A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
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Review by Tom Miller
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Korea is the Rodney Dangerfield of America's wars. Limited and inconclusive, it was destined to huddle in the shadow of World War II. Vietnam was similarly limited and inconclusive, but it played out in America's living rooms every evening and that made all the difference -- pushing Korea deeper into the recesses of national consciousness. What finally rescued the Korean War from obscurity was an irreverent (and anti-war) comedy from Robert Altman, M*A*S*H. Set in a mobile army hospital in Korea, the film premiered in 1970, and fueled by the growing anti-war backlash against Vietnam, became a popular and critical sensation. So popular, in fact, that it spawned one of the longest-running television series in history. The Korean War was on weekly TV and back on the map.
M*A*S*H fueled a renewed interest in America's "forgotten war" that eventually led to the creation of a Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Although there was an increase in the number of books published on the War, publishers (and readers) continued to favor World War II and Vietnam. Korea is no longer "forgotten," but it seems destined to always remain on the periphery.
Happily in the case of Korean War literature, diminished quantity does not mean lesser quality. With room for only ten selections on this list, there were many more deserving titles excluded than included. As always, my selections were guided by a couple of simple criteria: 1) with so few choices, general accounts tended to trump specific studies, and 2) intelligent and engaging always trumped intelligent and difficult. If you think we've missed something indispensable -- and surely we have -- let us know. With those caveats, apologies, and disclaimers, I give you the Top Ten Korean War Books (in alphabetical order):
Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950, by Martin Russ
This controversial but riveting account of the Chosin Reservoir debacle is told by a Marine participant who pointedly disparages Douglas MacArthur and the Army. Russ moves seamlessly among American, Korean, and Chinese perspectives in telling a story of arrogance and ineptitude among the brass and misery, courage, and perseverance among the troops.
Colder Than Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir, by Joseph R. Owen
The one word that seems to be used most often in describing the Korean War is "cold." Marine lieutenant Owen's memoir vividly relates how Marines on the front lines at Chosin fought and endured in temperatures that approached 25 degrees below zero.
The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea, by James Brady
Another Marine veteran, Brady's memoir is most compelling when he relates the progress of his on-the-job-training as a combat leader. He also offers insights into the relations between officers and enlisted Marines and the differences between Marines and soldiers. Brady has written extensively about the Marines including the well-received novel The Marines of Autumn: A Novel of the Korean War and the forthcoming (April) The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea.
East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950, by Roy Edgar Appleman
Chosin gets a lot of attention and rightly so. It was a pivotal battle and an epic catastrophe. Appleman focuses on the fate of the 7th Division task force surrounded by the Chinese at Chosin. "It would be hard," the author notes, "to find a more nearly hopeless or more tragic story in American military history."
The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953, by Clay Blair, Jr.
An exhaustive study of military decision-making in Korea. Blair, a respected military writer, is critical of President Truman and harshly critical of MacArthur.
The Hunters, by James Salter
An accomplished novelist and Korean War pilot, Salter captures the essence of aerial warfare as few have. Often compared to Hemingway's war writing, The Hunters ranks among the very best Korean War literature.
The Last Parallel: A Marine's War Journal, by Martin Russ
This is Marine Russ's (see above) memoir of Korea. Told from the perspective of the grunt -- with scant notice of the larger geopolitical picture -- this is perhaps the most colorful and the best memoir of the war.
The Price of Courage, by Curt Anders
Grim and desperate -- like war itself -- this is an overlooked novel of the Korean conflict. Anders, an infantry officer in Korea, gives the reader combat in all its fear and confusion. Plain-spoken and unsentimental, it deserves to be a classic.
This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach
The classic history of the Korean War. Col. Fehrenbach's study has been on several Army Chiefs of Staff's list of recommended reading.
We Were Innocents: An Infantryman in Korea, by William D. Dannenmaier
A compelling personal account of the author's transformation from an innocent youth to a warrior. Dannenmaier illuminates with wit and warmth an odyssey that millions of youth have traveled.
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