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Corporal Boskin's Cold Cold  War: A Comical Journey

by Joseph Boskin

Syracuse University Press | 2011 | 184 pages | $26.99

Reviewed by Alan Jay Friedman

As a writer of many musicals and stories, I have not yet tried my hand at memoir writing.   Somewhere down the road, though, I might try to reminisce on the extraordinary confluences of my life, or sum up its various surprises and happenings.  But of one thing I'm certain; memoirs are a tricky form of writing.  They can be mundane, narrow and self-serving.  Or, by offering up a slice of life that isoutside of our own domain and providing insight into a fascinating experience, a memoir can draw us deeply into another time and place.   An historical memoir that came my way, Corporal Boskin's Cold Cold War:  A Comical Journey, so thoroughly engrossed me that I'm now considering giving the form a whirl.

Joseph Boskin is an Emeritus Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University who has written a slew of academic books.  But an experience he had as a draftee during the Korean War in the 1950s, a major conflict that erupted within the larger context of the Cold War, drew him into writing an historical memoir. 

Intriguingly, Boskin was the sole historian of a top-secret, scientific-expeditionary unit consisting of 275 men of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps who were sent to northern Greenland in 1953.  Operating out of Thule Air Force Base, they were instructed to find a way through the dangerous crevasses that criss-cross the edges of the Ice Cap.  Otherwise it would be impossible to mount large-scale caravans of tracked vehicles and sleds across the vast reaches of the Greenland. 

Ostensibly, the outfit was only to test equipment and map the terrain, but a hidden objective was to look into the feasibility of building yet another air base closer to the U.S.S.R.   B-52 bombers loaded with thermonuclear warheads regularly flew out of Thule and headed towards targets approximately five hours away. 

The Pentagon wanted to get even closer to the enemy.

On this level alone this is fascinating military history, yet this is not what Boskin has essentially focused on.  Rather, he was concerned with the kind of history that would emerge from the overall episode and with the actual stories of the men which never make their appearance in the accounts of such reports. 

Boskin wanted to avoid the sanitized format of military volumes, and so has woven a drama of funny interlocking episodes.

Incongruity is at the core of this hilarious take on what happened way up in Thule. In a way, this story is closely tied to Joseph Heller's magnificently satirical novel of 1961, whose title is now part of everyday expressions, Catch-22.  Cold Cold War:  A Comical Journey is  rife with amazing surprises in the frozen north, a climate that gradually softened during the short summer months; at one time or another men grappled with frozen soil, twenty-four hour sunlight, ice-cream deprivation, quick-sand permafrost, plus a host of hysterical responses to these challenges. 

This is a short work, and when I completed it, I wanted more. Not too many books do that for me, and so I offer up Corporal Boskin as a joy for many readers interested in military narratives but with a humorous flare.

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