Medical Tuesday Blog
The Braggart Soldier
MacArthur at War by Walter R. Borneman, Little Brown, WSJ, July 2, 2026
SOME OF THE KEY BATTLES IN THE PACIFIC WERE WITHIN THE U.S. MILITARY—OVER SCARCE SUPPLIES AND STRATEGY.
The Luckiest General by Robert Messenger WSJ Book Editor, July 1, 2016
‘None of us knew then that this was the last war America would cleanly, conclusively win.
We thought it was the last war ever.’ –Theodore H. White
The Imperial Japanese Navy started the Pacific War on Dec. 7, 1941, with airstrikes on Hawaii. But it was the Japanese army that carried the battle forward and won victories as startling as the first attack had been surprising. U.S. and British strategy in the Far East was based on holding citadels and controlling shipping lanes. Within months of Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces seized Singapore and the Philippines in lightning campaigns. In both cases, the Allied commander tried to defend too widely and failed to prepare adequately for a siege. Each was overwhelmed by the demands and of modern warfare.
The man who lost Singapore, Gen. Arthur Percival, was resoundingly condemned in Britain—Churchill called the surrender “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”—and spent three years in Japanese camps. By contrast, his American counterpart in the Philippines, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, received a presidential order to leave Corregidor, the besieged fortress that guarded Manila Bay, before its fall and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He is the subject of Walter R. Borneman’s “MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific,” which deftly tells the story of a controversial figure whose leadership was often flawed but who throughout the war was popularly regarded as the country’s greatest general.
The contrast between Percival’s and MacArthur’s fates was attributable to one thing. After more than two hard years of war, Britain could point to plenty of men who had served gallantly in the direst circumstances, from the beaches of Dunkirk to the skies above southern England. The U.S. could not. As the country reeled from defeat to defeat in the early days of 1942, the fact that MacArthur (1880-1964) was leading soldiers actually fighting the Japanese made him a hero. America needed a knight and “indulged in the hero worship of Douglas MacArthur,” writes Mr. Borneman: “In the first three months of 1942, Time magazine made mention of Admiral King seven times, General Marshall five times, Admiral Nimitz twice and General Eisenhower not at all, while news of MacArthur’s exploits appeared thirty-two times.”
Yet his leadership in the Philippines had been both incompetent and disgraceful. Having retired as U.S. Army chief of staff in 1935, he took up the baton of a field marshal in the Philippine army, charged by the Filipino president with building a military capable of defending the new commonwealth when it eventually achieved independence from the U.S. This was never more than a token force, despite MacArthur’s inflated claims. In July 1941, with war against Japan expected, he was recalled to duty in the U.S. Army and ordered to defend the Philippines with American troops. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall cabled MacArthur on Nov. 28, 1941: “The Secretary of War and I were highly pleased to receive your report that your command is ready for any eventuality.”
There were nine hours between the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the appearance of the first Japanese planes over the Philippines, but MacArthur failed to put his air forces on a war footing and suffered the destruction of his planes on the ground. In the ensuing months, he issued press releases touting his leadership but prepared little for the invasion to come. When it did, in late December 1941, he hid himself in Corregidor’s deep Malinta Tunnel complex, such that a man revered in World War I for almost suicidal battlefield courage became known as “Dugout Doug,” the object of a many-versed satire sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (The refrain: “His troops go starving on.”) But Franklin Roosevelt wanted no martyrs—especially a man who had made plain his desire to be the Republican nominee for president. MacArthur escaped to Australia by PT boat. Even in defeat, he showed his self-absorption, happily accepting the Medal of Honor while squashing one for the man who remained to lead the final defenses of Bataan and Corregidor, Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright.
Roosevelt sent MacArthur to Australia in the hope that his outsize presence would calm a country suddenly at war in its own backyard while its best divisions were fighting in the Middle East. The president’s decision to wage a “Germany first” war meant that some of the key battles in the Pacific were within the U.S. military, over scarce supplies and control of strategy. . . .
He was a lucky general, especially with his field commanders. The Army Air Corps’ George C. Kenney, in particular, was superb at making do with whatever planes could be scrounged and getting down to the job. He showed MacArthur that troops could be airlifted into battle, and his advocacy of “skipping bombs” across the water at enemy ships led to the victory at the Bismarck Sea, which ended Japan’s hopes of seizing the whole of New Guinea in March 1943. But MacArthur was luckiest of all in facing small and divided Japanese forces in the 21 months of fighting across New Guinea, from the Owen Stanleys to Buna, New Britain and Hollandia. It was a campaign of improvisation, which disguised MacArthur’s weak grasp of jungle warfare and tactics. . . .
MacArthur “wanted an attack,” writes Mr. Borneman, “in such force as would overwhelm the Japanese lines, reminiscent of the trench warfare of the last war.” But MacArthur’s pushing paid dividends: The swift strikes leapfrogging over Japanese positions that we know as “island-hopping” led to strongholds being isolated instead of assaulted and shortened the war. In every case, Kenney set up airfields and brought U.S. bombers that much closer to Japan. . . .
The question was the penultimate battle. Should it be for MacArthur’s Philippines or for Formosa, as Adm. King, overseeing operations from Washington, preferred? Which was the better staging ground for reducing the Japanese home islands? MacArthur rightly won the fight, and the landings at Leyte and Lingayen Gulf in late 1944 and early 1945 were among the largest Allied operations of the war. He was in his element as the conquering hero and lavished resources on liberating every stretch of the vast country. He won a further battle, too, wresting complete control in the Pacific for the invasions of Japan planned for November 1945 and March 1946. They were happily unnecessary after the atomic bombings in August. MacArthur took the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, with the gaunt figures of Percival and Wainwright standing directly behind. A more stark contrast of fortunes is hard to conjure.
The shelves groan under accounts of the colorful MacArthur’s life. Yet Mr. Borneman’s book is notable for the commendable fairness with which he treats a general who inspires extremes of adulation or antagonism. If there is little new in “MacArthur at War,” it is nonetheless a first-rate account of its subject and an excellent history of the less-known half of the American experience in the Pacific. Even so, it is hard to imagine the reader who comes away from the book thinking Roosevelt did anything but a disservice to his country by not sending MacArthur off to some soon-to-be-forgotten post after he escaped Corregidor.
—Mr. Messenger is the Journal’s books editor.
This book review is found at http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-braggart-soldier-1467378313
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