Lessons from the Coldest Winter
Douglas MacArthur and Barack Obama are one of the oddest pairings imaginable, yet they bear comparison.
I have been listening to David Halberstam's book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter on my drive to and from town. Military history is a hobby and I find this books is appropriate in many ways. I know little about that war, but it seems that we have been living through another long cold winter of discontent. Halberstam's work is a fine study in the dangers of victory disease and over-reaching.
MacArthur also had moments of genius, but on balance I found his weaknesses outweighed his strengths as a purely military commander. (His strengths as an administrator first in the Philippines and later in post war Japan are another story.) In 1941 and again in 1950 MacArthur made the always stupid mistake of underestimating the skills of the troops he faced.
Two of his moments of greatest genius, keeping his forces together on the retreat up the Bataan peninsula and the invasion of Inchon, had been made necessary in the first place because of his own complacency and inability to make quick adjustments to his thinking. Hours after Pearl Harbor, he allowed American forces in the Philippines to be caught with their planes on the ground and the ships still anchored in the harbor. In 1950 he first allowed the forces under his command in the Far East to go lax in their training, then he ignored intelligence that North Korea was about the invade the South. Once again forces under his command were caught unprepared.
Then there was the matter of his obsession with the trappings of office. For years his detractors loved to parody many of them as perhaps just a tad on the grandiose side. After Inchon, subordinate commanders complained they were being held to schedules of advance designed to allow MacArthur to get the maximum public relations boost from the planned victory celebrations. Add in a lifelong disdain for both the capabilities of the enemy and the input of the civilian and military experts in Washington DC and trouble was in the making.
As the Allied forces moved north, concerns over long supply lines and over extended troop placements were dismissed as the whining of timid and weak commanders. Growing reports of well-trained, well-equipped Chinese troops crossing the border in force were dismissed as cases of misidentity by the stupid and the hysteric. MacArthur was too busy gloating over having humiliated the loathed Harry Truman by making the despised Democrat president fly all the way to Wake Island to confer with him, to take time to actually listen to the growing concerns of what he clearly saw as lesser military minds.
They found it odd that MacArthur himself never spent one night in Korea. He'd fly in to confer and then fly back out to his five star quarters in Tokyo. As they neared the Yalu River, the Marine commanders found themselves skating as close to insubordination as the dared, as they tried to keep their men together and to bring up supplies before they followed Mac's order to continue the advance. What MacArthur and his staff saw on their maps and reports back in Tokyo was not what the Marines on the ground were seeing with their own eyes. But destiny awaited a general and his staff planning the celebration of a reunited Korea, and their concerns went unheeded.
In a nutshell, in the wake of a celebrated victory MacArthur believed in his omnipotent military genius. Mac was the man with the infallible plan. Everybody else should just shut up and get on board. And to their discredit a good many Republican politicians, unhappy at being so long out of political power, did just that.