Celebrated author Hampton Sides returns to Colorado College on Sunday to discuss his newest book, “On Desperate Ground”, about the Battle of Chosin, seen by many as the greatest battle of the Korean War.
Sides addressed what attracted him to the story of that historic battle and the experience of writing about one of the more frightening — and inspiring — episodes in U.S. military history.
Question: What first drew you to this story?
Answer: I was signing books at an event in Virginia, and a veteran of the battle gave me a card that said “The Chosin Few.” I remember his hand. Frostbitten, missing a few fingers. I hadn’t even heard of the Chosin Resevoir. I put the card in my pocket, and it stayed with me. The more I found out about the battle, the more strongly I felt it should be better known.
Q: The battle has been written about before. What separates “On Desperate Ground” from the books before it?
A: My focus is the human dimension. Like a lot of my previous books, this one is focused on how extreme circumstances change people — human resilience, stamina, strength, grace under pressure. I set out to write an account that would draw the reader in, give some sense of what it might have felt like to be there. Even when I’m writing about big historical events, what MacArthur is doing in Tokyo, or Truman in Washington, I’m focused on understanding the person behind the decision as well as the decision itself.
Q: What about the role of MacArthur? This is also a story of human vanity and questionable judgment. How deep did you have to dig to get at that part of the story?
A: MacArthur made mistakes that were so blatant and self-evident that they were impossible to ignore. Though he tried to spin things in a positive way and had deep support back in the United States, many back in Washington knew and understood what had happened. MacArthur disregarded clear indications that significant numbers of Chinese had entered North Korea to spring a trap. It was one of the worst failures of intelligence in American military history, and to make matters worse, once that intelligence came in, he and his staff chose to ignore it. He has a lot of blood on his hands. Ultimately, Truman fired him.
Q: The Korean leader during the war was Kim il-sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. What does your book tell us about this family?
A: It’s fascinating and tragic. Like his grandson, Kim il-sung understood the cult of personality and how to make himself into a mythical figure. He put out some wild stories, like that he was invisible during battles and walked on water. That’s fake news! The book is a window into the original Kim’s absolutist style and how he built a totalitarian state around his family dynasty — the same playbook his son, and now his grandson, adopt.
Q: This is a story about a battle, but it’s also about reminding people about this war in which millions died.
A: That’s right. It’s unfortunate that the Korean War is sometimes forgotten. One of my reasons for writing this book was to better understand where that amnesia comes from. But there’s nothing forgettable about the battle at the Chosin Reservoir. For me, it was the ultimate military survival story.
Steven Hayward is director of the Colorado College Journalism Institute.