Sunday, January 12, 2014

January 2014 Books

My attention has moved forward in time from WWII to the Korean War which began 5 years after WWII ended.  Cast of characters include familiar people: Douglas MacArthur, Chesty Puller, heroic commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, President Truman, Joseph Stalin and George C. Marshall.

And since one cannot understand the Korean War without learning about China, new characters include: Chiang Kai-Shek, Nationalists leader whom the U.S. was supporting; Mao Zedong Communist leader nominally supported by Stalin.

Korean characters: Kim Il-Sung, Soviet approved Communist leader of North Korea; and Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, backed by U.S and United Nations.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halbertstam
Published: 2007 posthumously
Rating so far: 5
Awards: 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist (history)

David Halberstam (1934 - 2007) was a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist whose landmark book on the Korean War was published posthumously, after he died unexpectedly in a car accident.

I have been listening to this book in my car and it has been utterly fascinating, horrifying, suspenseful and riveting.  As soon as the car is on and before leaving the driveway, the reader's voice fills the air, transporting me to battles in the cold, harsh terrain of Korea.   I am emotional while listening with many of the same phrases escaping my lips such as:
  • OMG!!
  • WHAT ASININE JERKS - MacArthur, Charles A. Willoughby, Ned Almond
  • AMAZING - General Walker's troops holding the Pusan perimeter
  • CRAZY  - Gamble of Inchon landing which worked (thank God!)
  • DUMB - why military action is linked/hamstrung/tied to politics
    • MacArthur disregard of intelligence pointing to China's troop buildup at the North Korean/Manchurian border
    • splitting his army in pursuit of North Korean army up to Yalu River
    • "Troops will be home by Christmas" speech by MacArthur
    • when clear that Chinese troops was in-country, constant underestimation of troop strength and ability
    • How the hell can you make decisions without wanting the best intelligence possible?
    • How did they (infantry commanders) put up with that crap?
  • YEAH - when O.P Smith disregarded Almond's orders, saving the 1st Marine Division from annihilation at the Chosin Resevoir Battle and retreat
  • SO SAD - when listening to 8th Army's rout and retreat after the Battle of the Chongchon River
  • YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME - when MacArthur and staff took absolutely no responsibility for disgraceful rout of 8th army and retreat of X Corps back across 38th parallel
  • YAHOO - when Matt Ridgeway took over as commander in Korea
Incidentally, an ultra cold front last week drove temperatures in the midwest to 5 degrees with windchill of -15 below F.  In Korea, our troops were marching, fighting and sleeping in temperatures colder - with inadequate clothing and provisions.  Non-combant casualties due to frostbite were rampant.  Some of the solders had fought in the harsh European winter of 1944 and never thought they would experience colder, until Korea (yikes!)

Favorite quotes:

… the sheer terror of the Chinese assault could open up and reveal what was inside a man in a way that no man should be opened up.  It was like peering inside another man's soul: all the bravado and veneer were gone, and all the things that most men like to hide from those around them were all too nakedly there for inspection. 
No one 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. 
Perhaps all wars are in some way or another the product of miscalculations.  But Korea was a place where almost every key decision on both sides turned on a miscalculation.  First, the Americans took Korea off their defensive perimeter, which in turn encouraged the varying Communist participants to act.  Then, the Soviets gave the green light to Kim Il Sung to invade the South, convinced the Americans would not come in.  When the Americans entered the war, they greatly underestimated the skills of the North Korean troops they were going to face, and vastly overestimated how well prepared the first American troops to go into battle were.  Later, the Americans decided to drive north of the thirty-eighth parallel, paying no attention to Chinese warnings.  After that, in the single greatest American miscalculation of the war, MacArthur decided to go all the way to the Yalu because he was sure the Chinese would not come in, and so made his troops infinitely more vulnerable.  Finally, Mao believed that the political purity and revolutionary spirit of his men greatly outweighed America's superior weaponry (and its corrupt capitalist soul) and so, after an initial great triumph in the far North, had pushed his troops too far south, taking horrendous losses in the process.

An excellent audiobook with the paperback added to my fledgling collection about the Korean War. I have also purchased another highly touted Halbertstam book about the Vietnam War: The Best and the Brightest.

Enter the Dragon: China's Undeclared War Against the U.S. in Korea, 1950-1951 by Russell Spurr
Published: 1988
Rating: 5

Like Halberstam, Russell Spurr was also a journalist - the Far East correspondent for the London Daily Express who reported on the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 and covered the last 14 months of the Korean War.

The book is a result of 5 years of research, 40 in-person interviews and 20 visits to China.  His aim was to write about the "Unforgotten War" from the Chinese point of view to balance the umpteen volumes written from the US/UN side.

Well chosen epigrams:
   When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him;
when well fed, to starve him;
when at rest, to make him move.
   Appear at places to where he must hasten;
move swiftly where he does not expect you.  
         Sun Tze, The Art of War
Come like the wind, go like lightening.
Chang Yu, Sung dynasty commentator
Spurr choses to focus on a relatively short period of time (August 1950 - January 1951) covering China's military planning, entry into the war, and battles leading up to the stalemate against UN troops.

Last paragraph from the prologue is why I now believe that it should be mandatory that anyone who serves are President of the United States and thus the Commander of our Armed Forces should be an expert in military history.
The moral, if there is one, would seem to be that confrontations are never quite as irrevocable as they seem.  Given a modicum of understanding and communication, yesterday's enemies can yet become tomorrow's allies.

Dog Songs: Poems by Mary Oliver
Published: 2013
Rating: 5

LOVE IT!   Here is a sample of how brilliantly Oliver captures what we can learn from dogs:


Now through the white orchard my little dog
    romps, breaking the new snow
    with wild feet.

Running here running there, excited,
    hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
   in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
   the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
Published: 1991
Rating: 5

Excellent book - I learned so much about China's tumultuous history during the 20th century via the lives of Chang (b. 1952), her mother (b. 1931) and her grandmother (b. 1909).

There is a very good chronology of major events in her family alongside what was occurring in China.

All my reading about WWII, the Korean War and now, Chinese history ties together and it is both fascinating and horrifying.

  •  After WWII, Chinese Civil War picks up again between Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang and Mao Zedung's Communists. 
  • Mao wins and see the Korean War as a chance to elevate China onto the world stage - he was right. 
  • The real winner of the Korean War was Mao.  In China, his political power became unlimited, now a demigod, the true emperor of China. 
  • "Great Leap Forward" - Mao's attempt to catapult China into the industrial age on the back of peasants resulting in widespread famine and the death of millions. 
  • "Cultural Revolution" - millions displaced, tortured and died.  The suffering of loyal Communist such as Chang's parents was heartbreaking.  I felt like I was reading a horrible dystopic fiction.  What was happening in China in the 60's could not have been more different than the free-spirit, hippie experience in America.  It is hard to imagine:
    • no freedom whatsoever - even of thoughts
    • no recreation
    • families torn apart
    • "denunciations"
    • beatings, torture
    • complete and total repression
    • Chang's father at 50 looked like he was 70 years old
In 1978, Chang was able to win a scholarship to study in England - the first person from the Sichuan province (90 million) to do so.  She secured her doctorate in 1982 and makes her home in London.   In 1988, her mother came to visit and poured out their family's story which was the basis of this book. 

Since then she has written two other books that I want to read:
  • Mao, The Unknown Story 
  • Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.