Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Korean War and Context

While M might be better known for her book reviews on her blog, I thought I would get in on the act with a few thoughts on a book that I am 2/3 of the way through. Right now I am reading my 3rd David Halberstam book, but unlike the other ones that focused on sports (Michael Jordan and Bill Belichick specifically) this one is about the Korean War. The Coldest Winter is a remarkable read that has made me care about something that I hadn't really thought about before. (And yes, that is true even though I visited the DMZ separating North and South Korea back in 2004.)

One thing about the book that I especially like is the amount of context Halberstam provides when talking about the people and the situation. It isn't enough to just write about the details of the Korean War and the decisions President Truman, General Douglas MacArthur, Mao Zedong and others made. In order to fully understand the Korean War it is important to understand Dewey defeats Truman, McArthur's relationship with his Mother, and Mao Zedong's revolution against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in China.

Halberstam understood the importance of context and detail. It is remarkable that in a book that is over 600 pages there aren't many wasted words. The context that Halberstam devotes many pages to is critical to the entire story. If you don't know the back story then you don't really know the current story. I think this is extremely relevant point to keep in mind.

Yesterday, I found a free hour in between cooking dinner (burgers with guacamole) and the Jazz-Grizzlies game (the official nail in the coffin for the Jazz playoff hopes) and decided to watch an episode of Men of a Certain Age. The show is about a group of middle age men dealing with family pressure, divorce and getting old. One of the plot lines from last night was about a guy (Owen) who lost his power during a non-permitted construction project (the contractor lied to him) and needed to get certain permits from a government worker. The government worker was sympathetic to his situation, but repeatedly told Owen about how he couldn't do anything to help him because his hands were tied. Owen focused on how this would impact his family and became increasingly frustrated. Near the end of the show he had an epiphany where he changed his focus from his problems to the government worker's situation. He asked a few basic questions (what sports do you like?) based on contextual clues (a Lakers poster). Finally, he ended up getting the permits by telling a life story that was very relatable to the government worker.

At that point in the show I might have been the only person in the world who was thinking about how the Korean War and Men of a Certain Age were at all similar. The similarities I found were that the better someone understood the context then the better off the were. Mao Zedong knew more about General McArthur's history and thus was better prepared for him than the other way around. Owen in Men of a Certain Age finally understood the government worker's world and once he did he was able to certain a certain failure into a success.

In the end I think that context is underrated in terms of importance. When separating people who pretend like they know (and are basically just good actors) and people who do know, the difference is the depth of their understanding. The more information someone has on a topic, the better informed you will be from listening to them. Context is key.

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