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Excellent insight into a forgotten war
on 17 April 2009
The necessity for this book is exemplified by the author's experience in a provincial Florida library: when looking at the shelves found it had eighty eight books on the Vietnam War, and only four on Korea.
This is a magisterial single volume history of the American involvement in a major war with Communist China. David Halberstam draws on considerable historical and journalistic skills to follow in the footsteps of Chester Wilmot's Crusade in Europe: the same effortless movement between platoon level experience of single combat to the liaisons and conferences of the chiefs of staff. I was as engaged by the character sketches of key politicians and diplomats as I was by the gripping depiction of close quarter conflict with the Chinese army. The portrait of MacArthur is worthy of Greek tragedy.
This was a highly politicised conflict exposed fault line between soldiers and civilians in the American way of making war. It explores the tension between the American instinct to isolationism and its global responsibilities - and provides sharp contrasts between the outstanding success of the USA in stabilising and securing democracy in post-war Europe with a far more problematic experience in Asia
Some qualifications: if you are a British reader, and your previous reading on the war is centred on Max Hastings and Michael Hickey, then you are likely to be disappointed by the very peripheral treatment of the UN effort outside the US armed forces. I think this is to be expected, but it is a little sad. My major criticism is the very poor index which does very little service to an excellently scholarly and readable book.
The key axis of power in the 21st century is likely to be between the USA and China, and the events of 1950-1953 will remain central to the dynamic of this relationship. This book is a fine tribute to its author who was so tragically killed in a car accident just as it was completed.