Die for a Tie

I didn't know my Granddad very well. I knew he had flown bomber missions in World War II and Korea as a flight navigator, and that he spent many years of his life in the unshakable clutch of alcoholism. Even as a kid, I understood that the former probably had a hell of a lot to do with the latter.

I recall a black and white picture of Granddad, posed in his army uniform, young, handsome with a hint of a smile on his face. I had a hard time reconciling that picture with the stoic, cursing old son-of-a bitch I knew as a youth. Honestly, Granddad scared the shit out of me.

The one positive thing I remember was Granddad calling me over when I was around ten years old. I approached cautiously. The old man pulled a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and shoved it in my hand. "Now goddammit, I'm not giving you this money, see? I'm expecting you to mow my lawn when you come down and visit."

Time ravages the memory, but I think when we went down to Texas to visit two years later I breathed a sigh of relief to see that his lawn had already been cut. It was a gift after all.

I would find out later through my uncle that Granddad had in fact participated in the Dresden firebombing, a fact that Granddad was not proud of, a fact that probably weighed on him for the rest of his life.

The ghost of my Pall Mall-smoking Granddad informed my reading of David Halberstam's brilliant accounting of the Korean War (and sadly his Halberstam's swan song), "The Coldest Winter." While I have not read his monumental book on Vietnam, "The Best and the Brightest" I did read "The Fifties" an excellent survey of that decade that touched on Korea and left me wanting to know more about that horrible conflict.

Sometimes you read a book, so affecting, so well-crafted and complete that you have to pause mid-sentence and acknowledge that you are in the hands of a master. So it is with "The Coldest Winter." Not only does it stand as probably the best single volume of the history of that war, but as a much needed antidote to "The Greatest Generation" nonsense that fills the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Books no doubt my Granddad would have openly scoffed at.

Here we see an overconfident and ill-equipped American army fueled by the larger-than-life hubris and not-so-subtle racism of General Douglas MacArthur and his cronies suddenly in full retreat from Kim Il Sung's Soviet-backed North Korean People's Army just a few years after V-Day. While Inchon stands as MacArthur's greatest military victory, that amphibious assault would further loosen his tether from reality.

On his command, the Army would march in the icy dead of winter headlong toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River perilously stretching its supply lines on the assumption that the Chinese would not enter the war...it would be MacArthur's gravest miscalculation among the many he would make in this conflict, and open full-scale massacres of American troops at the Chosin Resevoir and the infamous "Gauntlet" a six-mile stretch of road where Chinese bullets cut down entire battalions of American soldiers.

With MacArthur defeated, the Joint Chiefs would send General Matthew Ridgway to Korea. Ridgway would stanch the bleeding and push the Chinese back to the 38th parallel, but the possibility for victory over the entire peninsula was lost.

Halberstam captures the entire panorama of the Korean War, from the political fights in Washington and Beijing, to brass in-fighting and MacArthur's inevitable downfall, to the grunts who endured inhuman suffering and carnage, even by WWII standards.

At the end of the book, my thoughts turned to my Granddad, who after bringing hell to Dresden, may have also been one of the first Americans to bring another type of hell to the enemy in the form of napalm in Korea (although my uncle is pretty sure he was deskbound). He would fight two wars in ten years when no man should even have to endure one. I'm pretty sure I'd have hit the bottle too after such an intensely terrifying experience.

Like most vets, my Granddad was tight-lipped about his war experience. It may likely have been out of a sense of protecting his friends and family from the blood-soaked images of war. I think it was as much about protecting himself from re-living those horrors. My uncle says that the stoicism of vets serves no one, that in fact it does more harm than good because we don't understand the realities of war before we make the commitment. I agree.

It makes you wonder if a certain president and vice president had not dodged Vietnam, would they be so quick to commit troops to a region known for continuous conflict?

Of course we know that endless military miscalculations guided by bigotry and bluster would not be unique to Korea and Vietnam, a fact that isn't lost on Halberstam:

"Then in 2003 the administration of George W. Bush, improperly reading what the end of the Russian empire might mean in the Middle East, completely misreading the likely response of the indigenous people, ignoring the warnings of the most able member of the George H.W. Bush national security team, Brent Scowcroft, and badly wanting for its own peculiar reasons to take down the government of Saddam Hussein, manipulated the Congress, the media, the public and most dangerously of all, itself with seriously flawed and doctored intelligence, and sent troops into the heart of Iraqi cities with disastrous results."

"The Coldest Winter" is a towering achievement, a clear-eyed final report from one of America's greatest journalists.