Book review / Strokes of genius on the battlefield

Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur by Geoffrey Perret, Deutsch, pounds 20

He was not, it has to be said, the most lovable of men. He was pompous, vain, arrogant, at times almost comic in his self-regard and his utter unawareness of what the world thought of him. He was envious, quarrelsome, self-absorbed.

He invented an absurd uniform for himself, with scruffy overalls and an aviator's jacket, topped by Ray-ban sunglasses, a corncob pipe and a floppy cap with the insignia of a field-marshal in the army of the Philippines where he had gone as a sort of mercenary proconsul after being virtually sacked as chief of staff of the American army. He was obsessed with military glory, and perfectly prepared to lobby for medals for himself that were normally awarded to men who had risked their lives in action.

As chief of staff he led the troops who dispersed the "bonus marchers" - unemployed ex-soldiers who were asking to be paid $1000 apiece, the amount they were owed by the government - with the flat of their sabres, though Perret demolishes the myth of MacArthur the "man on the white horse". Yet he did help himself to half a million dollars in commission on the munitions he bought for the Philippine government.

President Roosevelt (a remote cousin) was amused by him. President Truman openly detested him, President Eisenhower (a military protege) came to despise him. The Navy mocked him - most unfairly - as "dugout Doug". And yet, what a life! What a career! What a man!

Douglas MacArthur's whole life, as Geoffrey Perret points out in this carefully researched, perceptively written biography, was lived within the lines of the United States army. He was born in a barracks in Little Rock, Arkansas, and died in the army's Walter Reed hospital in the Washington suburbs. His father led the 24th Wisconsin, flag in hand, up Missionary Ridge at the battle of Chickamauga in the Civil War and lived to be the conqueror of America's empire in the Philippines and later a Federal judge.

Douglas outdid his father in military glory: decorated for bravery in France in 1918, superintendent of the military academy at West Point, head of the army, a five-star general and eventual winner of the congressional Medal of Honor he had coveted all his life.

As a soldier, he tasted the splendours and the miseries of military life to an extraordinary degree. When, thanks largely to his own complacency, the Japanese overran the Philippines, he was forced, with his wife and son, to flee to the rock of Corregidor in Manila Harbour while his troops were locked up in the Bataan Peninsular. Obeying orders that were exquisitely painful for a man who had been called the "D'Artagnan of the army", he escaped to Australia, leaving his command to the mercies of Japanese prisoner of war camps and the Bataan death march. "I will return", he promised, and with characteristic style he did return. Of course, there was a photographer on hand as he splashed through the shallows at the head of his soldiers as they invaded the Philippines.

But, for all the bombast, MacArthur really was a superb commander - arguably, Perret says, the only military genius America has produced except for Ulysses S. Grant. Some would quarrel with that judgement, saying that Grant's victories owed more to superiority of means, effectively deployed, than to military genius but MacArthur was a superb fighting commander, an inspirational leader of troops and one of the bravest of the brave as he proved when he stormed the Cote de Chatillon in 1918. Like many professional soldiers, he seemed to lose his grip in the inter- war years, and it was perhaps the humiliation of the flight from Corregidor that brought out his best fighting qualities again.

As Perret rightly suggests, the thing the American armed forces did best in World War II was to co-ordinate ground troops, air and naval forces in bold combined operations. MacArthur pioneered this new kind of warfare in the South Pacific theatre and, on his return to the Philippines, demonstrated his larger strategic grasp, catching the Japanese between his landing in Leyte Gulf on the eastern coast of the islands and his landing on the beaches north of Manila.

His military apotheosis, though, had to wait until his last and, in some respects, his most inglorious campaign. MacArthur must take some of the blame for the initial disaster of the Korea war when the North Koreans came close to wiping out the South Korean army and its American stiffening. Then, with an imaginative swoop no other American commander of his generation except George Patton would have dared to make, he won the battle of Inchon, turning the enemy's flank with a giant left hook. It was a stroke of genius, one of the classic battles of military history.

Three months later, he had blown it again. Ignoring specific orders in his usual lofty way he provoked the Chinese into invading Korea. He had truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and the consequences are with us still: a divided Korea and a farouche pariah state armed with nuclear weapons in Pyongyang.

MacArthur's greatest achievement was as the "supreme allied commander" in conquered Japan. By the time he strode unannounced into the Tokyo Press Club on March 27, 1947, he could fairly claim that the foundations of a stable, democratic Japan had been laid. His tact, as well as his flamboyant confidence, had a lot to do with it.

Perret points out, however, that in Japan MacArthur closely followed the orders he was sent by the Joint Chiefs. "It suited MacArthur's vanity to appear that he was in control," Perret comments, "but most of the time he was only carrying out instructions like an Army officer."

That is a valuable correction of the legend, but this is not a debunking book. It is a worthy history of a soldier of genius, a physically courageous man who devoted his life to what now seems to many an obsolete, even a slightly crazy belief that "The soldier who is called upon to offer and give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind". There was a time when we were glad of those who could act upon that belief.

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