Commentary Magazine

Reminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur

A Long Gray Line

by Douglas Macarthur.
McGraw-Hill. 438 pp. $6.95.

Most reviewers have treated this as a Them, not an Us book. It is being bought by Them in quantity, to judge from best-seller lists, though We may wonder whether having bought it They are able to get through it. For even to Them it must seem grandiloquently soporific. To Us it is insufferable in apparently reinforcing every prejudice We have cherished against the military, and against Douglas MacArthur in particular. If this is MacArthur's testament for American posterity, We can only marvel again at his gift for misinterpreting the temper of his countrymen. The frontispiece is a color photograph of Our (no, Their) Hero in which everything about him, including the famous corncob pipe, has a strange golden gleam like a treasure hoard. He figures conspicuously, usually in proconsular poses, in the other photographs. The text is equally overweening and impeccable. We carry away the same impression which we brought to the book—namely, of an encrusted self-satisfaction, of an entire refusal to face the notion that other men might know better, that he himself might on occasion err. Experts in MacArthurism (well briefed some years ago in the excellent biography by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Richard Rovere) can easily point to the places in the record where MacArthur is most vulnerable and where he has either distorted or ignored the truth. How, for example, could he still believe that the Bonus Marchers of 1932 were Communist-led? How could he be so cavalier in his account of the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, and of his own foresight in anticipating them? How could he pass so disdainfully over the dubious strategy and still more dubious military intelligence that exposed him to the sudden onslaught out of North Korea? What of his political involvements, at those moments when he was being boomed for the Presidency? No, the book repels us—Us. We wince at the odd impersonal vanity that leads him to announce so many medals awarded, so much gallantry, so much wisdom, so much disinterest. True, he leaves most of the actual commendatory phrases to others; but the glowing citations, the lavish praise in letters and speeches, reported verbatim, are unpleasant as well as tedious. We picture the old man culling them from his files and pressclippings with a kind of exhibitionist vanity peculiar in one so austere. True, he sometimes introduces a disclaimer, but with an unconvincing coyness (“The staff . . . presented me with a gold cigarette box with the inscription: ‘The bravest of the brave.’ It was, of course, an extravagant statement which defied all realities, but the sentiment moved me almost to tears.”). We smile knowingly at the one-sentence mention of his first marriage (“In February 1922 I entered into matrimony, but it was not successful, and ended in divorce years later for mutual incompatibility.”), and at the attachment for Mother that he maintained late into life (he did not marry again until she was dead). We are skeptical at the notion that this autocrat could have known what he was talking about when he decreed freedom and democracy for the Filipinos and the Japanese. We wince at the fruity, melodramatic, squareness of MacArthur's farewell address to West Point in 1962:

My days of old have vanished tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were . . . . I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. . . . But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes in my ears—Duty-Honor-Country.

But is the Them-Us formula altogether adequate? Have We understood?


The first point is that he was an extraordinarily brave man in a dangerous trade. Again and again—in his early Philippine service, in Mexico, in France during 1918, in the Philippines once more and in New Guinea—he earned his medals with a display of resilient, almost reckless courage. He was, in an objective count, among the bravest of the brave.

In the second place, MacArthur's views, though fallible and sometimes disingenuous, were not stupid. He was badly wrong about Korea. On earlier occasions there was good sense in what he said; and his way of saying it compares quite favorably with the fussing and fuming of other commanders, American and British. He had cause to complain at the neglect of the Pacific theater in the grim months of 1942. Indeed, he would have been a weak commander if he had not urged the claims of his own theater. Nor, as Schlesinger and Rovere realize, was he exceptionally insubordinate—at least not until the close of his military career. The doctrine of civil control of the military has always needed to be qualified: absolute civilian supremacy would be as bad as the opposite. A certain amount of disgruntlement is healthy. In special and local circumstances it may be right to disobey orders. One suspects that MacArthur would have thought the dénouement of The Caine Mutiny silly, not just because of his own ignominious dismissal but because in his long service he had seen instances of fruitful resistance to orders. He had also, it is true, seen Billy Mitchell court-martialed for overzealous advocacy of air power: was not Mitchell vindicated by events?


The major point, however, is that MacArthur represents an extreme case of military professionalism. He lived in and for the Army: for the abstractions in the West Point motto—Duty-Honor-Country—that make us wince. Schlesinger and Rovere remark that he was an expatriate, to a greater degree than Henry James. The comment helps to remind us of the many years when he was in the Far East, isolated from the raucous atmosphere of home. But it is truer to say that he spent his life in an enclave—the un-American and yet hyper-American world of an army post. He was born into this closed existence, the son of a brilliant officer who had been a Civil War colonel at the age of nineteen: too young to vote when the election officers visited his camp in 1864. MacArthur lived in frontier stations, where his father reverted to the peacetime rank of captain and had to wait twenty-three years for promotion to major. The MacArthur line stretches so far back that we become confused between father and son. Kenesaw Mountain was as real to Douglas MacArthur as was Bataan. He had known the Philippines for forty years when Pearl Harbor came. He had served as an aide to Theodore Roosevelt and as chief of staff to Franklin Roosevelt.

Like his father, he had suffered periods of extended frustration in between glorious episodes when national drama and personal opportunity coincided. Soldiers in peace, an English poet said, are like chimneys in summer. Alfred de Vigny, an officer in the post-Napoleonic army, said that he and his companions were immured in the belly of a wooden horse that would never open in any Troy. The contrast with the glamor of wartime was all the more bitter. For in war the belly opens, the soldier is adored after the years of obscurity in which he is tempted into fantasies of persecution and salvation. In war Us and Them temporarily merge. A few years later and we are embarrassed by the rhetoric of Them, with its emphasis on medals, traditions, gallantries. We are horrified, twenty years on, to read what MacArthur's friend General George S. Patton told his troops before crossing to Normandy:

Men, this stuff you heard about Americans wanting to stay out of this war and not wanting to fight, is a lot of bull shit. Traditionally, Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.

This corrupt unacceptable message is as bizarre as, say, the sudden heroic wordiness of Humphrey Bogart on the Murmansk run, in some old World War II movie resurrected for television late at night. But in wartime the message was at least half true for at least a part of each of us, in its belligerent certitude. The commander, though, needs to believe it wholeheartedly, peace or war, and to believe in himself to the brink of megalomania. Only some outrageous quality, some altogether inordinate pride, can carry the day for him in crisis. This is the moral, though possibly an unwitting one, of James Jones's The Thin Red Line. MacArthur's Pacific war is a nightmare: what an ill-named ocean. But the hard, cock-sure West Pointers in Jones's novel are the ones who impose on the campaign an illusion of sanity, a saving promise of success.

The hermetic codes which enable the regulars to behave thus are not a useful guide to ordinary living. MacArthur's reminiscences are antipathetic. Yet if we are just to him we will not dismiss the book as mere posthumous self-seeking. We will see that the conditions of life in the military enclave, with plans and creeds laid up in mothballs against an emergency, did much to make him the figure held in mingled awe and contempt by countless GI's. He was required to adhere to the creed (Duty-Honor-Country), and he did. It helped him to be an extremely good soldier, and to appear an improbable, unlovable human being. It helped him too, since after all the creed is old-fashioned rather than inherently autocratic, to be a surprisingly successful interim governor of Japan.


Perhaps the clue to his character lies in the word old-fashioned. Unlike the semi-civilian Dwight Eisenhower or Omar Bradley, MacArthur was an “army brat,” in fact a survivor from an earlier military epoch. He was not an aristocrat on the Junker model, for the old American regular had not been that either. For the same reason he did not despise the civilian-soldier or insist upon martinet discipline. He was a special kind of old-timer, in having a long memory of family grandeur: his father before him had achieved proconsular dignity, the servant and model of the state. Indeed in his total outlook—his veneration for his parents and for West Point, his splendor in dress coupled with the frontier idiosyncrasy of the corncob, his sonorous 19th-century prose—Douglas was Arthur MacArthur reborn. He was a repository of antique modes, a perpetuation of a period when (ideally, at any rate) Us and Them marched together, dying utterances were felicitous, and words like Duty, Honor, Country had not yet been demolished by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway privatized the code; MacArthur, though living partly in his private world of MacArthur imperatives, insisted that it was still public. In his mind's eye he bore the standard forward as his father had carried the actual standard of the 24th Wisconsin up Missionary Ridge. How corny. Yet how authentic: he was correct in complicated ways when he declared, before an ephemerally stirred Congress, that old soldiers never die.

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