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MacArthur

Reminiscences

by Douglas MacArthur
McGraw-Hill, 438 pp., $6.95

These reminiscences by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur would be remarkable if for no other reason than that they may very well comprise the only autobiography by a great man which is almost totally free of self-doubt. There is no soul-searching here, none of the moments of despair, inquietude, fits of gloom that are recorded in the lives of even the most self-possessed of heroic men. MacArthur’s solitary attack of desperation—so far as one can tell—occurred when he was nineteen, while still a plebe at West Point. The occasion was the investigation of a hazing incident, in which young Douglas had been one of the victims. Called upon to divulge the names of the upper classmen involved, he was naturally thrown into a state of anguish—all the more wrenching because of the presence at The Point of his mother, who had taught him stern rules about lying and tattling. This same lady (she was of an old Virginia family, and made her home for long periods with the General until he was past fifty) sent him the following poem during a recess of the court:

Do you know that your soul is of my soul such a part
That you seem to be fiber and core of my heart?
None other can pain me as you, son, can do;
None other can please me or praise me as you.
Remember the world will be quick with its blame
If shadow or shame ever darken your name.
Like mother, like son, is saying so true
The world will judge largely of mother by you.
Be this then your task, if task it shall be
To force this proud world to do homage to me.
Be sure it will say, when its ver- dict you’ve won,
She reaps as she sowed: “This man is her son!”

I knew what to do,” MacArthur adds. “Come what may, I would be no tattletale.”

The last remark is characteristic. For if a serene confidence untouched by that daily incertitude which afflicts most humans is one of the most immediate and striking features of this book, so too is the style, which it should be said at the outset is disappointingly juvenile. When one recalls those august periods which had rallied so many Americans during World War II, it comes as a surprise that here the tone is distinctly flat and insipid, the laborious prose having been set down with that gauche, manly earnestness that one recollects as a prominent characteristic of the adventures of Tom Swift. One wonders what ever happened to the grandiloquent MacArthur, the MacArthur who endeavored through rhetoric to transform the drab reality of American military life into something as rich and as mythic as medieval knighthood—an ideal typified in the address in 1935 to the veterans of his own World War I Rainbow Division:

Those days of old have vanished tone and tint: they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is a land where flowers of wondrous beauty and varied colors spring, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed into fuller bloom by the smiles of yesterday…We listen vainly but with thirsty ear for the witching melodies of days that are gone…Youth…strength…aspirations…wide winds sweeping…beacons flashing across unchartered depths…movements…vividness…faint bugles sounding reveille…far drums beating the long roll call…the rattle of musketry…the still white crosses.

This is terrible junk, but it has at least a certain impassioned rhythm, while the greater part of the autobiography, when it is not simply boyish in tone, is set down in that lusterless Eisen-howerese which is so favored by corporation executives and which may be the result of MacArthur’s later years at Remington Rand.* At any rate, the book is often something of a struggle to get through.

The quotation above, incidentally, is taken from Richard H. Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s less than admiring but very fair The General and the President, published in 1951. A course of supplementary reading is as essential to the Reminiscences as it is to Parson Weems’s life of Washington; and the Rovere-Schlesinger work, although it is primarily concerned with the last, or Korean, phase of MacArthur’s career, is the most informative of an abundant selection. Noting the seventeen years MacArthur spent out of the United States before his recall from Korea in 1951, Rovere and Schlesinger make the observation that “MacArthur is our greatest military expatriate; he was as much in rebellion against our civilization as ever Henry James or Henry Miller was, and he probably symbolized the non-homesick American better than they ever did.” The key word here is non-homesick, and certainly Rovere and Schlesinger’s contention is more than supported by MacArthur’s autobiography. For in trying to understand MacArthur it is important to remember how completely his life was dominated by the Army, by the concept of the professional soldier, and how from the moment of his birth the Army became his home and his only home.

Born in 1880, MacArthur was the son of an ambitious and extremely gifted young officer from Wisconsin, a Union veteran who married a Southern woman whose brothers had fought under Robert E. Lee; the family atmosphere seems to have been one of an exhilarating preoccupation with the military tradition and its achievements, past and present. MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, eventually became the highest ranking officer in the Army. Douglas MacArthur’s boyhood was spent almost entirely on Army posts, mainly in the Southwest, and after an Army education at West Point (his career there was illustrious; MacArthur does not dwell upon the exact nature of his education, but it must have been, at that time, parochial in the extreme) he rose with amazing speed to become, at thirty-eight, a brigadier general and the youngest divisional commander in the American Expeditionary Force. His military record in France was truly spectacular, and his personal courage has never been in doubt; he returned from the First World War loaded down with decorations and glory.

For a man of such—let it be cautiously called—egocentricity, there is little wonder that the following fifteen years and more, dutiful and dedicated as they were, lacked savor, and therefore make dull reading in the Reminiscences: a colorless tour of duty as Superintendent at West Point, a brigade command in the peaceful Philippines, a corps command in Baltimore, directorship of the Olympic Games committee. Even his five years as Army Chief of Staff (MacArthur writes with perfect aplomb that he accepted this high post solely at the demand of his mother, which must be the most awesome example we have of the influence of motherhood upon the national destiny) were singularly devoid of glamour, their only bright moment being his celebrated skirmish with the bedraggled Bonus Army on Anacostia Flats. This wasn’t much of a war. It is understandable that at the age of fifty-five, having risen as high as one can rise in the Army, burdened with too much rank and heading for premature retirement, MacArthur was rent by such a keen nostalgia for the wartime days that it was like a gaping wound, and that in the midst of the early Roosevelt era—when military men were déclassé anyway—he felt the need to give his Rainbow Division speech with its desperate and frustrated longing, its “thirsty ear” for “far drums beating the long roll call, the rattle of musketry, the still white crosses.” He resigned to become chief military adviser to the Philippines, six years before the cataclysm at Pearl Harbor.

If it is impossible to share MacArthur’s nostalgia for war, to share his passionate identity with the world of soldiering, it is at the same time easy to understand that nostalgia in the light of these fifty-five years. Anyone who has lived as a stranger for any length of time among professional military men, especially officers, is made gradually aware of something that runs counter to everything one has been taught to believe—and that is that most of these men, far from corresponding to the liberal cliché of the super-patriot, are in fact totally lacking in patriotism. They are not unpatriotic, they simply do not understand or care what patriotism is. Most of them, having been molded within the microcosm of Service—Army, Marine Corps, Navy, whatever—are spiritually bound to a Service, not a country, and the homage they pay to Old Glory they could pay to anyone’s flag. A true military man is a mercenary (the calling is not necessarily ignoble, but certainly MacArthur’s role in the Philippines was for all intents and purposes that of a mercenary soldier) and it is within the world of soldiering that he finds his only home. This is why MacArthur, owing no spiritual allegiance to his native land, was able to become the very archetype of an expatriate, hostile to America and understanding almost nothing of it. This is also one of the reasons why, during World War II and to a nearly disastrous degree in Korea, he found it so easy to defy civilian authority: what did these Secretaries of the Army and fussy Presidents—who after all were only Americans—know about the Service, which transcends all?

Nevertheless, if one understands the nostalgia for war which marked these years of his break with America, it still remains a nostalgia that is empyreal and histrionic. Only once in his career did MacArthur lead as small a body of men as a company—one somehow feels that the idea of MacArthur, even as a boy, in command of anything less than a division verges on the ludicrous—and this helps explain why his attitude toward the drab brown, smeary side of military life seems so rosy, and why the rare notice he pays to enlisted troops, whether singly or as a lacerated frontline unit, is always so condescending. MacArthur was a genuine militarist, but like all of this breed he was a hopeless romantic, and almost totally without humor; it was his misfortune to collide head-on many times with that strain in the American character which is obdurate, wry, realistic, and comical. Americans have in many ways been a bloodthirsty people, but except in odd spasms they have never been militaristic, and it is this important distinction that one must take into account when one contemplates MacArthur’s amazing career. For MacArthur, military life may be symbolized by “beacons flashing across uncharted depths…faint bugles sounding reveille,” but for many if not most of his countrymen it is something else: it is reveille. It is training manuals and twenty-mile hikes, stupefying lectures on platoon tactics and terrain and the use of the Lister bag, mountains of administrative paperwork, compulsive neatness and hideous barracks in Missouri and Texas, sexual deprivation, hot asphalt drillfields and deafening rifle ranges, daily tedium unparalleled in its ferocity, awful food, bad pay, ignorant people, and a ritualistic demand for ass-kissing almost unique in the quality of its humiliation. The world that MacArthur thrills to makes most of his fellow Americans choke with horror.

  1. *

    Or perhaps it is the influence of MacArthur’s biographer, Major General Courtney Whitney. Although MacArthur claims to have “penned this book by my own hand,” lines have been blandly plagiarized from Whitney’s sycophantic MacArthur: His Rendezvous with History (1956).

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