A small peninsula jutting out of Asia into the Pacific Ocean, separating the Yellow Sea on the west from the Sea of Japan on the east, Korea has been much in the news of late. Or rather, North Korea has, with talks of the looming denuclearization and occasional reminders of President Trump’s abiding infatuation with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un lobbed into the Twitter-verse. But North Korea as a separate entity from its half to the south is a relatively new development, dating only to the end of World War II, when the world’s two newest superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, split the country at the 38th parallel. Thus, after some 35 years under the rule of Japan, one nation became two, governed from communist Pyongyang in the north and the U.S.-backed Seoul in the south.
“It’s one people, it’s one culture, it’s one language. It should never have been separated” says Hampton Sides, Memphis native, award-winning author, editor-at-large of Outside magazine, and author of the just-released On Desperate Ground
(Doubleday). “That tragedy lives on today.”
Sides is currently on a book tour for On Desperate Ground
, his riveting account of the U.S. intervention in Korea, specifically the Marines’ battle at Chosin Reservoir, where U.S. troops were ambushed by wave after wave of Chinese soldiers. Sides called me from his hotel room to discuss his new narrative history, squeezing our conversation in between a delayed flight and a booksigning later that night. Sides book tour will land him in Memphis, Monday, Oct. 8th, for a talk and booksigning at Novel.
“I have historical ADD,” Sides says when I ask him what drew his attention to the conflict at Chosin. “I have to move around or I stagnate.” Sides’ far-ranging interests are evident in the diverse subject matter of his previous novels. Though his PEN Award-winning Ghost Soldiers
, a WWII account of the an Allied prison camp raid, is not far off in tone from On Desperate Ground
, his other books run the historical gamut, with perhaps one common thread: “A lot of my stories focus on human endurance and survival and what happens when people are confronted with extreme circumstances.”
During a book signing in Virginia, Sides was approached by a “grizzled old man” who suggested the author should cover the Chosin Reservoir. Sides noticed the man’s hand when the old timer handed him a business card — the man, a veteran of the conflict at Chosin, had missing digits; he’d lost them to frostbite while in the mountains of North Korea. During the conflict, temperatures dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and 85% of the men involved suffered from frostbite: “A lot of them say they’re still trying to get the cold out of their bones.”
Throughout On Desperate Ground
, Sides pays attention, not only to star players like General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. President Harry Truman, and Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, but also to civilians and the grunts on the ground. “The lifeblood of this book was interviews with these guys,” Sides says, referring to the soldiers who lost pieces of themselves to cold and Chinese bullets on a mountain range in North Korea. The author spent almost four years on research for the book, much of it consisting of interviews with veterans whose voices have been hitherto unheard, who were not followed by a coterie of journalists, as was MacArthur. “I wanted to cut back and forth between the guys on the ground and the decision makers,” Sides says.
Those decision makers make up the primary “protagonists” and “antagonists” of the book. Marine General Oliver P. Smith, the evident protagonist, led the U.S. intervention in Korea, first the liberation of South Korea from North Korean encroachment, and then a push into North Korea to throw off the communist yoke and unite the country under U.S.-influenced rule. The invasion of the north was instigated by MacArthur, who had come to believe his own press after his successes in the Philippines in WWII, and by MacArthur’s favored lieutenant, Army General Edward Almond. Whereas Smith believed intelligence about Chinese troops who had infiltrated North Korea in secret to support their communist allies, and took measures to slow the break-neck march north and save as many of his troops as possible, MacArthur and Almond denied the reports and, in doing so, spent the lives of their men recklessly.
If there is an antagonist to Sides’ book, he says it is MacArthur and his yeasaying staff. “MacArthur never spent a single night on the ground in the entire Korean War,” Sides reports. And so, leading from Tokyo, where he supervised the occupation of Japan, MacArthur vastly underestimated the resistance his troops would face. Almond was MacArthur’s man on the ground in Korea, and he pushed the advance with little concern for potential consequences. Though “quite brave,” Sides says, Almond was “almost criminally out of touch.” Sides went on: “I think he has a lot of blood on his hands. He and MacArthur both.”
But the generals and presidents are not the only subject matter of On Desperate Ground
. Most riveting to my mind was the story of one civilian, a transplanted North Korean living in Seoul, who survived the siege and liberation of Seoul only to volunteer to accompany U.S. troops into North Korea as a translator. “Part of the book I’m most proud of is the story of the North Korean civilian Dr. Lee [Bae-suk],” Sides says, emphasizing Lee’s importance as a way of gaining perspective on the conflict. “We forget that there are civilians on the ground who experience [war] in such tangible ways.”
Forgetful, though, is not a charge one could level at Sides. The Memphis native takes great care to give background and context to the trials American troops faced at Chosin. And this attention to detail serves to bring into greater focus the horrors of the Battle of Chosin, from frostbite to miscommunication to waves of Chinese soldiers. The vista crystalizes in the mind’s eye, a frozen hell.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business,” Sides says, pointing out that there was an armistice to end the Korean War but no actual peace treaty. “The DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] is one of the most militarized places on Earth.” And whatever the news brings, whatever uncertain future exists for the two neighboring nations, with On Desperate Ground, Sides gives readers a crystal-clear and compelling glimpse into the past.
Hampton Sides signs
On Desperate Ground at Novel, Monday, October 8th, at 6 p.m.