Friday, October 31, 2014

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

A lengthly book that sometimes delves into minutiae more than I would have cared for, it was still a worthy portrait of an individual who played an important role in 20th century history.

The book traces MacCarthur's family's origins, his upbringing and early career, which were all distinguished in their own ways, and then traces his role the war in the Pacific, the occupation of Japan, and his final act as a general, in the Korean war.  The general outline is available on Wikipedia, but here are some details that I found interesting:

  •  His mother was quite a meddler.  The picture of MacArthur in most books is of a strong, proud general.  It turns out that his mother, through much of his earlier career, regularly sent letters to various politicians and military higher-ups requesting his promotion.
  • The liberal treatment of Japan and its reconstruction owe much to him.  It can't have been easy to turn a page so quickly on the more than 100,000 US casualties in the Pacific theater alone.  Yet the desire to inflict a punitive settlement on Japan as set aside, and the country rebuilt as a liberal democracy.
  • Some Japanese forces were absolutely appalling in their behavior:
    Nearly 100,000 Filipinos were murdered by the Japanese. Hospitals were set afire after their patients had been strapped to their beds. The corpses of males were mutilated, females of all ages were raped before they were slain, and babies’ eyeballs were gouged out and smeared on walls like jelly
MacArthur had seen enough of war to abhor it... yet it was also his calling.

Even more striking, we find in one journalist’s observations, set down after a meeting with MacArthur, that “the General believes the press, right now, ought to quit making heroes of generals and admirals, as the first step in doing its job. The press of the world, too, ought to quit glorifying war in general. He feels that the business of making heroes of generals and admirals and glorifying war has a lot to do with influencing public opinion to accept war.”
And in 1957, to the delight of liberal pacifists like Roger Baldwin, he lashed out at large Pentagon budgets. “Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear—kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor—with the cry of grave national emergency,” he said. “Always there has been some terrible evil… to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”

This, however, was after he "went off the rails" in his ideas for where to take the Korean conflict: some of his ideas involved the use of nuclear weapons or dropping "dirty" weapons on China, ideas his political masters would have none of.

He also apparently had high political ambitions of his own, but they never bore fruit.  I hadn't realized that he'd been considered a candidate for the presidency in several elections.  Apparently he wasn't very good at playing the political game.

The book ends with his death and funeral with little mention of his family, which I found unfortunate.

I'm not sure I'd recommend the book unless you read quickly and find the subject matter interesting, due to the length, and abundance of details in certain portions.  I found it interesting though.

He was certainly a gifted orator; this passage from the end of the book stands out:

“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory, I always come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes in my ears—Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps; and the Corps; and the Corps. I bid you farewell.”