Author: Gole, Henry G
Date published: April 1, 2010
The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles that Saved South Korea-and the Marines-from Extinction. By Bill Sloan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. 385 pages. $27.00.
It matters that Bill Sloan is a journalist, novelist, and writer of nonfiction. Among his nonfiction books are four popular histories admiring Marines in combat. The most recent, The Darkest Summer, focuses on the period from the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) on 25 June 1950 to 27 September 1950, when General Douglas MacArthur personally restored Syngman Rhee as president in the National Assembly building in Seoul. Sloan then summarizes events after the friendly forces crossed the 38th parallel, doffing his cap to Marines who fought well.
Sloan describes the terrible beating taken by US forces from late June to mid-September at the hands of the surprisingly well-armed and well-trained NKPA, providing a sense of desperation and defeat. Enemy employment of the T-34 Soviet tank was particularly effective, both in combat power and psychological effect. The piecemeal commitment of unprepared soldiers that resulted in embarrassing ineffectiveness is all too familiar to historians, soldiers, and general readers. Friendly forces were scraped up where they could be found and assembled in Korea, often committed to battle without preparation or training. They barely hung onto the Pusan perimeter in the southeastern corner of Korea (with ominous memories of the British experience at Dunkirk a decade earlier). But hang on they did, buying time for the planning and execution of the daring and successful 15 September 1950 amphibious operation at Inchon, on the western side of the peninsula more than 200 miles northwest of Pusan. The NKPA, trapped between the 8th Army advancing north and X Corps in the vicinity of Seoul and the 38th parallel, was mauled and almost annihilated. This is a fair summary of events, but none of it is new.
Sloan tells what Marines call "sea stories." He gets high marks for his descriptions of terrain, men, and how firefights at the squad, platoon, and company level fit into the larger context of what the generals were attempting to accomplish. He spins inspirational yarns of heroism in Korea and provides flashbacks to World War II to show that many of the Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers in 1950 were veterans of the earlier war. The sea stories are new, but a serious problem surfaces in getting specific and being certain about combat actions at the cutting edge from long ago. It has all to do with getting it right. Sea stories generally improve with age and retelling.
Truth is the first victim of war. In addition to efforts to arouse a public to support "us" and oppose "them," emotions are at work as soldiers and civilians die while true or false reports of rape, murder, and mayhem become public. Alleged logic and rational decision-making before war become muddied by rage, revenge, and passion during war. And that happens at some point removed from actual combat.
Sloan's absolute confidence in the veracity and accuracy of his sources is at odds with this reviewer's inclination to be more tentative about combat reporting. It is very hard to get the truth of close combat right, even when participants want to get it right. (There are reasons to hide the truth.) Eyewitnesses can be mistaken. (DNA contradiction of eyewitness accounts is commonplace.) Veterans of close combat may be describing the most frightening experience of their lives. Their chief concern was probably survival; they report what they saw, a part of the action in a building, forest, or trench segment. The passage of time blurs memory. (That is one of the reasons we de brief immediately after a patrol or combat mission.) Some of Sloan's sources described events of 60 years earlier-with quoted dialog. The better method is to paraphrase.
Then, even if you get it right, you must tell it right. Journalists write the first draft of history, fully aware that there is more to the story. Novelists find "the essential truth" in their creations. Academic historians strive to validate sources and cross-reference facts, risking dryness for the sake of accuracy. The popular historian is tempted to sacrifice scrupulous adherence to fact in order to improve the story, falling somewhere between the novelist and the academic historian.
Sloan sometimes resorts to clichés and florid prose to pose tension between soldiers and Marines, between the "brass" and frontline soldiers. Good stories need conflict, but evidence of casual research and a cavalier disregard of nuance abound. Dean Acheson denies that he "pointedly left Korea out of a protected American defense zone in the Far East." Sloan finds the term Task Force Smith "overblown, almost ludicrous," suggesting he had naval usage in mind. Snipers fire burp guns. Only a baseball bat or pistol is less desirable for "sniping," as that word is used in the military. "Its code name on the maps was Hill 202." Of course, 202 is the elevation of the hill. The author is surprised to learn that the barrel of a Browning automatic rifle is hot to the hand after firing. Sloan spins very readable yarns told by veteran Marines, but his book offers little for the serious student.
Reviewed by Henry G. Gole, author of General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War and other books.