- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By John M. McFarland
Best Defense guest columnist
Your opinion on MacArthur as the worst general in U.S. history absolutely baffles me. It just reinforces the notion that anyone, anytime, can assert some completely uninformed, ridiculous opinion on an internet blog and get away with it. Place a Washington Post byline beneath their name, and, suddenly, they have some type of credibility, or presumed knowledge or insight about anything.
One actually has to study military history to be able to articulate an opinion such as that which you have so carelessly issued. Either you have never studied it, or you were skipping that instruction when it was offered to you. If MacArthur had never set foot in WWII or Korea, he still would have been one of the greatest battlefield leaders in American military history, based solely upon his performance in WWI. If you want some suggested readings to inform yourself about MacArthur’s military career, and about more basic military affairs or matters generally, I will be happy to provide them. It’s never too late to learn.
One can read everything about MacArthur 5 times over, but fail to ever gain the slightest insight into him if (i) one reads everything about MacArthur with a view and goal of extracting only what fits into the preconceived notion of MacArthur to which one is already wed, and/or (ii) one is more concerned with articulating opinions or judgments that will be more readily accepted by those of one’s particular social/political persuasion or perspective, rather than viewing a historical figure fully in the round. It’s not necessarily what you read, but how you read it.
Now you want to strip him of his WWI accomplishments. I am familiar with the book to which you refer. That author looked at the historical record (as he perceived it) and pronounced most proudly that he had discovered that MacArthur had not actually set foot on the objective in the battle campaign for which he received a DSC (one of 4, I believe, that MacArthur received from a headquarters that was hostile to him). Because of this author’s "extensive" knowledge of all things military, he concluded from this sole "fact" that MacArthur did not deserve his decoration, had not performed with valor worthy of the citation, and was a charlatan and a fraud. This author supposedly discerned 80+ years after the fact what no one in the Rainbow Division, Chaumont, or the AEF discerned during the attack. The sheer tonnage of what that author obviously does not know about military operations on a tactical level literally took my breath away. As William Manchester remarked in American Caesar, there is almost nothing derogatory that can be said about MacArthur these days that will not be believed immediately at face value by those untrained or unwilling to examine the premises of the statement.
All of the great captains of history have manifested flaws roughly commensurate with their brilliance. MacArthur is no different than, for example, Napoleon or Hannibal in this regard. The best single volume analysis of MacArthur, I believe, is Geoffrey Perret’s Old Soldiers Never Die — The Life of Douglas MacArthur. Perret is critical and judgmental of MacArthur when necessary and appropriate, but succeeds as a military historian in viewing MacArthur in the round, which you, in this regard, clearly do not. Perret judged MacArthur the second greatest soldier in American history, after U.S. Grant. Perret expressly moves him to second place because of MacArthur’s dabbling in politics late in his career, and his antagonism with President Truman. Unlike you, however, Perret does not allow himself to be blinded by these episodes in analyzing MacArthur’s place among the great captains of history, and certainly American military history. While I disagree with that particular conclusion of Perret, I respect his process because he has viewed and analyzed the complete sum of MacArthur’s life in the whole, not little snippets of his life that are cherry-picked by authors such as you to support the preconceived end that they have already identified for their analysis.
Where have you possibly gone or whom have you possibly talked to in order to draw the conclusion that the U.S. Army has "extirpated" the memory of Douglas MacArthur?
John M. McFarland, an attorney and graduate of West Point, served in the 82d Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group before attending law school on active duty and transferring to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he continued his service before leaving the Army to begin private practice.