Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post correspondent in Northeast Asia, is the author of three books about North Korea, most recently “King of Spies.”
President Trump is never mentioned in “On Desperate Ground,” a superb account of the greatest battle of the Korean War, when U.S. Marines, against all odds, fought their way out of the freezing mountains of North Korea. Yet, on every page, Trump is never far from a reader’s mind. For the ghastly bloodletting at the heart of Hampton Sides’s book would never have occurred without the ignorance and misjudgment of a peculiarly self-infatuated American leader then entering his eighth decade.
In our Trump-saturated culture, “On Desperate Ground” is impossible to read as anything other than a cautionary tale. It shows the potentially horrifying consequences of giving too much power to an aging and incurious narcissist who cannot acknowledge error.
As narrative history, the book is a masterpiece of thorough research, deft pacing and arresting detail. As an allegory for America’s current leadership predicament, it is nothing less than terrifying.
Sixty-eight years ago, in the early months of the Korean War, America’s narcissist in chief was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As the 70-year-old supreme commander of allied powers in the Pacific, he had been given a blank check. “We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically,” Defense Secretary George Marshall told the general in a cable approved by President Harry Truman.
MacArthur was coming off perhaps the finest moment of his long career, having conceived and executed a daring amphibious assault on the South Korean port of Incheon. It cut the Soviet-backed North Korean army in half. For a few intoxicating weeks in the fall of 1950, it seemed that MacArthur’s bravura invasion had whipped the communists and would win the war.
Victory, though, was never quite enough for MacArthur. He was so much more — and so much less — than a general. “He yearned for public adoration,” wrote biographer William Manchester. When adoration came, so did character rot. MacArthur became vain, paranoid, preening and ridiculous — with a corncob pipe, a long flowing scarf, an infamous combover and a staff of sycophants who, as one historian put it, were afraid to “disturb the dream world of self-worship in which he chose to live.”
The great general, lacking a time machine, couldn’t tweet about his wonderfulness, but he exploited every other means of self-aggrandizement then available. “It was as though he had become the emperor, and a touchy one at that, jealous of his routines and creature comforts, microscopically attentive to the trappings of power and the nuances of publicity,” Sides writes, in one of many passages that evoke Trump without mentioning him. To be fair to MacArthur’s memory, he was a genuine warrior, notably fearless in battle and often eager to risk his life for the sake of his country. Trump, for all his warrior rhetoric, avoided military service by using college deferments and by finding a doctor who diagnosed temporary bone spurs in his feet.
Disastrously, for the Marines and other American fighting men who would soon freeze, suffer and die in the mountains of North Korea, MacArthur took his eyes off the battlefield after his triumph at Inchon. Attentive to his press clippings, he ignored compelling intelligence showing that the war was far from over. He willfully refused to see that the Chinese were coming.
Mao Zedong did not want armed Americans prancing around on China’s northeast border and was willing to go to war to remove them. He warned MacArthur not to send U.S. forces north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between the two Koreas. The general dismissed Mao’s warning as “Red propaganda.” Even after 200,000 Chinese troops slipped into North Korea and began to engage American forces, MacArthur — who believed he had a special feel for “the Oriental mind” — chose not to notice them.
Instead, he ordered many tens of thousands of Americans to rush north toward the Chinese border, a maneuver he claimed would “for all practical purposes end the war.” His claim was absurd. As arctic cold descended on the North Korean high country, he exposed his men to Chinese ambush and unspeakable suffering.
“MacArthur had blundered badly,” Sides writes. “He had been outwitted and outflanked by a guerrilla army with no air force, crude logistics, and primitive communications, an army with no tanks and precious little artillery. He was responsible for one of the most egregious intelligence failures in American military history.”
In “On Desperate Ground,” Sides focuses his considerable narrative gifts on the human consequences of that failure. He shows how brave Marines — officers and grunts — innovated, organized and blasted their way out of the trap their fabulously famous boss had helped set. This war story — the fight to break out of a frozen hell near the Chosin Reservoir — has been told many times before. But Sides tells it exceedingly well, with fresh research, gritty scenes and cinematic sweep.
Marine Lt. John Yancey, his left eyeball pried loose by machine gun fire, grabs his dangling eye, mashes it back into its gore-slickened socket and continues fighting.
Marine Pvt. Hector Cafferata, with frozen feet, a mangled hand and a bullet in the gut, saves the life of a grenade-blinded comrade by single-handedly gunning down several dozen Chinese.
Frozen corpses of Chinese soldiers (as many as 10,000 were killed in one night) pile up around the Marines, who use them as sniper screens, as windbreaks, as ballast for rebuilding a blown bridge.
In the end, a miraculously large number of Marines escaped the frozen Chosin. They lost 750 men. To get out, they had to kill an estimated 30,000 Chinese.
When the Marines came down to safety, MacArthur did not bother to greet them. He certainly did not apologize. Instead, the five-star general (whom Truman would soon fire) pronounced the evacuation a success. As Sides writes, “It seemed not to register with the supreme commander that the nightmare the Marines had just passed through bore any relationship to him.”
For what it’s worth, Sides began work on this book long before Trump became president. It’s not the author’s fault that “On Desperate Ground” is now so scary to read.
By Hampton Sides
Doubleday. 394 pp. $30