The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War
Ballantine Books, 2017, 560 pp., $28.99
The Korean War and the Americans who directed its campaigns have recently seen some new literary light: Arthur Herman’s Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior (2017) is a bio weighing in a just under a thousand pages; H.W. Brands’s The General and the President (2016) examines the relationship between President Truman and General MacArthur, and Adam Makos’s Devotion (2015) is the story of two very unlikely friends flying attack aircraft off of U.S. Navy carriers during the war. Joining the list now is Jeff Shaara, who has made his career writing military historical fiction with a particular focus on the American Civil War. With The Frozen Hours, Shaara has jumped forward 85 years and taken on the Chosin Reservoir campaign, a military story as dramatic and heroic as any that exists.
As a genre, military historical fiction needs to be both a good tale well told and historically accurate. Shaara succeeds on both counts. The Frozen Hours would be a good choice for anyone with an interest in the genre, the Korean War in general, or a good MacArthur-bashing. Historical novelists can approach their work in any number of ways. One might write fictional characters into historical events, sending them skipping merrily, Forrest Gump-style, through cataclysm and catastrophe. Or one might imagine the conversations and sensibilities of significant historical characters involved in the events, only adding fictional characters as needed. The latter approach is Shaara’s, as he carries the reader through the events of the autumn of 1950 alongside Pete Riley, a Marine infantryman; Major General O.P. Smith, the commander of the First Marine Division, Riley’s unit; and Chinese General Sung Shi-Lun, the commander of the Ninth Army Group.
Shaara chooses to focus on the actions of Americans and Chinese to the exclusion of Koreans from both the North and South. The larger story of the campaign is the entrance of Communist China into the war and the resultant devastation of the United Nations forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. Koreans are present, as Shaara tells it, but they are unnecessary to one’s understanding of the story. Shaara’s acceptance of their historical presence even as he allows their narrative absence may seem cold if not arrogant, but it reflects how the major antagonists in the war saw Koreans at the time—as walk-ons in their own war. The story he tells is one of courage and of leadership, of integrity and grit, and of the terrible human costs of war. It is also a story of hubris, racism, and a firm but misguided belief in the great-man theory of history.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when 75,000 North Korean soldiers backed by Soviet-provided T-34 tanks blitzed across the border into South Korea. The South Korean army withered and, even with U.S. reinforcements, by August the North controlled nearly all the peninsula. U.S. forces under Lieutenant General Walton Walker held a 140-mile perimeter around the east-coast port of Pusan. In September, General Douglas MacArthur ordered an amphibious invasion deep behind North Korean lines, on the west-coast port of Inchon.
The Inchon invasion was perilous and audacious. General O.P. Smith’s First Marine Division stormed the docks and quays of the port and within a day had secured the port city and begun crashing toward Seoul, breaking North Korean supply lines, destabilizing the North’s rear area, and forcing the Communist commanders into a strategic withdrawal. After reclaiming Seoul, MacArthur ordered his field commanders—Walker commanding the Eighth Army in the west and Major General Edward “Ned” Almond commanding Tenth U.S. Corps (X Corps) in the east—to pursue the North Koreans to the Yalu River separating Korea from China.
Shaara begins his story at Inchon. The first line of the book is delivered by MacArthur at the moment of his greatest triumph. Shaara must show us the great man at the opening of the story. MacArthur is the gun, displayed in the first act, that must go off in the third. It is MacArthur’s operational error, his hubris, and his racism that make the events in the story both tragic and inevitable. It is a very sound decision on Shaara’s part to leave him unseen for the remainder of the book, for his presence, even his shadow, is overwhelming. For here is the five-star general, the viceroy; a man authorized to wear the Medal of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Service Medals, and seven Silver Star Medals. When he commanded the Inchon landings, MacArthur had been a general officer for 32 years. He was a brigadier general when his subordinate field commanders (and his eventual replacement, Matthew Ridgway) were lieutenants. It isn’t possible to tell a story of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War without MacArthur. Nor is there a way to focus on others with Mac on the stage, so just as Shaara must show MacArthur at the beginning, he must also get him off stage in order to continue.
At its best, a novel is a vehicle to illuminate the human condition. Shaara’s focuses the reader on the actions and lives of the three principal characters and those around them. The bombs and fighter planes, the grenades, rifles and machine guns, the tanks and howitzers all play roles in the story, but this is a story about men—only one female character comes onto the stage—and war. Shaara shows us men as complete humans with all their frailties: fears, insecurities, egos, tempers, and ambitions.
O.P. Smith’s First Marine Division is the hub around which the story of the Chosin Reservoir campaign turns. Ned Almond, commanding X Corps, ordered Smith to move his division up the west side of the reservoir while the Army’s Seventh Division moved up the east side. Almond, constantly pushing for faster and more aggressive action by his subordinate commanders, had drunk heavily of the MacArthur Kool-Aid, and allowed himself to believe what MacArthur’s intelligence staff reported—that the Chinese wouldn’t enter the war.
Shaara gives us Almond, flying in and out of unit headquarters issuing orders and handing out medals, as a complicated but clear villain in the narrative. We see him pushing Smith to move faster, to exploit the enemy’s apparent retreat, while Smith delays in order to allow his units to consolidate, his logistics tail to catch up, and his engineers to build airfields.
Shaara’s O.P. Smith is a taciturn Christian Scientist who would probably just as soon be home with his wife and kids as fighting the Chinese in Korea. Smith worries constantly that he will lose the division. To lose a division would mean the destruction of the thing he has spent his life building, and the destruction of the man he has spent his life becoming. As Smith moves his regiments further north through the frozen mountain passes, we feel his anxiety, his contempt for Almond, and his regard for the Chinese soldiers he is about to battle. He worries about how he is perceived; should he smoke his pipe in front of his troops? Should he follow orders as given or find ways to delay the division’s advance in order to protect his men?
In Smith we see the embodied trust of 15,000 men that their general will do everything he can to carry out his mission while sacrificing as few of them as possible. Through Smith we see the hubris of MacArthur and Almond, who are willing to chew up units, driving commanders to overextend their lines of communication in order to meet a political time-table of taking Seoul within ninety days of the North Korean invasion, or of reaching the Yalu River in time to have the boys home for Christmas. Through Smith we see MacArthur’s and Almond’s racism, their belief that they understand “the Asian” mind and that the enemy are a bunch of “laundrymen.”
The key position of the division’s battles is a hill in the Taktong Pass, where the men of Fox Company, Seventh Marines fight. Shaara’s second narrative voice is that of Pete Riley, a private first class in Fox Company. We are with Riley as he digs into the frozen ground atop what will be known as Fox Hill. For six days and nights, from November 27 until they are relieved on December 2, Riley and the Marines of Fox Company repel waves of Chinese infantry charging and sometimes overrunning their positions. Riley is the story’s everyman. His voice is that of every cold, hungry, scared, infantryman from every war ever fought. It is through Riley that we see just what cold and hunger and lack of sleep can do to men and it is through Riley that we see the universal truth that men fight and die not for anything as glorious as a honor or justice or freedom, but for the man in the next fighting position.
Riley and the other Marines in the First Division were fighting against the soldiers of Chinese General Sung Shi-Lun’s Ninth Army Group. Sung’s orders were to destroy the American and South Korean forces before they reached the Chinese border on the Yalu. Mao Zedong gave Sung the 125,000 soldiers of the Ninth Army Group to do this with and Sung slipped them across the border, moving only at night, to positions in the mountains around the reservoir. There they waited and watched while the Americans stretched their lines of communications, extending the distances between units and from secure lines. Sung understood the advantages the Americans had in technology, aircraft and artillery chief among them. Moreover, he understood the American way of war and planned his campaign accordingly.
Shaara’s decision to have Sung as his third narrative voice allows us to sit beside him in a cold hut as he briefs his commanders—the hut is cold because the Chinese won’t make a fire that would be visible to American aircraft. We walk with Sung through the field hospitals where men sit with bandaged hands because their fingers have been amputated after freezing to their weapons. The ones who survive the surgery will be allowed to walk home to China. We try to understand Sung as a man and perhaps through him to understand the Chinese soldiers so underestimated by MacArthur and Almond. As much as O.P. Smith feels MacArthur’s presence, Sung feels Mao watching him, judging him.
Perhaps the dominant character in the book is the cold. Aside from the narrator, it is the character we spend the most time with. According to Dr. Stanley Wolf, battalion surgeon for the Second battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment, the temperatures during the Chosin Campaign reached as low as 40 below zero. Dr. Wolf wrote that wind chills weren’t estimated then, but current techniques would place the temperatures in the range of 60-70 degrees below zero. Throughout the story of the fighting at Chosin, we read of the Marines’ struggles with the cold. The linings of their pac boots froze, oiled weapons froze, C-rations froze. Hungry Marines quickly figured out that they could thaw pieces of candy—specifically Tootsie-Rolls—inside their mouths and the candies became a staple food. When water in canteens was frozen and rations had run out, the Marines ate Tootsie-Rolls and killed Chinese.
The contemporary parallel to the war in Korea would seem to be Afghanistan. Korea was the first significant hot war in the broader context of the Cold War. But it never quite captured the imagination of the American people as did the fight against fascism or as would the war in Vietnam. America, having fought and won World War II, wanted nothing more than to go back to work, buy houses in the suburbs, and watch Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Howdy Doody. Except there was this war over there somewhere. Korea was an exceptionally violent and stubborn four-year house fire in the context of the larger, global war we knew as the Cold War.
Afghanistan, likewise, was the first war of a new era, and also one that has never captured the imagination of America. Most Americans believed we entered the war there to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and the planners of the 9/11 attacks. We later learned that even though Bin Laden was in Afghanistan when we entered, the strategic role of the fight in Afghanistan was, for President Bush and his war cabinet, to fix the enemy while preparations were made for a larger war in Iraq against a man and nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. If Korea was a four-year flare-up of the Cold War, Afghanistan is a long-smoldering tire fire sparked by the long war against terrorism.
The lessons of Korea? “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” springs quickly to mind. But there are others. How about this one? Don’t move the goalposts.
When we went into Korea in July 1950 the goal was to push the invaders back to the status quo ante, defined as the 38th Parallel. That took just over three months and cost just over 8,000 American lives. The war continued for thirty more months and cost nearly 22,000 more American lives because the goals changed. We went into Afghanistan to dismantle al-Qaeda and drive the Taliban from power. Al-Qaeda as we knew it then no longer exists. But it has metastasized into cancerous cells around the globe and spawned Daesh, partially at least because we sent far too few troops to do the job and allowed bin Laden to slip the noose. The Taliban are no longer in power in Afghanistan, but they still exist. And we are sending the Marines back to Helmand because the goal of successfully turning the war over to the Afghans likely isn’t reachable in a generation.
Since the Korean War America has fought a series of improvisational and inconclusive wars without either declarations of war or the consensus of the citizenry, taken to the field against ideologies rather than states, and given our generals and troops ever-shifting goals and definitions of “victory.”
Korea introduced Americans (and the world) to the idea of limited war. In 1950 George Kennan’s containment strategy—“Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points….”—stood against MacArthur’s (and his supporters’) vehement distrust of the idea that “war can be fought in a piecemeal way, that you can make a half war, not a whole war.”
At the tactical level, the current American way of war is similar to that first displayed in Korea. Sung’s armies knew the Americans were road-bound and reliant on technology (in those days aviation and long-range artillery) to win. We are still pretty much road-bound (or helicopter-bound) and reliant on technology. In Korea, the enemy fought from the high mountains using limited technology and guerilla tactics honed during the Chinese civil war. In Afghanistan, the enemy fights from high mountains using low technology (and some higher tech) and with tactics, techniques, and procedures honed against the Russians and updated by nearly two decades of fighting the long war. America’s warfighters are probably the same type of men (and now ever more women) as those who fought in Korea: valiant, smart, and dedicated. How we, the American people, and the military bureaucracy treat our troops has changed, though. The U.S. government awarded 13 Medals of Honor for actions during two weeks of fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. There have been 14 Medals of Honor awarded in 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
The Frozen Hours succeeds in reminding us of the valor of the Marines at Chosin, and of the incredible capacity of human beings to suffer and to survive in order to protect something larger than themselves. The story of the Marines’ fight at Chosin deserves a good retelling once in a while, for it bears lessons that transcend any particular war. Shaara gives them to us.