MacArthur: A Man Out of Time

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More than a half century after his death General Douglas MacArthur continues to fascinate, as Francis P. Sempa demonstrates in a post at Real Clear Defense:

In 2015, the prolific and popular military historian Winston Groom (better known as the author of Forrest Gump) lauded MacArthur (along with Marshall and Patton) in The Generals as an exceptionally good soldier and great captain, who was as brave as a lion, bold as a bull, and audacious and inventive in “marshaling huge victorious armies.” MacArthur, Groom writes, served his country with distinction, and his memory “enriche[s] the national trust.”

James Duffy’s War at the End of the World, which appeared earlier this year, provides a detailed history of MacArthur’s New Guinea campaign, which has long been unfairly overshadowed by the Navy-Marine island battles in the Central Pacific.

Walter Borneman’s MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific has just been published. Borneman, like other MacArthur biographers, notes the general’s character flaws, but emphasizes MacArthur’s sense of mission, strategic brilliance, and “guiding principles of duty, honor, and country.”

Most anticipated, however, is Arthur Herman’s new biography, just released this month, entitled Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior. At 960 pages, it rivals the most comprehensive one-volume treatments of MacArthur to date: William Manchester’s American Caesar and Geoffrey Perret’s Old Soldier’s Never Die.

Later this fall, H.W. Brands’ The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War is scheduled to be released and, hopefully, will provide a fairer treatment of the Truman-MacArthur controversy than the conventional history that treats Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner.  The truth, as usual, is more complex.

Go here to read the rest.  I have long thought that the key to understanding MacArthur is that in many ways he was a strange combination of the 19th and 21rst centuries, cast adrift by fate in the twentieth century.

 

19th century in his rotund oratory, his hatred of telephones, his desire for face to face meetings and his lack of understanding of contemporary politics and mores, and 21rst century in his understanding that Asia is more important to the future of America than Europe, his successful example of rehabilitating a rogue nation and in his grasp that carefully planned and executed combined operations were a necessary force multiplier for a US adverse to heavy casualties.  It is no wonder that both his admirers and his detractors at the time viewed MacArthur as almost a freak of nature, and usually failed badly to understand this most complicated of all American military leaders.

 

 

A true military genius, this facet of the man has been obscured by his great failures, a lackluster, to be charitable, performance in the initial stages of his defense of the Philippines and his disastrous failure to plan for Chinese intervention in the Korean War, but perhaps more by his great successes, operating on a logistical shoe string, thousands of miles from the United States, he made it all seem simple by his preternatural ability at using the resources at hand with consummate skill, routinely outthinking and outfighting able Japanese opponents, and making huge advances at a relatively small cost in the lives of his men.

 

MacArthur’s vanity and flair for dramatics also help obscure that he was at bottom a decent man who, in a bloodstained century, sought to minimize where he could human suffering, whether it was American POWs or the population of Japan after the War.  Love him and hate him, MacArthur is in many ways a contemporary figure, and a close study of his life is not merely of historical value.

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3 Comments

  1. Of course, the Red Front US Left hates MacArthur to this day, because he threatened the world hegemony of China and Russia, even with nuclear weaponry, which they sought to achieve after WW2.
    ..
    However, my late father, who was anUS army artillery officer in WW2 and involved in the New Guinea campaign, idolized the man—regardless of his personal occasional deficiencies—and considered him one of the brightest, most knowledgeable men in the US Army, on a level with Patton. Like Patton, he grasped fully the battlefield, the theater, and even the inner thinking of his opponent strategists.

    Of course, he gravely mis-stepped in many ways at the outset of the war during the Imperial Japanese blitzkrieg through the Phillippines—but nothing really could have stopped them, so woefully inadequate was US military preparation for all-out war at that time. He also understood that the Phillippines, and he himself, were pawns to be sacrificed if necessary (they were) for the delay-detour-and-defeat strategy of Admirals King, Nimitz and others. One of the reasons for the rage of the IJ forces at Bataan and the death march was precisely because US Forces and Phillippine allies dogged them as much as possible in a completely uneven fight, costing them several additional weeks and logistical challenges.

    But, his crowning achievement, to me—transforming a post-war Japan with great understanding and empathy (and with much criticism, lost on his tough hide), everyone knows about, and to me and to my father, who had been scheduled for Operation Olympic, saved lives and was humane, almost divinely inspired, for two exhausted warring nations.

    It was also to the chagrin of the Soviets, who anticipated the two heavyweights in the Pacific bleeding each other white, even after the nuclear bombings, in a long, senseless guerilla warfare: a huge advantage to Stalin’s plans for Pacific power.

  2. Many years ago, I read Manchester’s MacArthur book. I thought he was even-handed. Manchester wrote to draw a parallel with Caesar.
    .
    If we look at MacArthur from a Greek “classics” viewpoint, we may see that he, in some aspects, fit the formula of the Greek tragedy. He was a great man with many accomplishment, exhibiting the Greek personality feature “arête” (Latin “virtus?). He was laid low, as were all Greek tragic heroes, by hubris, and the fact that in the USA the civilian authority, not the generals, run wars.
    .
    In my opinion (opinion is not truth) another hubris-fueled “sin” was his ensuring that a certain Japanese general was hanged after the war.

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