Warrior hero in a time of peace

OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE: The Life of Douglas MacArthur by Geoffrey Perret, Deutsch pounds 20
Douglas MacArthur may be the last American soldier who will ever become the stuff of legend. He served as a general in two world wars and nearly started a third, in Korea. As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Asia, he ruled Japan more broadly and directly than any emperor and then toyed with the idea of ruling America after a few of his right- wing supporters convinced him - ridiculously, it turned out - of his electability. Through careful censorship, rigid self-discipline and a cavalier disregard for personal danger, he made himself a hero. Through arrogance, petulance and self-righteousness, he turned the legend into tragedy.

In both the United States and Britain, the role of the military has declined so precipitously since MacArthur's death in 1964 that today we find it hard to imagine soldiers as more than peripheral characters. We still celebrate their glory days - the start of the battle of the Somme, the invasion at Normandy - but today's celebrated generals lead battles in the world of commerce, or on the pitch. MacArthur's was the last military career to receive a personal monument, a pile in a rundown corner of Norfolk, Virginia. The next time America honoured its war dead, the monument took the form of a slab of black granite cut into the earth with the names of those who died in Vietnam carved into it. The only hero deserving a statue in recent years in Virginia is Arthur Ashe, the late tennis star.

Our stakes are smaller now then they used to be. When we go to war today, we fight for the defence of our lifestyle rather than our lives, to preserve the freedom to travel without being kidnapped, to secure the flow of oil to our petrol pumps, to provide others with a chance to vote the way we do. With the decline of immediate threats to our homelands and with the sharp reduction in military budgets in proportion to our national economies, the military exerts less force on our social consciousness now than perhaps at any time in our history.

We are more concerned with assuring that the military respect broader goals - equal treatment of women and minorities, honest purchasing policies, accessible records and due process - than we are with maintaining secret training rituals to prepare our citizens to kill our enemies. Yet there was a time when young men longed to wear the nation's uniform, to prove their worth by leading other men to die. MacArthur's life spanned the very end of that age, and Geoffrey Perret makes us appreciate every minute of it.

From the opening pages, Perret thrusts us into the gritty routine of 19th-century army life, the universe that shaped MacArthur. In a quiet, careful style, he peels away our prejudice and indifference about the military to make us share the feelings and ambitions that shaped so many characters for so many generations. We can taste the dust of the parade ground on an isolated post and smile as MacArthur salutes his own famous father. We can hear the voice of an army mother who moved into the only hotel at the US military Academy at West Point to be near her son and to promote his talents to any who would read her letters. By the time MacArthur begins to slog through the mud at the head of his troops in north-eastern France in 1916, we have come to appreciate his longing for "the wounds, the heroism, the anguish, the self-sacrificing dream of an eternal soldier". We've also come to understand his dedication to his troops, his disregard for ritual and his cultivation of a maverick image.

Previous studies of MacArthur have fallen into one of two camps, those that denigrated him as a charlatan and blunderer and those that honoured him as a great soldier and patriot. MacArthur left no one neutral about him. Perret never lets MacArthur's charm and charisma blind his critical eye, but neither does he allow his faults to erase his occasional genius as a strategist and his repeated triumphs as a leader in the field. Through six previous books, he has devoted his own professional career to the study of America at war. He knows the details. When he writes about MacArthur's routing of the Bonus Army demonstrators of 1932, an incident that fixed his image as a brutal and ruthless reactionary, a reader has confidence that he has examined every order of the day, reviewed every bit of evidence, reconstructed the events minute by minute.

Perret concludes that MacArthur became a victim of a sophisticated public relations coup engineered by political supporters of the demonstrators. In those pacifist times, he contributed to his own disaster by donning his fanciest uniform, the one with the most ribbons, fetched from home mistakenly by his valet at the last minute. The most decorated officer of World War I thus led the troops, bayonets drawn, against a ragtag band of unemployed veterans and their families seeking only to petition their government for disaster relief in the depths of the Great Depression. But he did so reluctantly, carefully and with respect for both the civilian authority under which he operated and the needs of the women and children encamped in squalor.

Because he brings such deep appreciation for his subject to his work, Perret writes with a spare elegance that allows the events to supply the drama. MacArthur's life offered plenty, both professionally and personally. There was the "I shall return" flight from the Philippines, the drafting of the democratic constitution for Japan, the brilliant landing at Inchon to save South Korea. There was also the ruinous drive north that brought the Chinese into the Korean War and the insubordinate confrontation with Truman that cost him his career.

Perret covers all these in a riveting narrative that corrects the record and improves the story as it goes, but he also adds much greater depth by examining the private life in the same detail. The first marriage, to a fabulously wealthy divorcee, ended bitterly. When she spilled her bile years later to a newspaper columnist through a haze of alcohol, she helped solidify the reputation MacArthur had acquired in the Bonus Army confrontation. He sued for defamation in a vain attempt to correct the record, but that only called forth evidence of the teenaged Philippine mistress he had brought back from Washington.

Perret muses that if only MacArthur had been killed during the Invasion at Inchon, his sins could have been washed away, leaving us to marvel at the genius who saved the world from communism at a deep gash in the Korean coastline. In Perret's view, he was after all the second greatest military leader in American history, behind only Ulysses S Grant. Instead, he spiralled downhill into open confrontation with President Truman, who fired "the son of a bitch" for insubordination. The long career earned him a hero's welcome home, but he soon faded away, as he had promised, to a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. He had become a great man only after the era of great men had ended.