December 11, 2014
(+++) MEMORIES OF A FORGOTTEN WAR
A Christmas Far from Home: An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival during the Korean War. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $26.99.
Christmas in wartime is always a little strange. Strangest of all was Christmas 1914, when British and German troops met in no man’s land in exactly the spirit of comity and good will that was notably absent during (and before and after) that devastating conflict – and then, when the day was done, immediately resumed trying to kill each other. It is testimony to the inherent peculiarities of the human mind, and perhaps to the special madness that is all-out war, that this World War I story, while extreme, is scarcely the only one relating to a holiday of peace and good will at a time and place dedicated to mass killing and destruction.
Stanley Weintraub’s A Christmas Far from Home shows the importance – and, alas, the ultimate irrelevance – of the Christmas spirit in a different way, during a different war. The Korean conflict, which has never formally ended (it concluded with a cease-fire agreement, not a peace treaty), is sometimes considered a forgotten war in the United States, where the historical focus in recent decades has been more on World War II and Vietnam. But Weintraub has certainly not forgotten: he served in Korea, being awarded a Bronze Star there, and in this book – the latest of several Christmas-themed war books he has written, others being Silent Night and Pearl Harbor Christmas – he gives readers a “you are there” feeling for the Christmas season of 1950, five months after the war started.
This is not a place or time that readers will be comfortable visiting. Weintraub tells the story largely through first-person accounts by troops, but at the same time he puts what happened in perspective through his own looks at tactical plans and the political strategies that largely shaped those plans. This means that the book is, on the one hand, the story of General Edward Almond’s X Corps and General Oliver Smith’s Marine division within it – and, on the other hand, the story of President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur at a time before the famous clash that led Truman to fire MacArthur in 1951. In A Christmas Far from Home, MacArthur is riding his success at Inchon with an eye toward his own political future, in the course of which he promises to have the troops home from Korea by Christmas 1950. MacArthur as seen here is arrogant, ego-driven and politically ambitious, scarcely the strong and determined military leader that his many defenders still make him out to be. And Truman comes across as weak-willed and passively accepting of MacArthur’s proclamations, strategy and tactics, even though MacArthur himself was only occasionally in Korea: he was stationed in Tokyo, and he relied for intelligence on such military “yes men” as Major General Edward “Ned” Almond, MacArthur’s Far East Command deputy.
The result of these circumstances is chilling – and was literally chilling for troops forced to fight a brutal and relentless winter campaign in some of the most rugged mountains in Asia. MacArthur’s ego and his overreaching through his Christmas-themed promise made him oblivious to the brilliant strategy of Mao Zedong, who allowed the United Nations troops under MacArthur’s command (most of them American) to advance with little resistance to positions near the Yalu River. These troops of the X Corps – which was newly created as an east coast parallel to the Eighth Army, which was marching up Korea’s west coast – were unaware that the North Koreans and their Chinese helpers were massing their forces at the Manchurian border, secretly slipping them across the Yalu River by night in sub-zero temperatures. Soon the X Corps faced overwhelming numbers of highly disciplined and determined enemy troops – forcing a casualty-laden retreat through ice-clogged mountains where the very landscape, which included a 4,000-foot-deep abyss, seemed to turn against MacArthur’s forces. Eventually, led by the Marines in their midst, the surviving soldiers of X Corps did escape, with the ship waiting for them ironically weighing anchor on Christmas Eve. MacArthur’s strategy lay in ruins, and the foundation was laid for the eventual unresolvable conflict between him and Truman.
The heroes here are the fighters on the ground, not most of their commanders and certainly not the politicians directing them (and Weintraub makes it clear that MacArthur here acted more like a politician than a commanding general). A Christmas Far from Home includes the same sorts of scenes of fear and courage, trial and triumph, death and survival that are central to Weintraub’s other military-history books and many others in the genre. Also like those other books, it is a celebration of the common soldier and a condemnation of the know-nothing (or know-little) command structure. Well-written, with a strong sense of place, by an author who, after all, himself served in the conflict, the book will be of most interest to other Korean War veterans and to those interested in military history for its own sake. It is decidedly a niche publication, but it is a very well-done one that contains some genuinely thoughtful reconsideration of the more-common notions about the determination and heroism of MacArthur and Truman – suggesting that the truly determined people, the true heroes, were the members of X Corps desperately trying to escape from overwhelming odds so that at least some of their number would indeed be out of Korea by Christmas.