the west coast of Korea.

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By Johnson fan, November 24, 2007 at 3:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is in regard to the writer, Chalmers Johnson, rather than the book he reviews. I caught an extended talk Johnson conducted with another academic/author (UC?) aired on CSPAN Thanksgiving evening. This man is a treasure of precision and accurate assessment.

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By Terry, November 8, 2007 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just received the book yesterday and have read much of it now. It is a great book and I am very happy that it was published depsite the author’s tragic accident. The battle details are actually an important part of the story, especially how the US was transitioning from a segregated Army to an integrated one. Ned Almond’s stories of rascist leadership as well as the incompetence are an important part of this story.

As ever, incompetence and rascist ideologues, do not make a successful campaign.

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 5, 2007 at 12:25 am Link to this comment

#111669 by Gareth Hutchings on 11/04 at 7:05 pm: “...this was a United Nations effort….. a visit to the War Graves Site in Pusan will show that even some Ethiopians paid the price. Is this just another American book, with an American agenda, for the American public?  So disappointing.

#111253 by Jane Corcoran on 11/02 at 1:06 pm: “...Nowhere is it mentioned that the Korean War was a United Nations project….”

Indeed, many nations were sucked into this self-serving maelstrom under the banner of a “police action” which was merely the UN being callously manipulated by the USA. Who mourns the Chinese defenders or the Koreans who had their country taken from them yet again after the Japanese invasion and broken permanently in half as an excuse for a US military occupation?

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By Gareth Hutchings, November 4, 2007 at 8:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As for Jane Corcoran, this was a United Nations effort, a visit to the War Graves Site in Pusan will show that even some Ethiopians paid the price. Is this just another American book, with an American agenda, for the American public?  So disappointing.

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By Jane Corcoran, November 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nowhere is it mentioned that the Korean War was a United Nations project.  Nowhere in the comments either.  That surprised me.

I’m a Canadian and was in elementary school when that war went on.  Our country’s Armed Forces were involved as Canada was a United Nations partner.  It was an awful war.  In the 60s in Montreal, I met American military who described the work they had done in the Far East as US intelligence.  They were looking for new geographic locations to justify their existence. 

I don’t think American military or American corporate officials understand the morals of the Far East, or the population’s priorities.  Blinded just as the this article and comments.  It’s all about the US.

And you are right.  It was American leaders (political as well as military) who just figured out a way to manipulate the United Nations in support of the fight against the bogeyman. Got to have one so your actions are washed clean. Got to have a war or there is no justification for the military.

One good thing that came from this war was the transformation of soldiers into Peacekeepers with a military whose purpose is to avoid war operating under the United Nations.  Granted we’ve had a few setbacks, and, those setbacks has reinforced the general belief that war is bad.  Overall, the bulk of the world’s population has figured out that war is never right - for the planet, for the people. 

That’s the real fight.  Between people who feel threatened by those who don’t support them and people who reject violence.

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By SteveL, October 31, 2007 at 8:39 pm Link to this comment

This war occurred at a time when most knew the constitution gave congress the exclusive job of declaring war.  Hence it was referred to as a police action, conflict, or anything but a war.  Since then the sheeple went to sleep and let president declare war whenever he wasn’t getting a handle on sitting and chewing pretzels.

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By Pierce R. Butler, October 31, 2007 at 1:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Douglas - I think we agree politically, but I feel a need to pick another nit in the name of historical accuracy:

The division of Korea into North and South was first instituted as a result of WWII, not the Korean War per se. MacArthur’s main focus during that period was Japan; I don’t know how much say he had about the improvised line which Kim’s forces crossed a few years after Japan surrendered, but I doubt he could be considered the decisive player in that game.

As for China, by the same facts you note, we could say that they are long accustomed to facing unfriendly immediate neighbors. It’s their history of devastating invasions (including the British Opium Wars, the US-supported “Open Door Policy” multi-national force opposing the Boxer Rebellion, and the Japanese incursions which really started WWII long before Panzers rolled into Poland) which made them so touchy about belligerents on their borders.

If the US had a similar history, we’d be so xenophobic by now that snarling bigots like Lou Dobbs would represent the liberal position in domestic politics.

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By jkoch, October 31, 2007 at 8:24 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

736 pages exceed my available reading time and the hardcover price is a bit steep.  Perhaps in a few weeks it will be on the public library shelf.

Halberstam always wrote long, rambling, discursive tomes whose fame rested as much on a clever title and one or two anecdotes.  People who ever swear they read his books cover to cover certainly had to skim over vast sections rather lightly.

C. Johnson’s own books tend to be much more cogent because they are shorter and tighter.  However, he has yet to write “After Blowback,” a much needed sequel to an earlier work.  Just exactly how is a country to exit from an Iraq quagmire without inviting future ones?

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By Douglas Chalmers, October 31, 2007 at 6:54 am Link to this comment

#110572 by Pierce R. Butler on 10/30 at 6:25 pm: “...the 1942-43 occupation of the Aleutian islands of Kiska & Attu….”

Thanks for the reminder,  Pierce, but lets forget about “that little skirmish in 1812-14” or “Pancho Villa’s cross-border raids” into what once was Mexican territory. They are not significant in the way the Yalu River is as it forms the main border between Korea (there was no such thing as “North Korea” before Macarthur) and China.

I try to point out to people that China has 14 countries as neighbours including Russia and India as well as Japan and Taiwan off the coast. Imagine how that feels…... Try remembering Cuba and the 1960’s missile crisis for starters - and that still only equals Taiwan to them, uhh.

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By Pierce R. Butler, October 30, 2007 at 7:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Douglas Chalmers: The USA has never been invaded, right!

There was that little skirmish in 1812-14, in which cities from Washington to New Orleans were seized by the redcoats and the slaves they liberated.

The truly picky might also cite Pancho Villa’s cross-border raids, and the 1942-43 occupation of the Aleutian islands of Kiska & Attu (which latter ended only after one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific).

None of which, of course, excuses modern US imperialism.

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By Alexander, October 30, 2007 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment

Magnificent review of apparently a very good book by a great journalist.  The review brings to mind my father.  He was sublimely proud of his service in World War II in the Marines, a mainstream Republican, and firmly rejected Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination and magalomania.  My dad’s been gone 18 years now, so I don’t know if he would reject America’s imperial habits, as I did starting with the Vietnam War.  However, so long as we have Chalmers Johnson and people like him around, I still have hope that U.S. politicians will remember that, while this nation is (for the moment) the sole superpower, it is not and never will be omnipotent.  And let’s hope no nation ever does become omnipotent.

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By Douglas Chalmers, October 30, 2007 at 1:56 am Link to this comment

#110105 by Ken Mitchell on 10/28 at 10:55 am: “...I supported our actions in Korea because we fought an invasion….”

You are meant to “support the troops” if you are being invaded, Ken. Why do you think China got involved at the Yalu River, uhh???

The USA has never been invaded, right! It has NEVER had any justification for Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, etc etc.

China has been invaded as well as its neighbours….. dumb imperialist agggressor!!!

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By Terry, October 29, 2007 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am asking another rhetorical question here. I just try so hard to understand the rightwing mind. Why do they always lose their wars and then make up essentially the same excuse. We lost China because we did not support our allies with enough ammo. We did not win in Korea according to Van Fleet because we did not have enough artillery shells. We could have won, but just did not support the troops enough. Vietnam, same story, we could have won, but we stopped bombing too early. Once again did not support the troops. And of course today also, we do not support the troops.

And they never have any idea of what “winning” is.

I guess blaming the other side is the way it has always been. The amazing thing is that these myths have enough force of circulation within “conservative” circles that they become true for many people.

What was it Marx said about repeating history? I believe we have long since passed the farcical stage.

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By Terry, October 29, 2007 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why do the right wing military heros always lose their war? It is because they are blinded by ideology. Therefore they do not evaluate and prepare for their enemy. They are too busy building their propaganda machines to blind American citizens.

I suggest that we should all be careful of any leaders from Texas. Macarthur, who spent many years in Texas, LBJ, and now George W. Texans are still infatuated with the Alamo. Another losing battle. They still love the lost cause of the Confederacy. And then it is still the same romantic thinking that led them to fail in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq. It is not a matter of political party. It is just some leaders are reality based and some faith based.

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By cann4ing, October 28, 2007 at 3:18 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Mitchell:  The Korean war stopped being a matter of defending South Korea against a North Korean invasion the moment McArthur decided to carry the fight north of the 38th parallel.  But for his removal, the next step would have been a form of genocide as nuclear bombs rained down on the Chinese mainland, leading no doubt to a direct response by Stalin’s Russia and WW III.

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By Ken Mitchell, October 28, 2007 at 11:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I supported our actions in Korea because we fought an invasion. However, our troops got shafted as they did in Vietnam, Desert Storm and now Iraq.

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By cann4ing, October 28, 2007 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

Mr. Zimmerman’s reminiscence about the “moving experience” of having climbed a tree as 500,000 McArthur worshipers gathered in San Francisco attests to the manner in which the same hard-right sector of the Republican party, which sought to terrify all who would seek to support the common man via the McCarthy and HUAC witch hunt, worked tirelessly to erect a cult of personality around General McArthur.  The aim of the hard-right then, as it is now, was for America to slide into a fascist, totalitarian state.  It was the same goal that our current president’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, had when he joined a fascist plot to overthrow Roosevelt in the early thirties and when he and Brown Brothers Harriman helped finance the Nazi war machine.

Truman’s exposure of McArthur’s dissembling about his assurances that the Chinese would not enter the Korean war along with the shaming of McCarthy forestalled but has not prevented an American slide into a fascist dictatorship.  In late 2001 we saw the same hard-right effort to erect a cult of personality around George Bush as he posed, bull horn in one hand as his other arm was wrapped around a firefighter, telling us, “The people who knocked down these buildings will be hearing from us real soon.”  It took a number of years and the exposure of numerous lies before all but 27% of the American public came to realize that the emperor had no clothes.

The major difference today is that whereas McArthur, once exposed, had no access to the levers of power; no ability to carry out the insanity of WW III, the present-day phoney hero is but the push of a button away from ending all life on the planet.

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By Douglas Chalmers, October 27, 2007 at 6:09 pm Link to this comment

#Quote: “That was one of the great mysteries of combat, the process of going from green, scared soldiers to tough, grizzled, combat-ready (but still scared) veterans…”

CJ doesn’t tell us what happened to them after the next process - the broken wrecks of men shuffling through the rest of their hopeless lives in a permanent cloud of depression and despairing drunkenness, uhh.

I remember one Korea “veteran” I met only in 1997, a mere decade ago. He was a forgotten man still unable to come to terms with the fact that his best friend had his face shot off right next to him on the battlefield. It haunted him mercilessly until someone could finally ‘reach’ him 45 years later.

Tough only means tough or ‘kick-ass’ when you are doing it to someone else. When it happens to you, only then do soldiers find out the truth about life - but it still takes them much longer to learn the truth about themselves.

Why should anyone ever ” break out of their civilian selves” merely to become some inhuman automaton blindly following the commands of a remote general and an uncaring cabal of politicians? That is not bravery but a degradation of their own souls which have been made to become subservient to the lowest of all human motivations - that of cold-blooded murder!

#Quote: “This had become their universe, and it was a small and brutal one, cut off from all the things they had been taught growing up. Most important of all, it was a universe without choice….”

Actually, this “odd process” is quite easily understood. The fact that you go out to confront other men with guns in your hands leads to the inevitable consequences. This is, in reality, madness. No thing person would ever do that - but the military is an institution which is designed to do exactly that, pitting man against man, and it does so by withdrawing all alternative options and even the ability to choose from mens’ minds.

Thus the Machiavellian politicians who, in turn, have built up a war machine with narrow-minded commanders and effectively brain-washed troops can propel this evil monster across the globe to anywhere they choose. The once-free citizen becomes enslaved the moment he salutes his country’s flag. Think about the real reasons why they adorn every school classrooom and every government building in the nation…...

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By Mike Strong, October 27, 2007 at 3:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

QUOTED: “But he also saved thousands of American troops with his innovative island hopping strategies and flanking operations which keep military casualties down.”

Nonsense - this was actually Nimitz’ strategie which MacArthur was given credit for but the vain general didn’t want to do it this way. Nimitz forced the island hopping strategy and wasn’t interested in claiming credit. Meetings between Nimitz and MacArthur are also detailed in “And I Was There : Breaking the Secrets - Pearl Harbor and Midway” (Hardcover)
by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton

And don’t forget the nine-hours warning after Pearl before the Japanese attacked the Phillipines but in-explicably MacArthur was no where reachable. Some years after the Layton book came out it was claimed that MacArthur was paid not to go to war by the Phillipino president who wanted to remain neutral. Whatever the reason, Mac lost a hugely important base of operations to the Japanese.

Check the Layton Book at:

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, October 27, 2007 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

It is indeed unfortunate that Douglas MacArthur’s absurdly exaggerated reputation as a general continues to mislead many in the United States, with dire consequences for that country’s politics. Neither as a strategist nor a tactician was he particular successful ; however, as Richard Locicero points out above, he was able to clear that dangerous Bonus Army encampment on the Anacosta Flats in Washington DC in July 1932. Of course, to his help he had the services of another publicity hound in military dress, George Smith Patton….


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By Bob Zimmerman, October 26, 2007 at 11:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was ten years old at the time McArthur was sacked by Truman, and living in San Francisco. My parents let me go see McArthur’s parade at the SF Civic Center and the crowd estimate was over 500,000. I climbed a tree in order to see the general, and it was a very moving experience at the time. McArthur was probably the most popular man in America and Truman the least popular. The SF Chronicle had full page pictures of McArthur and the paper was filled with criticism’s of Truman. I was a lifelong fan of McArthur but realized later that Truman was right and McArthur wrong. Although McArthur was a brilliant general, he had more than just the Yalu River disaster on his record. He was also slow in protecting the B-17 bombers in the Phillipines which resulted in most of them being destroyed on the ground. But he also saved thousands of American troops with his innovative island hopping strategies and flanking operations which keep military casualties down. He had the lowest casualty rate of any general in WWII.

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By richard locicero, October 26, 2007 at 10:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Douglas MacArthur was the most overrated general in American History and should have been Court-Martialied and cashied at least three different times:
1. for lying to Hoover over the destruction of the camp of the so-called “Bonus Army” marchers in 1932
2. For his shocking unpreparedness on Dec. 8 1941 when he allowed Japanese forces to surprise him at Clark Field and Cavite hours after Pearl Harbor. Kimmel and Short took the blame but he skated. And ask the Aussies about his campaign in New Guinea.
3. the Korea debacle.
Lord help us from such military leaders!

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By Henning Lange, October 26, 2007 at 8:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

He was one of the greatest writers about the war. I think, if he would still be alive we would appreciate his book about the current war in the iraque. It’s a shame that there is no one coming after him.
I am sure that i will buy this book. This man deserves pride, even in death.

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By Stephen Smoliar, October 26, 2007 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

Dr. Johnson, I know I can always rely upon you as a source of insight, whether in your books or in your appearances on radio (DEMOCRACY NOW) or television (BOOK TV).  Therefore, I feel obliged to thank you for homing in with such precision on why I have always found Ken Burns annoying!  Apparently, I am not the only one who feels that he warps (if not contaminates) just about any topic (not just war) that he chooses to address.  I shall remain your loyal (but critical) reader!

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By Hammo, October 26, 2007 at 7:21 am Link to this comment

It is too bad we won’t have Halberstam around to write a book or books about the Iraq mess and the people and the dynamics in play during the Bush-Cheney administration.

His books on Vietnam provided a lot of insight for many people. The many similarities and differences between Iraq and Vietnam are important.

Now, people might be able to get some insight about comparisons to the Korean War, thanks to Halberstam’s book.

By looking at the bigger picture of these fiascos, the reasons for them, the mistakes made and the players involved, we might be able to resolve the current mess and someday avoid them.

Brief articles related to some of these ideas ...

“Americans felt turning points on Vietnam, Iraq wars in ‘70, ‘07”

-  -  -

“Going in circles: Vietnam, Iraq, calls for impeachment”

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