Book Review: MacArthur at War
by Walter Borneman
Little, Brown, 2016
The disjunction between the title and sub-title of Walter Borneman’s new book, MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific, would have pleased the subject of the first half just about as much as it would have infuriated the participants in the second half. The attention-grabbing equation of the Pacific Theater of WWII, which stretched over thousands of miles from the Bering Sea to the Indian Ocean and engulfed hundreds of thousands of people over the course of half a decade, with one mercurial and theatrical general, would have flattered the enormous vanity Douglas MacArthur liked to deny he possessed, and yet there’s a small element of truth in it: as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the Southwest Pacific area, MacArthur was uniquely positioned to put the stamp of his personality on the events of the war under his command.
A great many of those events were disasters or near-disasters, most signally the Battle of Bataan in 1942, which ended in a colossal US defeat from the jaws of which MacArthur was ignominiously forced to flee with his family (he famously vowed he would return), and Borneman – whose earlier book The Admirals made for peppy, thought-provoking reading – tells this and all the other stories of MacArthur’s WWII career with thoroughness and energy. His book is an unwitting part of a sudden and not entirely unwelcome little groundswell of MacArthur re-appraisals that also includes James Duffy’s War at the End of the World and Arthur Herman’s whopping big Douglas MacArthur, and like the authors of those other works, Borneman manages very well the delicate balancing-act that dealing with MacArthur – either in person or in the history books – always required.
On the one hand is the man’s undeniable brilliance as a military strategist, his ability to draw convincing theater-wide plans of such complexity and audacity as anything the military world had seen since Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other hand was the preening, borderline messianic complex that often accompanied such vision: MacArthur was sometimes abrupt, frequently insubordinate, and always hopelessly pigheaded. His mercurial brilliance was often the only thing that could salvage the missteps his mercurial brilliance caused in the first place.
Borneman is a clear-eyed assessor of both these strengths and these shortcomings, and since he’s also the owner of a fine, clear, very readable prose style, his book sparkles with insights and quotable passages. Naturally, the shadow of Bataan hangs over most of the proceedings, both in MacArthur’s mind and in the minds of his critics:
The huge contradiction between MacArthur’s usual leadership style and his actions regarding Bataan encouraged a host of generally derogatory grumblings by the rank and file. He became “Dugout Doug.” Part of it was the usual ridicule subordinates traditionally heap on superiors as relief when things get rough. But as conditions worsened and food became even scarcer and of dubious quality, these criticisms became more pointed and personal.
Indeed, Borneman’s completely convincing psychological portrait of his headstrong subject is the highlight of reading MacArthur at War. He’s as sharp at this particular game as was William Manchester in his justly-praised monumental 1978 volume American Caesar, but he swaps out Manchester’s voluble hyperbole for a more straightforward – and hence often more gripping – empathy, as when he ruminates for a moment on MacArthur’s possible motivations for his risky return-tour of the Bataan front-line territory:
Part of the reason for the excursion was MacArthur theater at its best – the pensive conqueror in cap and sunglasses pressing forward at the head of his troops. Even from his critics’ perspective, there could be no doubt that Dugout Doug was dead. But for all his rigid pomp and choreographed actions, Douglas MacArthur was an intensely emotional private person. He had carried the burden of the defeat on Bataan – however he chose to characterize his own role in it – for three long years. Any responsibility he felt would never be washed away, but he needed to exorcise part of the guilt.
It’s really that “MacArthur theater” that’s dissected at length in this terrific book. Borneman follows his subject right to the end of his Second World War career, standing on the deck of the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945 accepting the Japanese surrender that effectively ended the war. The US servicemen watching that ceremony, exhausted and fraught and hopeful, were certain they were seeing the end not only of the Second World War but of war itself, and as Borneman points out, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had earlier brought a variation of such thoughts to MacArthur’s mind, causing him to worry aloud that from now on, wars would be push-button things, no longer matters of valor or judgement. “Men like me are obsolete,” he complained. But alas, he was wrong.