‘The Coldest Winter’ grips The Bookworm in Edwards
Vail, CO, Colorado
“Every day the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees.”
That chilling sentence forms the backbone of “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” the final offering from historian/journalist David Halberstam, who was perhaps the most decorated and vital man of his kind. He was killed in a car crash in April.
Exhaustively researched and 10 years in the making, “The Coldest Winter” gives perhaps the most cohesive and researched account of America’s forgotten war of the late 1940s and early 1950s. With acute attention to detail, Halberstam gives the big picture overview of the war, its players, and the motives behind it; but also, via dozens of interviews, the details of the daily conditions faced by American troops in a climate and topography on par with the Alaskan tundra.
Halberstam examines a U.S. nation and government still coming to terms with the concept of ‘world superpower’ following World War II and the emergence, and devastation, of atomic weaponry. As the U.S. government struggled with its newfound responsibilities, and capabilities, three powerful men ” Russia’s Joseph Stalin, China’s Chairman Mao, and Korea’s Kim Sung Il ” began to mobilize their forces in the northeast corner of Asia.
Certainly Halberstam offers a critique of the war and the heads-of-state pulling the strings, even questioning the need for U.S. involvement. This may not necessarily break any new ground with history buffs, but Halberstam’s glimpses into troop life will open just about any eyes that weren’t actually in Korea as a Siberian winter swept across the land.
Many of the U.S. troops were ill equipped to deal with negative-30 degree temperatures that were the nightly norm in Korea. Nor did they seem to have any direction as they wandered from destination to destination, awaiting constantly shifting orders.
One veteran’s account of corpses frozen so stiff that loading them into a truck became akin to playing with a jigsaw puzzle is particularly disturbing. Not only did G.I.s have to combat bullets and mortar round, but also frostbite. Details like these are the essence of “The Coldest Winter.”
Halberstam also offers a damning portrayal of General Douglas MacArthur, whose battle plan seemed to be fueled by his own arrogance. MacArthur’s characterization is reminiscent of General George Custer in terms of ineptitude and ego.
Though this is certainly a fascinating exploration of a war most Americans may know in name only, it’s definitely not for the casual reader. Halberstam’s greatest gift ” detail ” can also be his weakness at times. Wordy and at times repetitive, those without a genuine and astute interest in American history and politics will be turned off quickly.
Despite its meticulous and verbose nature, Halberstam shines while critiquing ‘the forgotten war’ as a poorly executed campaign that the U.S. government and media were intent on wiping from the American conscious. He also draws startling parallels between Korea and what would become the Vietnam War, most notably, the U.S. government’s questionable involvements, and, perhaps, the unnecessary sacrifices it was willing to make.
The book also takes on a somewhat depressing feel as this was Halberstam’s final work, and one that had also been his passion project for years. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War reporting, which would launch his career in earnest and comprise his international smash “The Best and The Brightest,” Halberstam bookended his illustrious career with yet another investigation of an American war on foreign soil.
In between, Halberstam also probed all facets of American culture society. He offered studies of the conservative culture of the 1950s that paved the way for the massive counterculture movement of the ensuing decade in “The Fifties;” the young African Americans that spurred the Civil Rights movement in “The Children;” the physical dominance and economic empire that encompassed Michael Jordan in “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and The World He Created;” and the roundabout rise of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick in “The Education of a Coach.”
Halberstam was killed in a car crash in April following a speaking engagement in California’s bay area. He was also researching quarterback legend Y.A. Tiddle, who was, presumably, the subject of Halberstam’s next book.
The Bookworm of Edwards will air a documentary about Halberstam and “The Coldest Winter” on Monday at 6 p.m. The film is produced by Powell’s Bookstore of Portland, Ore., as part of their “Out of the Book” film series, which examined British author Ian McEwan earlier this year. Production wrapped on this project just days before Halberstam’s death, making this his final public interview.
Longtime local Butch Mazzuca will moderate the ensuing discussion. Mazzuca flew 412 combat missions during the Vietnam War before being discharged in 1971. He also considers himself a student of all facets of U.S. history.
“After World War II, the United States found itself in a new unaccustomed role, that of a ‘superpower,'” Mazzuca said, offering a glimpse into his post-film discussion. “This was a role most Americans neither grasped nor were comfortable with. Just as we are now beginning to get our arms around ‘the war on terror,’ so, too, were Americans grappling with not only our new role in the world, but the dangers presented by communist adversaries in an atomic age.”
Stephen Bedford is the store manager of The Bookworm. Butch Mazzuca also contributed to this article.