17 June 2009

The Frozen Chosin

My dad was with the 5th Marines (Easy Company) in Korea. I was weaned on Robert Leckie's March to Glory, a gripping, novelistic tale of the Chosin Reservoir campaign. Dad had been frozen at Yudman-ni, wounded at Hagaru-ri, and evacuated at Hugnam. The story of his regiment's two weeks of hell in the North Korean mountains was part of my childhood lore. One of the first comprehensive histories of the battle was put together in 1981 by Eric Hammel, titled Chosin: Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War. I just finished it, and unfortunately it lacked the concise elegance of Leckie's book, suffering from an excess of detail and a confusing chronology. Of course, I've read perhaps two dozen works on Korea and Chosin over the years, and to be fair to Mr. Hammel, I got to his last. Military history is a tough task for a writer. You have to have a grasp of the jargon and the technical aspects of war-fighting, a good sense of the times you are writing about, and an unconscious mastery of geography and terrain. (For me, none of these books have enough maps!) I think the problem comes down to scope. Broad histories often lack human detail, unit narratives often miss the cultural, political, and historical context. There's a balance out there, and I don't envy the author searching to find it.

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