Friday, September 28, 2018

Francis Collins: "The Language of God"

Collins' book had been on my reading list for a long time. I've blogged about him before-- through someone else's writing. And I've read quite a bit in this area; the book and its author are highly acclaimed; and the book has been recommended to me by knowledgeable friends. But in the past, I've spent most of my time reading books in this arena:

1.) from more avid proponents and opponents on evolution and religion (for some of my reviews of pro-evolution books, click here; or for an example of a critique of evolution, see: Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial);
2.) on the fascinating connections between evolution, racism, and the Progressive Era;
3.) on the history of the debate;
4.) on Intelligent Design (William Dembski's Design Revolution; if you're an opponent of ID, have you read anything from an impressive proponent? If not, get scientific, read liberally, and think critically before you critique!)

Collins' book is popular and important, but didn't "grab" me since he is in "both camps"-- as a theist who believes in evolution and Evolution, including the evolution of man from monkeys. Collins seeks to bridge the gap between science and religion, design and evolution, faith and reason. Whether you agree with everything or not-- from whichever camp you occupy-- the book is still worth a read. (Collins' book is closest to Kenneth Miller's book.)

In his introduction, Collins quotes President Clinton's speech on an occasion of celebrating the successes of the Human Genome Project-- of which Collins was chair: "Today, we are learning the language of in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift." (2) Collins' experience was the same: "the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning achievement and an occasion of worship." (3)

From there, Collins notes the fundies on both sides of the debate (4)-- as well as the more casual observers who imagine that they must choose between science and religion (5). He wants to dismiss this dogmatic dichotomy, so he works to de-fang the fundies on both sides and to give space for those who are fooled or intimidated by the passions of those on the ends of the spectrum. 

Collins then moves to "his story"-- not one of "rigorous religious upbringing, deeply instilled by family and culture, and thus inescapable in later life." (7) Chapter 1 (and some of his conclusion in Chapter 11) is devoted to his journey from "atheism to belief". In caring for patients while he was a student, he was impacted by the way that many of them lived out their religious faith. Then, he was asked by one lady what he believed-- and he stammered that he didn't know. He was "haunted" for days by the notion that he considered himself a scientist but had not "seriously considered the evidence for and against belief...Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin." (20)

Collins visited a Methodist minister who recommended that he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis-- an excellent suggestion! (If you're younger and more post-modern in your approach to these things, I'd recommend Lewis' Great Divorce first.) There are many ways to arrive at the logic of theism and Christianity, but Collins got there primarily through the first section of Lewis' MC and its focus on the moral law. Lewis notes that we all have a sense of right and wrong, reflexively appealing to and relying on a standard that is beyond us (22). Collins' conclusion: "Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief." (30)

Collins also mentions Lewis' argument about belief in God as "wish fulfillment". But as Collins notes, even if "God is something humans might wish for, does that rule our the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not." (38). Beyond that and echoing Lewis, "wish fulfillment would likely give rise to a very different kind of God than the one described in the Bible." (37) Moreover, "one can turn this wishful-thinking argument on its head. Why would such a universal and uniquely human hunger exist, if it were not connected to some opportunity for fulfillment?" (38)

But what about...? 
1.) "Bad Christians" (40-42): Yes, but they've done many wonderful things too. And back to the "moral law", when you invoke "bad", you're appealing to a standard that is beyond you. And really, it's a lazy way to argue: you don't dismiss X because you can cite a few bad examples of people who claim X. 
2.) Suffering (43-46): Here, he provides the standard answer about human evil and free will. But also explains that natural disasters will happen with the unpredictable and evolutionary (!) world in which we live. And he notes that we often learn more during difficult times, so who's to say that an "easy life" would be the blessing we imagine? 
3.) Miracles (47-54): Here he notes that beliefs about this are generally decided on "priors"-- an assumption about whether they are possible or not. He recommends skepticism (a la science) but openness to the possibility (a la religion). 

Collins closes this section by noting that there is "at least one singular, exceedingly improbable and profound event in history that scientists of nearly all disciplines agree is not understood and will not be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation." And that's how he transitions to chapters 3-5 in part 2 as he wrestles with the big questions of our existence on earth. 

Chapter 3 is devoted to the beginning of the Universe and the "Big Bang" (61-71), the "Anthropic Principle" (71-77), and the "Uncertainty Principle" (78-80). Chapter 4 is devoted to the beginning of Life on Earth and at least the strong appearance of design. Chapter 5 is a long and fascinating history of the Genome Project-- "God's instruction book"-- from start to finish.

Collins quotes the agnostic astrophysicist Robert Jastrow approvingly: "At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." (66)

Collins also notes the inherent problem with the evolution narrative's historicity and the scale of time required to believe the story: "A major part of the problem in accepting the theory of evolution is that it requires one to grasp the significance of extremely long periods of time involved in the process." (148) He does not mention this in the same paragraph, but in addition to imagination of eons, one must be willing to believe the extrapolations required with little specific explanation of the supposed details. 

In Chapter 6, Collins turns to Genesis and notes that "old earth/universe" interpretations pre-date Darwin by centuries and were made popular by Augustine (151, 157). Collins notes the Hebrew word "yom" which gives a ton of flexibility on this question (152). He might have also noted that the three uses of the Hebrew word "bara"-- apparently for God's special efforts to "create"-- all happen to be in the three areas where scientists have not and probably cannot do much to speak confidently and scientifically: the origins of all; the origins of life; and the origins of man.  

In Chapters 7-10, Collins covers the options for folks in weighing these matters. In Chapter 7, he talks about "science trumping faith" (agnostics and atheists). But really, this position is based on a misunderstanding of both science and faith. In Chapter 8, he turns the tables to discuss "faith trumping science" (for young-earth creationism in particular). But this is also based on misunderstandings of science and faith. In Chapter 9, he describes "Intelligent Design" as "Science Needs Help". (He holds ID and Evolution to relatively high standards, so I can live with that.) And then, in Chapter 10, he describes his "Biologos" project-- to have "Science and Faith in harmony". (Collins also has a very helpful appendix on Bioethics. That alone is worth the price of the book.)

If you're willing to wrestle with your faith in evolution or open to hearing a theistic evolutionist try to reconcile science with his faith and the Bible, then Collins is a good place to start. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Larson on the history of the Creation-Evolution debate

Edward Larson is the author of the 1998 Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods-- an excellent book and must-reading for those interested in the topic. He returns to the same arena with a short, helpful volume on "historical perspectives" in the longstanding debate, based on lectures given at Stetson University. Here, I'll share a few notes of interest and to tuck them away for future purposes (new observations or observations that reiterate but are worth noting).

Larson lays out the connections between evolution and race, including Darwin's approach to that facet of evolution. In Origin of Species, Darwin "avoided making comments about human evolution, fearing that they would prejudice readers against his general theory." But Larson notes that his notes and other writings indicate an early and avid interest in the topic-- as it should have (2). Darwin theorizes about the topic in Descent of Man and speculated on "the differences between the so-called races of man." (4-5) And Larson notes that Darwin looked to sexual selection (rather than natural selection) to tell stories about gender and external differences like race (6-7).

Larson is not clear on this, but it seems that Darwin was wary of extending his analysis/story too far, since evolution was more easily focused on bodies rather than minds and emotions (5). Following this tentativeness, as he wraps up chapter 1, Larson uses John Paul II's discussion of evolution from 1996: "Theories of evolution which...consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man." (13) Moreover, one might add, they rely far too heavily on narrative than on Science and science, given how little we know about these things in terms of explanation.

Larson use his last lecture/chapter to outline the history of the debates on science and religion-- in particular, the warfare vs. accommodation approaches. Larson notes that the Galileo episode was used by Protestants to mess with Catholics. Then, it was used by Enlightenment thinkers to mess with Christians in particular, and eventually, to religion in general (39). Larson notes the influence of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White (40) in promoting the warfare hypothesis in the 19th century. (I had not heard of these men until Lawrence Principe's discussion of them in his excellent "Great Courses" DVD's.) While influential, "the warfare thesis...did not go unchallenged. Historians did not uniformly preach it, and scientists did not uniformly confess it." (41)

Larson closes by including a summary of previous research on scientists' attitudes toward religion (in 1914 and 1933)-- and then an update on those results from the 1990s (47). In both cases, 40-50% of scientists believed in God (48). "Higher level" scientists were less likely to believe than lower-level scientists (49). NAS biologists were the most skeptical-- at 95% (49). In sum, "measured by religious belief, professional science is like a pyramid. At the top is acute disbelief. Scientists in the middle are significantly less believing...than citizens in general." (50) Notable results, but are they examples of selection bias, going into science and biology-- or coming out of one's studies?  

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Halberstam on the Korean War

I hadn’t read anything about the Korean War and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed David Halberstam’s work on baseball and culture (Summer of ‘49 and October 1964). So I was glad to read his book on “the forgotten war,” The Coldest Winter. At 661 pages, it was a bit of a slog and I skimmed in places. But it was immensely helpful for understanding the war’s primary causes, key battles, main characters, and the implications of our failures in Korea. 

In his epilogue, Halberstam traces the origins of this book to an interview with Fred Ladd during his research for The Best and the Brightest—on the failures of the Vietnam War (659-660). After a decade of writing and 43 years after the interview that planted the seed, Halberstam finally completed the book in 2007. (Sadly, this was his final book. He died at age 73 in a car accident on the way to an interview for his next book—again, on baseball.)

“The Forgotten War”

I should probably start with an apology and an explanation. If you’re familiar with the Korean War, my review of Halberstam’s book may be somewhere between old news and reinventing the wheel. But I’ve never read anything substantial about it—and I’m not nearly alone. Why has it received so little attention?

The Korean War should be a big deal in the American memory. It lasted three years (June 1950 – July 1953); it occurred near the outset of the Cold War; it involved Russia, Japan, China, and what would become Taiwan; it featured the best decision and worst antics of Douglas MacArthur’s famed career; it resulted in 33,000 dead and 105,000 wounded Americans (1.2 million dead when you include the Koreans and the Chinese); and it led inexorably to the disaster in Vietnam (4).

But from the beginning, its place in history has been diminished. Truman labeled it a “police action” rather than a “war,” not wanting to ramp up the temperature of the Cold War (2). This greatly upset the soldiers—then and afterwards, harming their legacy. Of course, maybe we’d remember it differently if the outcome had been a lot better. Halberstam notes that it “was a grinding, limited war.” After the first nine months, the “action” certainly didn’t rise to the level of WWII excitement. It was not a “great national war of unifying singular purpose”; it was a “puzzling, gray, very distant conflict…seemingly without hope or resolution.” (2)

It didn’t divide us—and thus haunt us—like Vietnam. It didn’t receive ample TV coverage; the news was still largely black-and-white. Elie Wiesel said the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. And indifference was the standard response here—at least for those not in the battle. Most folks back home were enjoying the consumer boom of the 1950s. In contrast, aside for a few brief ecstatic moments, the news from Korea “was almost always so grim.” (4-5)

The upshot: the Korean War was “orphaned by history.” (2) Halberstam went into a public library in Florida in 2004. He found 88 books on the Vietnam War and only four on the Korean War. No popular movies have been made about the Korean War. Its only significant pop-culture reference is the TV show M*A*S*H—a series set in Korea, but ultimately about Vietnam, at a time when one couldn’t criticize Vietnam directly. (Halberstam notes that the shaggy haircuts in M*A*S*H tell us that the show was really about Vietnam, since crew cuts were still required in Korea.)

Korea’s seeming obscurity was a problem from the outset. First, it was considered a backwater in terms of foreign policy. Halberstam’s second sentence fingers Secretary of State Dean Acheson with “a colossal gaffe” (1), by leaving South Korea out of America’s Asian defense perimeter. Second, Douglas MacArthur was busy running post-war Japan as its governor. He did “an admirable job of modernizing Japan.” (62) But he was not particularly concerned with the military there. He gave Korea even less attention, saying that it was a State Department issue (60-61). Third, when conflict began in Korea, most experts worried that it was merely a Soviet feint to disguise a larger and more important move in the budding Cold War.

Beyond inattention to Korea, America’s military had declined at a surprising and debilitating rate. Halberstam provides many reasons for this: a desire to return to a peacetime mindset post-WWII (and post-Great Depression—it’d been a tough 16 years!); being ill-at-ease with its new world-power role; an over-dependence on the nuclear option, imagining that it displaced the need for conventional military resources (142, 149); and the fiscal conservatism of Truman who didn’t want to continue paying so much for a military. Military spending fell from $91 billion to $10-11 billion and Truman wanted to get it down to $6-7 billion (177). As the war proceeded, spending would eventually rise to $55 billion (201).

This caused all sorts of trouble—directly and indirectly. The troops were poorly armed and poorly prepared. When trouble came, the lack of preparation and the resulting reluctance to enter the war necessarily led to charges of “appeasement.” (90) In light of the weak, early European approach to the Nazis and concerns about Communist aggression, many people reasonably believed that a strong response was ideal. Halberstam also argues that its ripple effects extended well beyond the war—that Korea “would poison American politics” and result in “deeply flawed” policy toward Asia and ultimately Vietnam. (Ironically, MacArthur warned Kennedy about getting involved in Vietnam.)

Because of the Korean War, Truman took a beating in domestic politics. History has rescued his reputation and elevated the merit of his choices, but it’s gone too far. Truman was famous for insisting that “the buck stops here.” As such, he bears the blame for the poor preparation in the run-up to the War (138) and especially in failing to deal appropriately with General Douglas MacArthur.

One can still have sympathy for Truman. He was “dealing with a war he did not want, in a part of the world his national security people had not thought important, and relying from the start on a commander in the field whom he did not like, and who in turn did not respect him. The stars were not aligned from the start.” (102) But an objective history must find his approach to the military and the war to be far less than ideal.

Key Players on the World Stage: Rhee, Kim, Stalin, and Mao

Halberstam focuses considerable attention on the relevant world leaders. The president of South Korea (SK), Syngman Rhee, is largely described as a figurehead and a puppet (65-68). His ascension to power was a function of circumstances—the right man at the right time, given that he was in America when things were going poorly in Korea before WWII. His leadership was unimpressive; his troops were ill-prepared and ineffective. At least, relative to his American sponsors, the North Korean belligerents, and their Chinese accomplices, Rhee was largely a non-factor.

The leader of North Korea (NK), Kim Il Sung, was a much larger player—as the primary instigator of hostilities. Although Kim exaggerated his role, he had been a key guerrilla leader in the war against Japanese occupation (74). He had been installed by the Soviets and was loaded with help from Russian generals, but during the war, almost all of his assistance came from the Chinese. He “was somewhat of a contradiction, a fierce nationalist who was the creation of an imperial power.” (71) He was not charismatic, but he was a true believer in Communism and his own right to power. Long after the USSR had fallen and China had compromised, “Kim remained the last great Stalinist in power: rigid, doctrinaire, inflexible, a man who believed all the old truths even as so many of them had turned out to be false.” (77)

Stalin gets some play (346) as a foil to Mao and as someone who was trying to stir the pot behind the scenes. Stalin held the stronger hand and played it (361), treating Mao like a peon (352-354) and repeatedly breaking promises to support China’s effort in Korea (360). (Halberstam tells a wild story about Mao returning the favor later, holding a meeting with Khrushchev in a swimming pool, forcing him to wear a life preserver since he couldn’t swim! [352])

Coming into the Korean War, Mao and the Communists had driven out the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek, forcing him to Taiwan. Stalin’s quiet machinations and Chinese success vs. Chiang and America allowed Mao to become as a man of unprecedented power in China and for China to emerge as a world power (633). Of course, from there, things get increasingly brutal for China under Mao—the “Great Leap Forward” (634), staggering persecution, and Stalin-like purges of his “enemies”—or those who became known as “enemies of the people.” (636)

MacArthur believed that China would stay out of the Korean theater, leading him to be aggressive in pushing north. But Mao had other ideas. He “believed it was good for the new China and necessary for the future of the revolution, both domestically and internationally.” (338) Mao believed in “a single strand of history and in [himself] as its principal figure—in effect, serving as history’s man…powerful stuff.” (338-339) “Epic revolutions probably demand someone with a supreme, invincible sense of self, a belief in the price that others men have to pay for the good of their vision…rationalize great suffering for the good of the cause…no boundaries, no restraints…what began as an all-consuming vision became almost inevitably a great nightmare as well.” (339)

Pride and Prejudice

One recurring theme is that the leaders grossly overestimated their military prowess and underestimated their enemies (631). Kim wanted to rule the entire country and imagined that his troops would be welcomed by the South. He overestimated his military strength; he thought NK would be victorious in three weeks (1). He was fooled by his early dominance on the battlefield—before U.S. troops stiffened at Pusan, received reinforcements, and were eventually relieved by the invasion at Inchon. “Kim was still talking victory—while the Chinese were increasingly sure that he had already been defeated.” (168)

Second, after Inchon in September, MacArthur and Co. confidently expected to be done by Christmas (367). Troops sent from Japan were told to “pack their summer dress uniforms—for the victory parade that was soon to come in Seoul.” (145) The Joint Chiefs thought about replacing MacArthur with Matt Ridgway but thought Korea would be short and were worried about USSR efforts elsewhere in the world (153).

Third, with Mao’s “surprise” attack and early sweeping success, he imagined that they would easily drive the Americans off the Korean Peninsula, leading to strategic mistakes in overextending his troops (507). And then after the war, his success in Korea led him to a great leap backward for “the people.”

Eventually, each side was sobered a bit by failure—and with Ridgway in charge, the War settled into its long, slow, grinding phase. But over and over again, hubris had caused bad decisions and devastating consequences.

One key reason for the preeminence of pride was that these leaders used power and fear to control things—and then had sycophants who sucked up to them. When you scare everybody and then you surround yourself with yes-men, you quickly move from pride to self-deceit. As M. Scott Peck notes in The People of the Lie, when you start lying to others and then lying to yourself, it’s quite difficult to recover. Once you’re divorced from reality and you set up barriers for people to bring you back to reality, only exceedingly harsh realities have a chance to turn you around.

It was worst in Communist systems, where the leaders controlled the mechanisms of power far more completely. “Bad news tended not to filter back…[it was] sanitized step by step.” (306) But America had its own burden here. MacArthur was a legend; he was on the cover of Time magazine for the seventh time, immediately after NK first attacked (103). Halberstam quotes General Joseph Stilwell who noted that MacArthur got his first star in 1918 and was thus a general for 30+ years: “thirty years of people playing up to him and kissing his ass, and doing what he wants. That’s not good for anyone.” (104) When Truman didn’t deal forcefully with MacArthur early-on—and when he failed to prepare America militarily, especially in Asia—his lack of courage and passivity were at the crux of the genesis of our problems in Korea.

Another contributing factor was the racism that was prevalent into the mid-20th century, given evolution, pseudo-science, and Progressive ideology. The Chinese looked down on the Koreans. The Russians looked down on the Chinese. Most relevant, many American leaders looked down on all of the Asians. Racism starts in ignorance, dances with pride, and causes all sorts of damage.

Key Events/Battles

Halberstam’s book is not fully chronological, but it’s easy to follow the key events of the war. Let me provide an overview to give you a mental picture.

-From the 38th Parallel (the pre-war and post-war border between NK and SK, approximately dividing the peninsula in half), the NK’s invaded the South in June 1950. The SK troops were routed and a handful of heroic SK and American soldiers held on at the “Pusan Perimeter” (the southeast corner of the peninsula), trying to avoid another Dunkirk.

-The UN got involved with “resolutions”—and on the ground, predominantly American troops and material to bolster the defense. Then MacArthur invaded northwest of Pusan with a bold amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September. From there, the Americans quickly routed the NK’s and pushed them past the 38th Parallel.

-With victories in hand, the Americans confidently continued north with plans to stop at the Chinese border. But the Chinese sent hundreds of thousands of troops into the mountains of Northern NK, waiting in ambush. When they struck in late October, they routed the Americans and quickly pushed them back—all the way past the SK capital of Seoul in January.

-With more troops and the emergence of Matthew Ridgway as the top general, the Americans again pushed north of the 38th Parallel, where the war bogged down for its final two years. (Now check out this excellent Gif and its dates—at the Korean War’s Wikipedia page—to catch the rapid back-and-forth and then the stagnation.)

The surprise amphibious landing at Inchon was the key moment in the war—for what was accomplished there, but also for where it led MacArthur and the American effort. Inchon “broke the spirit of the NK military and opened all of NK to his forces.” (311) The invasion was “a brilliant, daring gamble…MacArthur at his best: audacious, original, unpredictable…” (293) Halberstam compares it to his “deft campaign in the Pacific” in WWII—“vast island-hopping distances accomplished with minimal casualties, he struck more often than not islands that were not Japanese strongpoints.” (294)

To pull off Inchon, MacArthur had to be immensely persuasive with the other commanders, convincing them that the plan was worth the risks (299). He compared the move to James Wolfe’s bold charge up the cliffs at Quebec—the pivotal battle of the French-Indian War in 1763 (299). But the success at Inchon would also lead MacArthur to imagine that such gambles would always pay off handsomely. Instead, his overconfidence and terrible strategic decisions led to disaster just a month later.

Once the Americans were off the ropes at Pusan and pushing the NK’s north, the question was where to stop. The 38th Parallel was the original border, but it was new and arbitrary, having just been established by the Russians and Americans after WWII—“almost as an afterthought, the division done in the most casual way at the last minute at the Pentagon.” (62)

Moreover, shouldn’t the NK’s be punished for their aggression? Would failure to push north be seen as appeasement or weakness that would be exploited by the Chinese or the Russians? Wouldn’t it be smarter for diplomatic ends to go past the original line and then negotiate back? Or thinking big picture: If the Chinese were defeated, would this open the door for the Nationalist Chinese of Chiang Kai-Shek to regain control of the mainland from Mao and the Communists?

Once you go past the 38th Parallel, how far do you go? The two basic choices were to take all of NK, pushing to the Yalu River at the Chinese border—or to capture the NK capital of Pyongyang and find an easily-defensible line north of there. Going further north was problematic. It is a mountainous and largely-uninhabited wilderness, with tougher weather, rougher terrain, and increasingly tenuous supply lines. And the country broadens out considerably as one goes north (383). If the Chinese entered NK at all, this would be an indefensible line and a horrible decision.

MacArthur decided to go to the Yalu and even encouraged soldiers to “piss in the river.” (390) But things went south soon after—metaphorically and literally. It was “a combination of the Second Crusade, Napoleon’s march on Moscow and Bataan…a monstrous error. Even if we battle to the Yalu at a great cost and by mastering logistic obstacles…we would be further out on a limb with no chance of extrication.” (406)

MacArthur was betting (heavily) that the Chinese would not enter the war—even though diplomatic channels and troop sightings provided clear warnings. It was “not so much a strategy as a bet…[and] the bet had been called.” (403) His gamble also included a low assessment of the Chinese if they did enter. In part, this was connected to his recent history (victory over Japan in WWII and the triumph at Inchon), his inflated sense of his knowledge of “the oriental mind” (369-372), and a then-all-too-common racism. (One irony here is Chinese and Japanese racism toward Korea as inferior. “Korea was a small proud country that had the misfortune to lie in the path of three infinitely larger, stronger, more ambitious powers—China, Japan, and Russia. Each of them wanted to use it either as an offensive base from which to assault one or the others or as a defensive shield to negate the possible aggressive designs of the other two.” [63])

So, MacArthur’s successes led to big trouble. Inchon and the subsequent weeks were so successful that “the appetite for a larger victory had been whetted…The more successful the U.S. was in the South, the harder it was to set limits going north. Anyone who tried to limit the offensive into the North would be labeled an appeaser.” (323) MacArthur wanted the glory of a bigger victory and would have been happy for a bigger war with China—for the glory and the opportunity to reestablish Chiang Kai-Shek. So, he over-extended his troops and stumbled into a huge Chinese ambush.

The results of the Chinese counterattack were quick and devastating. Halberstam quotes Frank Gibney: “Inchon was the most expensive victory we ever won because it led to the complete deification of MacArthur and the terrible, terrible defeats that happened next.” (332) All told, the retreat “was the greatest defeat suffered by the American military since the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War.” (471)

Elements of the retreat were particularly brutal, especially what came to be known as “The Gauntlet.” (451ff) Troops were retreating through narrow valleys with the Chinese holding the high ground. The large American weapons and equipment became an impediment. If the Chinese could disable a large vehicle, it created “fish in a barrel.” The most famous battle from this phase of the war is the Marine heroics in breaking out of the Chosin Reservoir area—“certainly one of the great moments in the Corps’ history” (431), the result of “great individual courage and exceptional small-unit leadership.” (468)

On top of the defeat and the hubris that led to it, MacArthur aggressively tried to blame everybody else (440). But he could not evade responsibility effectively. Truman sent Matthew Ridgway to Korea—in essence, supplanting MacArthur from the most powerful position. Ridgway turned things around—completing the fast-moving phases of the war—in pushing the Chinese back across the 38th Parallel. The bulk of the U.S. renaissance occurred with three key battles in February 1951. Halberstam spends much time on the battles at Twin Tunnels, Wonju, and Chipyoungni (all of part 9: chs. 38-47). These defeats were “devastating” to the Chinese logistically and psychologically, with “grievous casualties” of “frontline” troops who had been forced to flee (587).

Once they reached the stalemate, it was still difficult to end the war—with battles, diplomacy, and politics dragging things out for another two years. There were “cruel costly battles” (including “Pork Chop Hill”) with “few breakthroughs” and no “turn-of-the-tide victory.” (624) One of the key problems was that many Chinese prisoners did not want to return to China! (625) The two Koreas were forced to recognize each others’ legitimacy. Americans also had to come to terms with a stalemate as a conclusion—and American politics had to express its distaste for Truman and the Democrats in the 1952 election. Finally, in late July 1953, the sides reached a truce.

Key Players in the U.S. Military

Dean Acheson plays a huge role in the book. Halberstam is rough on him—probably combined with his criticisms of Acheson about the Vietnam War. Halberstam points to Acheson’s racism, pseudo-science, and classism—and thus, his failure to understand Korea and Vietnam (186). He pokes at Acheson for his defense of Alger Hiss, particularly in such a difficult historical moment (188). Still, Halberstam notes that Acheson faced tremendous challenges—“as tumultuous a tour as any secretary of state ever endured, perhaps the single most difficult four-year stretch in the country’s history in terms of its foreign policy.” From Chiang to Mao, from the Soviets’ first atomic weapon to the Korean War, it was a tough time to be king or one of his lieutenants (187).

Walton “Johnnie” Walker was a prominent but relatively unsung general. He was in charge on the ground during the Pusan Perimeter defense and did a terrific job during the dark early days of the conflict. (Halberstam also devotes a big chunk of space to a Lieutenant Beahler who did vital work during this time, including going against bad orders from a superior [270-276, 279].) For those seven weeks, Walker “was nothing less than a remarkable, fearless commander, doing almost everything right.” (254) And yet, he was “the forgotten commander of the forgotten war.” (255) He was not one of MacArthur’s favorites, so he was overlooked in favor of generals like Ned Almond (who Halberstam crushes). Walker is also pivotal in an ironic way: his death in a car accident (486) led to the emergence of Matt Ridgway as the top general on the ground in Korea. (MacArthur formally gave the Eighth Army to Ridgway when he arrived on December 26 [491, 494].)

Ridgway had been on the rise since WWII. In fact, some military leaders wanted to keep him out of Korea because it might slow down his rise in the military ranks. But now he was definitely needed in Korea. “If ever an American officer was perfectly suited for a particular moment in American military history…to take over the shambles of a dysfunctional Eighth Army.” (487)

Halberstam points to four key moments in Ridgway’s career: talking superiors out of an air assault on Rome in 1943; leading the airborne assault on France for D-Day; helping French forces who were trapped in Vietnam in 1954; and reinvigorating of the troops in Korea (489). The Rome story was most impressive—as he challenged but failed to initially persuade his superiors. He then sent a deputy on “a daring mission behind German lines to meet with the Italians and recon the situation” (489), verifying his concerns and carrying the argument. Halberstam concludes that Ridgway was “someone whose courage away from the battlefield was the same as that on it.” (490)

Ridgway’s leadership style was more conducive than MacArthur’s to modern times. He was amazing in terms of logistics—working through the bureaucracy and private manufacturing to get bazookas produced, creating a “pre-FedEx super-supply system.” (491)  He was constantly on the ground in Korea (498), where MacArthur never made an appearance (11). He emphasized intel (499), where MacArthur has downplayed it and employed Charles Willoughby to use it for political purposes (54, 378-279, 382).

One of the ironies of the forgotten war is that its best general is overlooked because he took over in a phase when Americans were turning away from the conflict. But he was revered by those who fought there. Omar Bradley said of him that “his brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership would turn the battle like no other general’s in our military history.” (492)

But Halberstam spends most of his time on MacArthur. He describes his WWII heroics (121-122, 294). After the war, he was worshipped by the Japanese and many Americans. Like many Americans, he wanted Nationalist China to be victorious over Mao and hoped for a bigger war in Korea that might led to that outcome. But Chiang and his troops were mostly worthless, leading to Mao’s triumph in 1949 (238-239, 241, 243).

MacArthur’s tremendous ego, his ironic willingness to defy authority, his vision for a greater war and Chiang’s victory in China, and his own presidential ambitions led to a simmering long-distance war with Truman. This put Truman in a tough spot, but his acquiescence led to the debacle in Korea from start to finish (134, 137, 365, Pt 10, 621-623).

Halberstam discusses MacArthur’s father and his exceedingly impressive Army career (105-113). Ironically, MacArthur was supplanted politically by Robert Taft among “conservative” Republicans—as MacArthur’s father had been sacked in the military realm by Taft’s father, President William Howard Taft (621). (On a side note, of the 30 people who have “laid in state” at the U.S. Capitol, the Tafts are the only father-son combination.)

Politically, Truman and the Democrats were in a difficult position. Years of ruling, through immensely challenging times—along with an unpopular war, a popular general who opposed the president, and powerful political symbols such as the prospects of appeasement in the face of Communism—made voters eager for something different. The GOP had been unable to take full advantage until 1952. The GOP gained many seats in the House in 1946, but then Truman upset Dewey after his lackluster campaign in 1948 (207-213). Democratic woes worsened along with prospects in Korea and Sen. McCarthy’s Red Scare paid some dividends leading into Eisenhower’s victory (173, 192, 647-656).

Halberstam provides a hopeful ending to his book: SK’s amazing post-war political and economic success—and the tentative return of Korean War veterans to the site of so much angst and grief (641-645). At the end of the day, one wonders how things would have gone without this troubling war—or if the war had been prosecuted differently. But in the end, life is amazingly good for the SK’s—and immense gratitude should go to the Americans who fought for them in the Korean War.

miscellany from Halberstam's "Coldest Winter" (on the Korean War)

Halberstam also makes a number of miscellaneous observations that were interesting to me: 

-Unlike the handful of other books on American wars that I’ve read, Halberstam does not describe any immorality. One of the striking things about books on WWII is to read about the sexual and other immorality of soldiers from “the Greatest Generation.” In Korea, maybe it didn’t happen; or Halberstam didn’t write about it; or maybe given how quickly the action proceeded, they didn’t have time for any!

-The early congressional response to military action was favorable—before things started to go sideways! Sen. Smith (R-NJ) asked whether Truman was going to ask Congress for a joint resolution—“a good question, and one that, remarkably enough, in two solid days of meetings no one in the administration had really considered.” (99a)

-On 11/3/48, Nationalist forces retreated from Shenyang (where my in-laws lived for four years), the first large city Chiang abandoned (222).

-The Chinese used music (401)—bugles and whistles (417)—a creepy and semi-effective way to give military orders.

-There are “two very different kinds of courage in many military men—bravery in battle and independence or bravery within the institution—and they did not often reside side by side.” (478)

-A good quote from Harold Martin on textbooks and training vs. experience in the growth of a soldier: “Much of their wisdom is the battle know-how the individual soldier picks up as he survives fight after fight, the simple things the books have always taught, but no soldier ever learns until he has been shot at: to keep off the sky line; to spread out in the attack, instead of bunching up like quail; to dig deep when on the defensive; to treat his communications equipment as tenderly as he would treat his sweetheart; to keep his socks dry and his weapons clean; and to hold his fire until the enemy is close enough to kill.” (534)

-The Chinese Nationalists quickly abandoned their American-provided weapons as they retreated, turning them over to their enemies. This was at “an alarming rate [that] did not seem to bother them—the solution was to ask for more.” (234) In fact, Mao described Chiang as their “supply officer.” (235)

-If you’re interested, in addition to a list of his interview subjects, Halberstam provides a list of books that were key to his research (666).