In 1950, disaster struck on the Korean peninsula when a crazy Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea, seeking to push the Americans into the sea and reunite Korea under the banner of Communism. Halberstam starts midway through the war, after the UN forces had pushed the North Koreans back. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in charge from his command center in Japan, pressed on, aiming to run the North Koreans into China. But a funny thing happened on the way to victory -- China sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the fight, and the days to follow included some of the darkest and proudest in American history.
Halberstam brings our forgotten war to terrifying life, and his insightful biographical sketches of the key players -- especially MacArthur, who provides the book's backbone -- are as engrossing as the military action. This is masterful storytelling, and it provides a bookend to Halberstam's 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, which detailed how the smartest people in the world got stuck in Vietnam by, as he put it, creating "brilliant policies that defied common sense." And so it was in Korea -- "It was like complete insanity in the command," wrote one officer.
The wisdom Halberstam gleaned from a 52-year career centers on how the truth about war has been too often corrupted to suit the needs of presidents like Kennedy, Johnson and Bush -- and even generals like MacArthur. And, of course, how soldiers pay " an unusually high price for the stupidity and arrogance of other men."
But he learned something else, too -- "a respect for the nobility of ordinary people." Those words, found on the last pages of his final book, are as good an epitaph as any for so great a national treasure as David Halberstam.