Think about the last time you were cold.
Not the kind of cold you compensated for by putting on a warmer sweater or adding another log to the fire. I mean really, really cold.
The kind of chill you experienced sledding on a favorite hill for too long a time or bracing icy winds while sitting high up in the bleachers during a December football game. You're teeth chatter, your fingers and toes grow numb, your nostrils turn raw and you lips crack. You struggle to walk, talk, think; your only clear thought is two words--get warm.
Now, multiply that 10 times and you can get a sense of what U.S. Marines and Chinese soldiers endured during the 1950 battle of the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.
Jeff Shaara attempts to put the "brrr" in the reader as he describes the appalling conditions the combatants faced in "The Frozen Hours." Rations and canteens frozen, weapons locked up, engines seized. Temperatures so cold it hurts to breathe.
Longtime historical novelist Shaara follows his now-familiar template of describing a battle through the eyes of human adversaries. But it's his descriptions of a third, nonhuman enemy--the weather--that adds a new dimension to military fiction.
There are three main real-life figures here: Oliver P. Smith, the commander of the Marines' First Division who must break his men out of a trap; Pete Riley, a Marine veteran whose company gets tasked with guarding a key hill overlooking a critical transit pass through the Korean mountains; and Sung Shi -- Lun, commander of the Chinese army group tasked with not only halting the United Nations' (read: American) advance to the Yalu River but completely annihilating the Marine division.
The Chosin Reservoir saga is well documented, so there's little new light Shaara sheds on the story. The novel would have been richer with a viewpoint from an ordinary Chinese foot soldier. And Shaara's sanitized dialogue also stretches credulity (would one Marine ever call another "old chum"?)
Nevertheless, there is an underlying conundrum about the human instinct for survival that keeps "The Frozen Hours" interesting. In an environment like this, how would the subconscious prioritize threats? Is death by gunfire worse than death by cold, or vice versa?
Intentionally or not, Shaara's narrative shows that in some battles, a combatant's internal struggle may decide the outcome more than an external foe. ___
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