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I believed when I first saw this book that it concerned itself with MacArthur’s military actions during World War II and I assumed it to be an analysis of how he fought his campaigns, the setbacks and successes and his military approach. While some of that is covered that is not what this book is primarily about. Instead this book spends a great deal of time discussing MacArthur’s failing - his tendency to exaggerate his problems, his imperiousness and mild paranoia and his grandstanding. Very little time is spent analyzing his military successes although considerable time is spent doing so with his failures.
Anyone who has read about Douglas MacArthur knows that he was a complex and varied person - part military strategist, part self promoter, part actor and always very ambitious, and the same can be said of other colorful military figures during World War II - George Patton and Bernard Montgomery foremost among them. Leadership is not always a simple and straight forward thing. George Patton was flamboyant and colorful, always acting for his troops and always a self promoter. Bernard Montgomery was equally colorful and believed himself to be the only one who really understood how to fight the war. Douglas MacArthur was no different, although perhaps he was a bit more successful at some of his failings than the others.
The book attempts to be a fair and balanced history of MacArthur during World War II, but fails in that attempt as the bias of the author is clear. The writing is full of phrases like “It was almost as if” when referring to MacArthur’s actions, his conversations are often called “tirades”, his responses to reports called “rants” and “lectures”. A great amount of time is spent on his failures, especially his failure to properly prepare for the initial Japanese attack against Luzon and the failure to properly stockpile food for the retreat into Bataan and Corregidor, and rightly so, but this is rarely balanced with a similar discussion concerning his successes. In addition the author seems to assume he knows what was going on in MacArthur’s mind during several incidents during the war and is inconsistent in his writing about Eddie Rickenbacker’s trip to see MacArthur during the war. This meeting, which the author refers to in two places in the book, is first qualified to make clear that no one knows, to this day, what message Rickenbacker was taking to MacArthur from Washington but, in the second reference the author assumes he does know and states so without even seeming to understand the inconsistency. He is clearly guessing, but treats his guesses as facts.
On the other hand the book seems to have been meticulously researched and small details that I have never seen in any other book concerning MacArthur’s actions are described so, for the first time, I was able to understand why food was not properly stockpiled in Corregidor before the retreat, why MacArthur’s planes were caught on the ground in the initial Japanese attack and why MacArthur wrongly assumed the number of Japanese soldiers he would have to fight upon his return to the Philippines. So, in some ways, the book provides a welcome addition to my knowledge of MacArthur’s actions during World War II, although some of what is written has to be taken with the understanding of what appears to be the author’s bias concerning his subject.
The book ends with MacArthur’s landing in Japan to take up his duties as Supreme Commander in Japan at the end of World War II and thus does not cover his work there, nor his leadership during the Korean War nor Truman’s dismissal of him, and the resulting firestorm, during that war.
The book is narrated by David Baker who does an excellent job. In rating this book I have tried to balance the clearly articulate writing and the new information against what I see as the author’s bias toward his subject. Had I been able to I would have given the book 3 1/2 stars but, since that is not possible, I have given it 4 stars, giving the author the benefit of the doubt. As a word of caution to readers I would mention that it is helpful to read William Manchester’s book “American Caesar” to get a different view of Douglas MacArthur and his role during World War II.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
My first observation is that I've yet to find what feels to me like a fair evaluation of what and who MacArthur was. I've read American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior, Old Soldiers Never Die, and Supreme Commander. I've not committed as much time and energy to any other figure in history, not so much because I think he deserves it, but because I still am not sure what to make of him.
I picked up this book because I found Borneman's 'The Admirals' to be a compelling read of history. This was good, but it didn't achieve what that one did. What I liked about MacArthur At War is that most of the assertions are supported by historical citations in the book. For instance, you'll get any number of interpretations of MacArthur's meeting with FDR, Leahy, and Nimitz in Hawaii in various books, but Borneman, unlike most, includes observations and comments from those attending (as opposed to just MacArthur in the hagiographies, or MacArthur's critics in the hatchet jobs). Most of the observations and interpretations in the book are like this. It's not just an editorial -- there's history in here.
The biggest drawback to this book is that it stops with WWII. Obviously, it calls that out on the cover of the book -- it's not designed to be an assessment of his entire career. That said, what follows WWII (the Japanese occupation and Korea) are the most compelling elements of MacArthur's legacy; one a triumph, one a disgrace.
The other drawback is that it is, on balance, still pretty negative about MacArthur. Which is not to say that a negative assessment of a historical figure is a bad thing, but merely that those examples of unsupported assertions of fact in this book are almost uniformly negative. It's obvious that Borneman doesn't think much of MacArthur overall, but even worse, in his effort to be a balanced biographer, it sometimes feels like he's bending over backwards to give MacArthur credit in other areas -- which feels artificial.
All that said, I learned more about MacArthur the military man from this book than any other I've read. American Caesar is a more comprehensive picture of the man MacArthur might've been, but I think this is a superior book. I'll be watching for a 2nd volume from Borneman on MacArthur's later life.