The Coldest War

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by James Brady; Orion Books; 248 pages.

In 1947 a New York college boy named James Brady did a smart thing. The draft had just been reinstituted, and Brady signed up with something called the Platoon Leaders Class, which, for the small tariff of a couple of summers spent at the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia, allowed him to avoid two interminable years of Army duty. In June 1950 he graduated from college and received a second lieutenant’s commission in the USMC Reserve. A week later the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel, and by the following Thanksgiving Brady was leading a rifle platoon in freezing Asian mountains.

Clay Blair called his fine history of the Korean conflict The Forgotten War ; Brady calls his fine memoir of it The Coldest War . Both titles contain a fair amount of truth. Falling between the high and successful drama of World War II and a more recent, far more controversial Asian war, Korea occupies a dead spot in the national memory. And yet it consumed in three years fifty-four thousand American lives—a toll Vietnam took a decade to exact—and it saw feats of arms as spectacular as any in the Second World War.

“In some ways,” writes Brady, “it wasn’t a modern war at all, more like Flanders or the Somme or even the Wilderness campaign. . . . Korea was fought mostly by infantrymen with M-1 rifles and machine guns and hand grenades or mortars. There was artillery, of course, quite good on both sides. And barbed wire, lots of that, and mines, always the mines. We lived under the ground, in sandbagged bunkers, and stood watch in trenches. Men who fought in France in 1917 would have understood Korea; Lee’s and Grant’s men would have recognized it.”

Certainly the soldiers of the First World War would have recognized Brady’s first posting, to a static line high in the winter mountains. Having heard stories about the terrible retreat from the Chosin Reservoir the year before, and having seen a spectacular full-color training film of surgeons snapping off a soldier’s black, frostbitten toes as one might pull grapes from their stem, Brady particularly feared the cold. It imposed its own rules on the fighting; so, too, did the rigid, Western Front life of raid and counterraid, of stringing barbed wire, of taking losses all along a front that never wavered—and never would until war’s end.

After forty-nine days in the line that left Brady filthy, battered, and confident, his outfit moved out of winter and the mountains to fighting that was in keeping with the more recent past: “We will come back again, these marines and more,” Brady finds himself calling to a cowed group of villagers, “and if there are Chinese here, we will kill the Chinese and we will burn this village and turn you out into the fields.”

Forty years and a career in magazine journalism have not diluted Brady’s memories of his war. His is an equable voice and a wise and often funny one, but he is unsparing in his assessments of others, and of himself. He can also summon with eloquent clarity details that add pleasure and authority to his book: how the smell of the pine forests was like home, and not; his shyness during a first night in the line surrounded by the consummate professionals of a mortar outfit; how even the neat row of rivets above his bunk in the ship that carried him home could be a fascinating novelty after the grubby disorder of life in the field.

Brady’s absorbing book is both an intimate picture of what it is like to be young in a tremendous time and an affecting memorial to men who did a hard job well and who deserve to have their work better remembered.