Mar 12, 2014
Chalmers Johnson on America’s Forgotten War
Posted on Oct 25, 2007
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).
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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