Corncob Caesar

Murray Sayle

  • Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur by Geoffrey Perret
    Deutsch, 663 pp, £20.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 233 99002 X

Know your enemy, and know yourself, and you may fight a hundred battles and not lose one.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, c.450 BC

The historian William Manchester, who served with him in the Pacific, said he was the greatest soldier in American history. Never much regarded in Britain, he is still recalled with loathing in Australia. When Americans remember him, it is with something close to embarrassment, while his contemporaries Truman, Eisenhower and Marshall grow in stature with the years. To Malcolm Muggeridge, who encountered him in Tokyo after World War Two, he resembled ‘a broken-down actor of the type one meets in railway trains or boarding houses’. His battles are little studied professionally. Only those tireless tourists, the Japanese, regularly visit his tacky, Napoleon-sized mausoleum in Norfolk, Virginia, built as part of a murky property deal by a crooked mayor who was later murdered. We still don’t know what to think about General Douglas MacArthur; almost all of us, it seems, would rather forget him.

Except writers. There have been more than a dozen biographies of MacArthur. Part of the fascination is his contradictoriness: could the same MacArthur really have been a military genius, a colossal blunderer, a proto-Fascist and a world-class charlatan? Another attraction is the record-setting length of his service in the US Army (61 years – like their equivalent field marshals, five-star generals never retire) and its unrepeatable breadth – gunfighter in Mexico, dredger of harbours in the United States, the most decorated American officer of World War One, Superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff, defender of Corregidor, victor in innumerable Pacific battles, liberator of the Philippines, ruler of Japan, saviour of South Korea. His career may have ended in defeat and disgrace; but so did Napoleon’s. Why, then, does it seem so laughable to rank MacArthur with Grant and Lee, let alone with Marlborough and Cromwell? Why has no one pinned down the MacArthur mystery? One reason is that MacArthur’s most notable innovations were in propaganda and politics, fields in which few soldiers (or military writers) feel at home. But the task is important: MacArthur is still in many ways the most modern soldier of our time. The trap into which he fell is still set. This new biography by Geoffrey Perret, an Anglo-American soldier-turned-historian, is not the last word; but it is a big improvement on its forerunners, and Perret has dug up important new material.

MacArthur was born in a dusty US Army post at Little Rock, Arkansas, on 26 January 1880. His first memory, he often said, was ‘the sound of bugles’. The MacArthur clan were not, as he often hinted, fierce Highland warriors; his lawyer grandfather had emigrated to the US in 1828 from Glasgow. His father, then Captain Arthur MacArthur, already had genuine military credentials, despite his lowly rank. MacArthur Sr had enlisted in the US Army as a student during the Civil War, from which he emerged, aged 21, a full colonel. Joining the regular army, he dropped in rank to second lieutenant and spent 23 years as a mere captain in primitive Western forts pacifying recalcitrant Indians – one of them the famous Apache chief Geronimo – before he was posted to the Adjutant-General’s staff. Being in Washington gave him the chance to lobby for, and to secure, America’s highest decoration for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honour, for leading a Union charge up Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga 26 years earlier. Doggedly collecting what he considered due to his courage was to be a lifelong obsession of his youngest son.

At high school, the West Texas Military Academy, MacArthur shone at oratory and amateur theatricals. His mother, a Southern beauty with a melodramatic imagination – she had a fragment of the skull of one of her brothers who had been wounded in the Civil War set as costume jewellery – badgered and beseeched politicians to further her son’s career. In 1899 Douglas passed the difficult examination for entry into West Point. A year earlier his father, a general at last, had left to pacify rebels in the Philippines, newly detached from Spain but denied independence by the United States. His mother moved into a hotel near West Point to supervise her son’s studies. Thus encouraged, MacArthur graduated first in his class. On his father’s advice, he chose the engineers; not for any family love of set squares or slide rules, much less the prescience that future wars would be fought with machines, but because promotion was painfully slow in the glamorous cavalry, or even in the infantry (as his father’s glacial career testified), whereas the unfashionable engineers had serious peacetime duties, rose faster and could transfer back at a higher rank in the event of war.

The ploy worked. MacArthur was never much of an engineer, but he learned the basics of harbours, pontoons and bridges, knowledge which would one day come in handy on remote Pacific islands. In 1914, as a captain in the engineers, he was sent to reconnoitre the harbour of Vera Cruz, Mexico, through which, it was suspected, Germany planned to run arms to one faction in an impending civil war. On his own initiative (according to his later account), Captain MacArthur set off on a hand-propelled flatcar, accompanied by bribed Mexican railway workers, in search of rolling stock. Forty miles inland he found three heavy locomotives under armed guard. After a brief fire-fight he returned with the locomotives and reported that three bullets had gone through his clothes, without leaving a scratch. The locomotives were certainly real but the fire-fight depended on the word of Mexican civilians who had already betrayed their trust for money. MacArthur was recommended for the Medal of Honour, whose regulations called for ‘incontestable independent proof’. The Decorations Board in Washington declined to award, and MacArthur had to wait another forty years to match his father’s attested valour. The incident was, however, enough to get him out of engineering and into a staff job in Washington.

Public relations was invented in the United States around the time of the First World War. Many commanders have realised the value of clever words in building soldiers’ morale and some with the necessary talent, like Napoleon, regularly wrote their own imaginative communiqués. With the advent of mass democracy, it became clear that the morale of the ‘home front’ was no less important, and that newspaper reports, which were supposedly independent, would be more persuasive than statements by generals with their own bugles to blow. In March 1916, as America was edging towards intervention in Europe, Major MacArthur was appointed head of a new Bureau of Information, with the secret mission of preparing the American public for conscription if, as the Army fervently hoped, the US entered the war. His mother again in tow, MacArthur moved at army expense into the Ontario, one of Washington’s fanciest addresses, and began courting journalists. ‘I am working very hard with my newspaper men,’ he reported. He was the first American officer to exploit the propaganda potential of the off-the-record leak, the exclusive interview opportunity and the headline-filling phrase, and – despite his belief that the press should be rigidly controlled in wartime – the young major who was always good for a quote was popular with newsmen, 29 of whom later joined in public praise of his handling of the Washington press. Only America’s entry into the war ended this ground-breaking assignment.

MacArthur had learnt a lot, however. The first American units to fight in France were clearly going to reap a lot of publicity. MacArthur argued that one of these units should be neither from the regular army, nor the National Guard – both of which were closely tied to their states of origin – but from a new formation with men from every state which would ‘stretch like a rainbow’ across the nation. Perret credits MacArthur not only with the idea, but, more characteristically, with the catchy name, Rainbow Division. His reward was to be made its chief of staff, and a colonel. He was 37, unmarried, and still living with his mother.

MacArthur was a much publicised hero of the War to End Wars, and in some ways he was a genuine one. The reservation – as so often with MacArthur – was the showiness of his soldiering. In his first 19 days in France he had won two Silver Stars, the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross, all for leading or taking part in trench raids which were no part of his duties as divisional chief of staff. In one, he captured a German colonel by thrusting a swagger stick into his back. He went into action wearing a cap modified to droop around his ears (he declined to wear a British-style steel helmet), a thick turtleneck sweater, highly polished cavalry boots and, draped around his neck, a seven-foot puce muffler knitted by his mother. He refused to use a gas-mask and was twice lightly gassed, earning two of his 20 citations for wounds and decorations for bravery. It is hard to avoid the thought that he wanted bystanders, particularly the newsmen who flocked to his headquarters, to see how brave he was.

The kind of courage for which MacArthur won his many medals – relatively brief exposures, with MacArthur picking when they took place, buoyed by adrenalin and his public role – more closely resembles the courage needed by the war correspondents by whom he was usually surrounded in the field. A different kind, seldom recognised by medals or publicity, is asked of those who, when filthy, hungry and exhausted, often without hope of relief or even survival, hold positions against repeated attacks or prolonged shelling, and can still overcome doubt and fear enough to function. It is this less flashy form of courage that is more useful in high command.

By the end of the war, MacArthur was the most admired brigadier-general in the victorious and scarcely blooded US Army. In 1919, only 39, he returned to West Point as superintendent. His mother moved back with him. Two years later, Louise Brooks, a lively, 31-year-old divorced mother of two and heiress to one of the biggest fortunes in America, drove up the Hudson to West Point with friends for the day. Brooks had already been the mistress of General John Pershing and had helped break up the marriage of the British admiral Sir David Beattie. She was introduced to the glamorous young Superintendent. It was, in Perret’s view, a case of mutual and instantaneous lust. Others diagnosed the meshing of public images. The New York Times report of their wedding, on St Valentine’s Day 1922, was unsubtly headlined mars marries millions.

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