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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future