Friday, 17 June 2016

Book Review - Macarthur as military commander by Gavin Long

MacArthur as military commander by Gavin Long

Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1969

I wonder, if a straw poll was taken today, how many "men and women in the street" would be able to tell a questioner who Douglas MacArthur was. In the 1940s and 50s I think you wouldn't have had a problem with name recognition - the best known general of the Pacific War, overlord of occupied Japan and - until his firing - the general in charge of the Korean War. History moves on.

Much has been published on this man - some good, some tendentious, all with a point of view, and widely differing points of view at that, for he was a man who generated much feeling both good and bad, and who was central in many key decisions in the Pacific world for a decade or more.

It seems there have been far more polemics and opinion pieces published on MacArthur than on other Allied leaders of the War, but there have been many balanced works as well, of which MacArthur as military commander is one. Gavin Long may not be a household name, but as General Editor of the Official History of Australia in World War Two (and author of several volumes of that series) he had a huge knowledge of the events of the Pacific War and a well-honed writing ability. The book under review benefits from both that knowledge and skill.

Of the many qualities that MacArthur may have said to have had, one that comes out time and again through this book is luck. MacArthur seems to often be in the right place at the right time, to earn accolades that perhaps he shouldn't have, and, (even when he was finally put out to pasture) to be able to cast aside setbacks and defeats.

Long, in this short (just over 200 pages) book, looks mostly at the campaign decisions that MacArthur took during his career, in a dispassionate way, pointing out where he was inspired, where he was wrong, and where other forces conspired to put him into a tricky position.

World War One was a lucky war for MacArthur, who had distinguished himself earlier in Mexico in an exploit that led some to recommend him for the Medal of Honor, and others to question his judgement and ability to obey orders (there was no doubt of his personal bravery however). By the end of 1918 he was already a Brigadier-General.

After the war he became Superintendent at West Point, was promoted Major-General (the army's youngest), and, in 1930, the Army's Chief of Staff. In this position he became known for leading the troops in the cleanout of the Bonus Army, and eventually quit over the reduction in funding given to the Army. Long dwells a little on these activities even though they are not strictly speaking military command, because they shine a light on MacArthur's character. The first point made is his willingness to do a dirty job if he saw it as the right thing to do (he was notoriously anti-left wing, and often railed against communists and communist influence). The second is his sometimes almost hysterical over-reaction to events, famously offering his resignation to Roosevelt over army cuts stating "when we lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt." His resignation was not accepted, as Roosevelt knew that would go down badly in the press. Which is the third point Long begins to draw out in this section of the book: MacArthur, before most, was well-aware of the power of a positive image in the press, and was always careful to engender and encourage that. These qualities would remain evident for the remainder of his career.

Eventually MacArthur resigned from the US Army to take on the role of building an army for the newly independent Phillipines. Beginning in 1935, he had a fine-sounding plan of how to increase capacity in the armed forces of the Phillipines on the way to them being able to stand on their own. What was shown in 1942 was that while the planning might have been sound, the implementation was severly lacking, with the Phillipine army unable to provide much co-ordinated resistance to the Japanese onslaught.

MacArthur quickly got over the ignominy of leaving his remaining troops behind on Bataan, and arrived to a hero's welcome in Melbourne in 1942. It would seem that much of the adulation thrust on to him was more relief that him being in Melbourne meant that the US was going to be in all the way in the Pacific with Australia, but it nevertheless was very gratifying for MacArthur. He quickly overawed the mostly provincial Australian politicians, and set about exercising his new command - the South West Pacific Area.

At first he did not have much to work with, and most of that was Australian. He was quick to denigrate the Australian's fighting abilities, but had to backtrack when American troops finally arrived and had to be dug out of a hole by those same Aussies. This became a disturbing part of MacArthur's commanding style - to be American focussed, to not take useful advice when it was offered (after all, by 1942 the Australians had been fighting for nearly 3 years, and many of the Aussie commanders had also spent 4 years fighting in WWI, so they knew a thing or two), and, when a setback occurred, to blame others rather than himself.

Unfortunately, the way the US set up the structure of war-fighting in the Pacific made it easier for MacArthur (and others) to shift blame than it should have been. The constant inter-service bickering over the correct strategy for fighting Japan caused many problems, and in fact probably cost many lives. MacArthur constantly felt he was not being assisted properly by the US Navy, and vital men and equipment were funnelled to island-hopping campaigns in the mid-Pacific rather than to his land campaign.

One of the things MacArthur was known for during the war was the strategy of bypassing Japanese strongholds to let them "wither on the vine" while Allied forces struck closer to Japan. Long shows that this was not an idea that MacArthur initiated, and one he agreed to reluctantly, initially because he didn't have the forces to take on some of these strongholds (Rabaul), and later only if it suited him. Certainly when it came to re-taking the Phillipines he had no thought of bypassing any Japanese troops left there, even though strategically it made good sense. In fact, from Long's book the reader does get the strong impression that MacArthur was driven by the earlier failings in the Phillipines to make sure he personally freed the whole country, that his military decisions there left something to be desired, which probably led to a longer and costlier campaign than could otherwise have been the case.

Meanwhile the decorations kept flowing in: while MacArthur was always publicly modest about awards and honours, Long leaves us in little doubt that he did nothing to stop others recommending him for them, and was more than happy to recieve them.

After the war, as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, MacArthur had unprecedented power over the people of Japan. In many ways this period was his finest hour, as - from the ground up - he rebuilt a society and country absolutely devastated by war. In many ways he set himself up as a replacment to the Emperor: remote, discoursing from on high, and leaving the hack work to his minions. In the whole time he held this position he never visited any part of Japan outside Tokyo. He ruled in a way that he thought the "Asian mind" would respect, and he did set Japan on the path to physical prosperity and stable politics. He also unashamedly persecuted left-wing politicians, censored opinions unfavourable to his, and had little respect for historic Japanese institutions. He became a god-like figure, whom no-one could contradict (by this time, and in fact for many years previously, his personal staff contained only those who agreed with, if not worshipped, him).

Then came the Korean War. MacArthur ended up with the command because he was there, he had troops on the ground in Japan, and the situation was desperate. With typical bravado, he made wonderful speeches, denigrated the quality of the troops he had on hand, asked for more from the US, and proceeded to salvage the situation. His landing at Inchon, which famously turned the tide, was another example of MacArthur's luck - so many things could have gone wrong that went right on the day of the landing, even if the idea was not as revolutionary as his boosters would have had us believe - MacArthur himself had overseen dozens of such operations in the Pacific six years previously.

It is this, the last part of MacArthur's military career, that is the most interesting, and Long deals with it well. Once he had regained the initiative, MacArthur saw his situation as an opening to have it out with the Communist world here and now, to deliver them a crushing defeat that would curtail the threat for generations to come. His superiors in the US didn't see it that way, and didn't want this war to grow bigger than it had become. MacArthur used his popular image to drive his agenda, and wilfully misconstrued instructions from the President, which led to his removal from command. It seems, in Long's telling, that he had been for too long used to getting his own way without interference, and this was the comeuppance. It has to be said that apart from Inchon, his direct influence on the Korean War was perhaps less than that of those under him, such as Ridgeway, who took over after MacArthur was relieved, and prosecuted the remainder of the war successfully - and in accordance with the wishes of his civilian masters.

MacArthur was and is such a fascinating character - one of the few people who had a direct influence on history in the twentieth century, a pulsating bundle of bravery, smarts, and vanity; thin-skinned, vindictive, magnanimous, and certainly worth the print devoted to him over the years.

As an introduction to his military career, MacArthur as military commander is a good one.

Cheers for now, from

A View Over the Bell

No comments:

Post a Comment