General Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur; drawing by David Levine

You can work through these books (or any others on the military) as many times as you choose, but there remains only one place to begin any discussion—with the two challenges posed by J. Glenn Gray at the end of The Warriors.

First the one concerning war itself:

Nietzsche rightly sees that war-making must be overcome through strength and voluntary decision of a strong nation or group of nations; peace will never occur as a consequence of weaknesses, exhaustion, or fear…. Prepared for by a gradual change in the disposition of dominant groups, the final stroke will come in consequence of a daring, voluntary, and decisive act of breaking the sword.1

If you are ready for that bold move, then your problem is to build a social movement that can effect the required “change in the disposition of dominant groups.” Even so, what follows may be of some help to you. For, as Gray points out, “The vast majority of our people want our ‘armed peace’ no less than their representatives, or, more correctly, they see no alternative to a peace of armed might”; 2 and a careful look at the military may help generate among civilians a greater willingness to change their own outlook. That is necessary because the closer one looks at the military the more it becomes apparent that they have truly put their backs into giving us what we said we wanted. First the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and then victory in the Holy Cold War against Communism. If the second objective now appears implausible or quixotic, even a classic aberration, it is nevertheless our responsibility to change the policy if we want the military to behave differently.

I agree with Gray about the nature of the final blow against war, but I do not think it is very effective to concentrate on that last daring act before we have given new orders to the military. Indeed, we must gather ourselves for that effort as part of changing the outlook of dominant groups. Hence I think it is useful to review our traditions and history so that we can give ourselves over to a confrontation with the immediate issues: (1) how to define and control the force we consider necessary during an interim period, and (2) how to decide when we are justified in using that force.3

Those questions immediately involve us with Gray’s second challenge: the guilt incurred in doing one’s duty when the duty involves inhumane actions, and the more general (or social) guilt one shares as a “participant in a system and an enterprise whose very essence is violence and whose spirit is to win at whatever cost.” “If guilt is not experienced deeply enough to cut into us, our future may well be lost.”4

In view of My Lai, Cambodia, and Laos, that formulation may seem a bit abstract and not focused sharply enough on the specific problems of the military-industrial complex, the bizarre monstrosities and grotesque derangements of the military’s effort to accomplish our avowed objective, or the role of the military after Vietnam. If that is so, then I suggest the trouble lies in our growing propensity to abstract our civilian selves from the seat of responsibility and guilt while at the same time we increasingly unload the blame on the shoulders of the military. (Or, the mirror image, to defend the military whatever it does.) The danger in that approach is that it will deepen the pit we have already dug almost to the depth of a grave.

For one thing, as Ward Just explains in his useful book Military Men, the military is already working to cover itself on the guilt front. In three ways, that is. First, with its own Vietnam position papers on file in the White House. Second, by punishing some of its own, Lieutenant Calley being the most recent and dramatic case. Third, and most important, with plans for the future. “We are victimized. We are called upon to take abuse from the press and the public for decisions in which we have taken no part…. We want a voice in our own destiny. We want a reasonable concern that we will be used in a place where it is reasonable to use us, and not improvise policy as we go.”5 That tells us the military is after a formal and direct and explicit voice in policy-making—not just a major say in implementation. And that could mean, if it happens, a new centralization and consolidation of power far more portentous than are represented in the military-industrial complex.

It is possible, as Just allows, that such a change would prevent another Vietnam. There are a good many officers who want out of Vietnam at least as badly as the New Left. But it might also create four or five Vietnams. Even if the balance proved favorable, it would be the worst possible way to achieve such results. For it would erase forever the constitutional principle and the traditional practice of civilian control of the military. (And as Gray observes, even one more Vietnam would finish us as a society capable of restoring its health.)


We are at the same point in dealing with the military, that is to say, as we are in confronting poverty, racial antagonisms, urban decay, educational malaise, and environmental pollution. There is a great temptation to resort to a gimmick for a quick and painless solution: to resolve an excruciating dilemma the way Oppenheimer did when confronted with the question of the H-bomb—by surrendering to the seduction of the “technically sweet” answer. But the truth is this: while the military has many weaknesses and numerous faults, and has made countless mistakes and has often pocketed any authority lying around unattended, the civilians have so far had the final responsibility. Hence dealing with the military begins and ends in dealing with civilians. Meaning dealing with ourselves and our spokesmen.

It can be done, though it clearly is becoming ever more difficult because we have lost so much of our willingness to confront the irrelevance of old ideas and to acknowledge our mistakes. Our vaunted pragmatism has almost withered in the heat of our passion for dogma. But we can gain some insight (and perhaps encouragement) by reviewing the careers of Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower. They offer a preview of the two courses we have before us: the politicizing of the military or the recommitment of the military to the primacy of the civilians (through a renewed engagement of the civilians in governing themselves).

The vital point about MacArthur is that he wanted to be Emperor rather than General. His dream was an extreme and intensely personalized version of the approach advanced more cautiously to Ward Just: the President would consult himself as Chief of Staff on the military aspects of his foreign policy. (In the third person, of course.) Let Eisenhower tell it: MacArthur disconcerted everyone because “he talked of himself in the third person,” and if he “ever recognized the existence of that line [between the military and politics], he usually chose to ignore it.”6

MacArthur is a classic example of the danger inherent in giving middle-class sons the idea that they can and should become gentlemen aristocrats or patricians or lords of the manor by way of military service. One is tempted to conclude that the deadly fault of laissez-faire capitalism was its inherent propensity to distort honest ambition into a commitment to known delusion. All that said, MacArthur played it straight and came as close to truth as his particular delusion would permit: he preferred to fade away rather than to fail. No pretender worth his ego will ever allow himself to be voted down by the friends of a haberdasher. Particularly after he has sacked a real and reactionary Emperor and then made himself into an icon of reform.

No doubt of it, MacArthur had an instinct for the viscera. Dominate The Corps at West Point, polish your already intense personal style, push your way into action assignments, make connections with politically influential senior officers, get into combat and lead your men in firefights, be sure you never receive the orders you know will stop you from routing the Bonus Army, do not stick your career into the cockpit of a tank or an airplane when all your superiors honor the infantry and the artillery, resign just before you know you will be needed in a major war, destroy the motor centers of the Japanese Empire and ignore the secondary twitching, revitalize the enemy you have defeated, and if you go for broke (the Presidency) always have a pocketful of poise (a corporation).

An awesome and commanding figure—yet flawed. Everyone, I suppose, has the urge to explain it all as the effect of mother. She surely was there. Everywhere. Always. Even after she died. But I think not. She was just the symbol of the real force at work: the desperate effort of the class-conscious American middle class to put it all together. To get into the upper class as a wielder of power. Not prestige. Not money. Power: to act upon instead of being acted on. And values: to use the power for The Good. James presents much of this in a low key, but you feel it the way your lungs tell you—even before the barometer—about the coming of a storm at sea or on the prairie. Lovely work, even if he does not accept my reading of the evidence he offers.

MacArthur’s grandfather made it to the fringes of power through politics; he had a bit of early luck, a good mind, and great energy. But, as usual, there was no way to hand on what substance had been gained. The first son (MacArthur’s father) had to earn it all over again, driven forward by the family heritage—that burr under the psyche—created by the grandfather. It was “one of nobility: A MacArthur is a man of superior mind and talents, a potential master of sundry fields; a MacArthur commands the respect of important personages at the highest levels of government and society; a MacArthur, by virtue of his family’s high rank in the Scottish aristocracy of blood and the American aristocracy of success and wealth, is obligated to conduct himself with honor, gallantry, and magnanimity.”7


No way for MacArthur’s father to honor all that in 1861 except by going to war. He could not even wait for an appointment to The Point or Annapolis. A brave and able soldier, and a leader, he chose the regular army instead of the law. His ambition, patience, ability, and performance carried him onto that marshy land of imperial administration in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the suppression of the rebellion. But William Howard Taft found him “politely lacking in any great consideration for the view of anyone, as to the real situation, who is a civilian.” Elihu Root had to beat back his opposition to reform programs; and Theodore Roosevelt slapped him down for intruding into foreign policy matters.8 Finally, Taft called his bluff to retire and sent him home to Milwaukee without any duties.

Once again there was nothing to sustain and develop—or to hand on. It had to be done again.

And so the next son, Douglas, started down the same road with even heavier freight: in addition to the heritage and the necessity, he carried, as James nicely puts it, his father’s “disdain and contempt for civilian officials who interfered in what he considered to be his domain, and, a corollary, his own outspokenness on matters beyond his jurisdiction.”9 When one thinks soberly about a man sitting on that combination of personal and social dynamite, and somehow keeping it under control for more than fifty years, one has to touch one’s cap.

But one also has to watch such a man. Certainly West Point did not tame that intense and pyramided ambition or socialize that sense of mission. The nation (let alone the Army) becomes a stage, and he who wants the lead is constantly trying to get his pencil into the script. MacArthur managed a good bit of that, moreover, but not when he encountered men who understood and honored the traditions and practices of the Army and the country. When limits were set and enforced, and when he was given specific assignments, he could be exceptional. But he was always on the prowl for more influence, and always pushing to widen the theater of action.

Some of his constant and almost frenetic reconnaissance can be understood as part of a dedication to pull the Army out of its long night as the second service. Even its gains during World War I were quickly lost, and it staggered through the 1920s and most of the 1930s as an organization that spent most of its money on non-military programs. Men far less imperial than MacArthur became lonely, weary, discouraged, and frustrated.10 But the best of them did what they could to prepare the way for the new weaponry, and they did not wander the border between soldiering and politics.

Yet the striking thing is that MacArthur was never able to break free except as civilians defined the situation in a way that opened the door to unlimited military action. Even Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who granted his request for the title of Field Marshal, generally controlled his routine maneuverings and quietly set aside his grandiose plans. MacArthur’s three key opportunities emerged out of a conception of the world which viewed America as threatened by an implacable and total challenge.

The first was the misreading of the Bonus March by President Herbert Hoover and others in the government. Those men came to see it as the potential or actual cutting edge of a revolutionary uprising. MacArthur was sure of that analysis and seized the opportunity to make policy as Chief of Staff. But he went too far and lost whatever chance he had to win popular acclaim; and his overbold action may well have cost him any chance to realize his dream, for it alerted Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other civilians to his overt ambition and his latent ruthlessness. Roosevelt played him as carefully as a trophy swordfish: absorbing his skill and energy in the CCC and in staff planning, and then landing him high and dry in the Philippines.

But then came the war against Fascism and Imperial Japan, and Roosevelt’s doctrine of unconditional surrender opened an even greater vista on political leadership. MacArthur leap-frogged along in the Pacific islands, gathering all the considerable power and prestige he could find, and served an amazing apprenticeship for the Presidency as de facto ruler of postwar Japan. Perhaps by then it was simply too late to move on to the White House. More likely, the Korean War trapped him in the dilemma posed by the civilian demand, on the one hand, for implacable prosecution of the Holy Cold War against the infidels without, on the other hand, using all the power available.

It was a contradiction and it remains one. MacArthur chose to dramatize that truth in an unmistakable way: let me do what is necessary to accomplish what you say you want, or remove me from command. His failure, of course, was to omit the third option: re-evaluate what you want. If he had offered that, and tied it to his occasional rhetoric about the need to take a great risk for peace, he might very well have gone to the White House instead of Eisenhower. But MacArthur was as blind to that choice as the civilian superiors he challenged. That enabled them to fire him and struggle on with their crusade. Which is what they did. Which is why we are in Vietnam. And now the contradiction has come unraveled for all to see. Which is why the military is moving in on the decisions about what we want. One of the specters haunting us today is the ghost of MacArthur claiming his most important victory.

Perhaps Eisenhower can help us avoid that fate. He, too, had an instinct for the viscera: understand who you are and be true to that knowledge. Play no games. Do not scramble around on a bean stalk reputed to top out among the upper class. Honor the soldier’s code to do the best you can with what the civilians hand you, and recognize and accept the limits of power (including your own). Even more than MacArthur, Eisenhower makes you wonder about West Point. It failed to make MacArthur responsible and it failed to overawe Eisenhower. What you go in with appears to be more important than what happens to you while you are there. Perhaps the only “West Point officers” are the young men who go in with no idea of who they are, and hence emerge as workaday careerists.

Reading Eisenhower’s papers, including the book of correspondence with Chief of Staff George C. Marshall that Johns Hopkins Press has extracted from them, left me with a strange montage of images in my mind. There was Ike, calmly saying No to Winston Churchill’s demand to end World War II by forming a skirmish line for World War III in Berlin (by-the-by explaining to the prime minister that it would be more helpful, if you could, Sir, to prod Field Marshal Montgomery north to Denmark before the Red Army got there moving west). I thought of John Quincy Adams saying No to Texas and advising his countrymen not to lose their souls on a trip abroad in search of monsters to destroy. There was Ike struggling to keep Georgie Patton on a working leash because he felt he had to have him if he could control him—and I thought, well, maybe that is the key to his later relationship with John Foster Dulles. Perhaps it was Ike, rather than the cancer, that mellowed the Bishop of Roll Back.

But mostly I thought of those exquisite essays that William Carlos Williams wrote about George Washington and Aaron Burr.11 An eerie hour. For there is Eisenhower as twin brother to Washington—perhaps not a great soldier, but nevertheless an effective one; the language of the barracks and the natural modesty, reserve, and dignity; farmer shrewd and yet too trusting; not understanding the needs or the dynamic of civilian government, yet knowing the great truth that it was time to climb down off the White Charger; and sometimes exasperating in his patience and prudence. But then there is Ike as Aaron—writing his son that he loves him, saying honestly “do as you will,” and advising him to ignore what “They say”; striking hard at special privileges for officers; taking risks beyond most of us; full of life to dance a pretty woman dizzy and to thumb his nose at protocol and authority; and in the end insisting that only the people can create a society fit for themselves and their children.

Altogether a more engaging and more creative and more human—and, yes, more challenging—man than MacArthur. And perhaps even a great soldier in the narrow professional sense. Certainly he saw and acted on the importance of tanks and planes before MacArthur. And he neither flinched nor floundered during the Battle of the Bulge, immediately taking charge and directing the counterattack. One of the things that Stephen Ambrose does very well in his study of Eisenhower as Supreme Commander (and he does a good many) is to clarify the nature of the European war. Whereas MacArthur was grossly over-confident in May, 1941, Eisenhower understood that it would be an extremely bitter struggle and from the outset recognized that Russia held the key to victory.

For that reason, Eisenhower (and Marshall) militantly opposed all peripheral campaigns. They fought long and hard for a commitment to go ashore in Europe in 1942, arguing that that was the only way to help Russia and weaken Germany. Roosevelt and Churchill overruled them, and the African campaign (Ike called it “a sideshow”) led willy-nilly into the Italian morass. As a result, the decisive assault was delayed for two years. Even so, it was by no means a sure thing.

Ambrose faults Eisenhower for lacking a “ruthless, driving force”; but I think that judgment may be wide of the mark.12 First of all, he could be—and was—implacable when he deemed it necessary. Secondly, he could not direct tactical combat in the field and also honor his strategic responsibilities as supreme commander. Nevertheless, he used his Pattons (nobody has many of them!) with an instinct for the jugular. Finally, he simply did not have the overwhelming force that is required to be ruthless in the sense that Ambrose invokes that criterion. Patton did run out of gas; and, in any event (as everyone knew), his tanks were no match in a one-to-one shoot-out with the Panthers or Tigers.13

The hard truth of it, moreover, is that Eisenhower had a gut battle with the strategic air command, which was trying to do in World War II what it has done in Vietnam. The crucial difference was that Eisenhower’s “ruthless, driving force” beat them down. The lightning-bolt boys did not want to mount a major campaign to bomb the French transportation system before D-Day, and displayed their usual mastery of the arrogantly false syllogism by arguing that such raids would kill too many civilians. They preferred their grotesque assault on industrial centers. Had they had their way then, as they have had in Vietnam, the 1,000 Year Reich might still be in business.

And if Ward Just is correct, then the moral of the story is the same for the military as it is for the civilian critics of the military. He reports that Vietnam is to be understood as a story of men who, having faced the very delicate and scary balance in Normandy, drew the conclusion that “World War Two…was one big engineering project…. Nothing is impossible for the United States if the country has the will and is prepared to pay the price in money and men.”14 Meaning that the contemporary military thinks that technology and the assembly line won World War II. But that seems almost certainly not the case in the sense that they mean it.

After the Russians, that is to say, the war was far more likely won by Eisenhower’s determined application of the force he had available in a steady pressure that seemed cautious or hesitant only because it proceeded with the quiet of the tide. He maneuvered the Germans into defeat and surrender without a mass army—the Russians had twice as many men available for the assault on Berlin, for example, and their tanks could come down the middle of the street looking for Panthers and Tigers.

Eisenhower understood all that, and the awareness informed his later effort as Chief of Staff to extend and improve the coordination between civilian and military efforts for preparedness. Seymour Melman interprets that action (specifically Ike’s directive of April 27, 1946) as founding the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower later warned about in his Fare-well Address of January 17, 1961.15 That makes for a nice bit of irony, but it will hardly do as history. The military-industrial complex, as Sidney Lens understands, goes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s close and continuing reliance on big business leaders throughout the Depression, and specifically to his use of Dollar-A-Year men to organize the economy for World War II. 16 The military-industrial complex is but one facet of the industrial-political conglomerate that has dominated the political economy throughout the twentieth century.

Melman is correct in arguing that the Pentagon Division of the Leviathan finally acquired a degree of autonomy, and his description of how it operates is a significant contribution to our understanding of the late twentieth-century political economy. But his analysis of how that degree of independence was gained is not particularly helpful because he dismisses the role of imperialism and overweights the importance of an “institutionalized power-lust.”17 Along with most observers who discount the importance of imperialism as a dynamic, causal element in modern American policy, Melman first stacks his argument by artificially defining imperialism as a matter of simplistic and wholly rational economic motives. Thus imperialism cannot explain Vietnam because “no one has demonstrated any past, present, or foreseeable volume of trade or investment in Vietnam and/or adjacent areas that would justify an outlay of $100 billion.” 18

Even within his own assumptions, however, Melman gives away too much in that sentence. There is abundant evidence that many leaders (and advisers) saw Vietnam as the key to Southeast Asia, and viewed the resources of that region as crucial for the long-term functioning of the American political economy. They were no doubt mistaken, and many of them have changed their minds. But neither consideration alters the fact that imperial calculations have a role in the making of policy. Melman sees how important national economic considerations are for understanding the rise of state-management in the Pentagon. What is surprising is that he fails to recognize that the same kind of considerations came to supplement (though not wholly replace) the individualized economic motive that was significant in building the empire. Maintaining an empire is a different kind of operation from building one, but that does not mean that it ceases to be imperialism—or that economic concerns lose their influence.

Lens makes this point very nicely in reviewing how President Harry S Truman, Dean Acheson, and countless others defined the Holy Cold War in terms of “free enterprise,” the “problem of markets,” and the apocalyptic certainty that the American system “could survive in America only if it became a world system.”19 Such men insisted that freedom and prosperity at home were dependent upon establishing, preserving, and extending them abroad—in American terms. There is no way—repeat, no way—to saddle the military with the responsibility for that conception of reality. True enough, the military was ready to serve as a true believer, but it did not define the world in such ways and it did not then cast policy in military terms. One need not (indeed, should not) accept at face value George Frost Kennan’s effort to extricate himself from a significant share of the responsibility for that culminating debacle. But his account in his memoirs of the rapid and thorough way in which civilians encouraged militarization of foreign policy is convincing beyond a doubt. As are countless other documents.

In that important sense, the officers interviewed by Ward Just make a central point. “The thing goes back to the President, who is the commander in chief, and the population that elected him…. If you get into the wrong war that’s not the fault of the Army.”20 “It is the civilians who should be called into account, because it is the civilians who permitted the process to spin out of control…. The military man still believes what he hears from the White House and from the Vice President: to wit, Communism is a menace and the United States has the right and duty to oppose it.”21 You know. Like John Fitzgerald Kennedy said: The United States is prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden” in defense of “the free world,” so “ask not what your country can do for you, but…” etc.

That brings us full circle, back to Gray and the questions of war and guilt. But first a final note about Eisenhower. He alone cooled it down. The boy from Kansas may not have been properly ruthless, and no doubt failed to force through all the reforms that were desirable, but at crucial moments he could and did speak two very important words: “Enough” and “No.” No doubt he should have said them more often; and then gone on in other matters to cry “Yes” and “More.” But he turns out to have been saner than either his immediate predecessors or successors in the White House.

So there we are: there simply is no easy answer to the problem of the military in a society struggling to govern itself. Cutting the military in on policy-making is like inviting the cat to give the canary a bath. You might find a few that would stand guard against the bird dogs, but in between you would lose control of the house. It would be more realistic to insist that the concept of Duty involve the practice of public resignation by military officers (and civilians) who conclude that their orders involve a contradiction in terms or a violation of their constitutional responsibilities. A good many young academy officers—and draftees—have had the courage to take that course, and it would help mightily if we honored them as grandly as we award those who have endured the horrors of combat. The mines laid by the forces of conformity split one just as terribly as those buried by any other enemy.

But for now that is a dream. A tradition of resignation from office that has real consequences is—or ought to be—one of the goals of the revolution. The important things for now are to distinguish between guilt and war crimes, to avoid scapegoating, and to get closer to the attitude that will enable us to make that “daring, voluntary, and decisive act of breaking the sword.” As Gray understands, the sense of guilt that can truly make a difference is the one that can move each of us to acknowledge our own share in the disaster and then to join our neighbors in reasserting our power as citizens to change the outlook that has carried us to the very edge of catastrophe. Out of that can come an affirmation and a confidence that can build an American community.

It would be tragic to externalize all moral energy in a righteous trial of what we all now know is wrong. It is not really to the point to say simply that if all of us are guilty, then no one is guilty. The trouble is that when all of us are guilty we much prefer to shovel it all off on a few so we can go on with business as usual. It is time we recognized the potential health in honest guilt, acknowledged our mistaken ways, and healed ourselves by politically acting to create an America that will no longer be hated and feared. That is, incidentally, the only sure way to solve the problem of the military.

This Issue

May 6, 1971