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.  

I had never been a fan of Douglas MacArthur after reading dozens of books about WWII in the Pacific, and the Coldest Winter reinforced my earlier opinions. I found him vain, petty and thin skinned elite snob with an exaggerated sense of his own abilities, and thought he should have been fired for military incompetence and insubordination after more than one incident. 

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. 

The amphibious landing at Inchon was indeed brilliant, but I find the real lesson to be taken away from that feat  is that in the aftermath MacArthur became rash, overconfident and perhaps even messianic. Victory disease reinforced the general's already entrenched pattern of surrounding himself with worshipful aides and a fawning press corps. 

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. 

MacArthur had the admirable long term goal of wanting to wipe out communism. After Inchon, he felt that no debate about either the political or military wisdom of his plan to start that eradication in Korea and take it as far he could was really needed.  To compound the brush off of any advice from above, bad news coming up the chain of command was treated as being close to treasonous. 

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.

The Marine commanders in particular had been seething about MacArthur for weeks by then. They shared the hardship of their men, eating cold rations and going unwashed. They were appalled at how MacArthur's favorite, General Ned Almond, lived in an elaborate trailer with a huge staff to provide gourmet meals and hot baths as his own men endured the harsh Korean climate. This same general had earlier lectured the Marines in his command on how to do amphibious landings, even though he had never participated in one. 

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. 

When the Chinese began breaking through in force the proper orders were not forthcoming on a timely basis from MacArthur and his staff.  None of it was in the General's plans so ... this... simply... could... not... be... happening. 

What struck me most while listening to The Coldest Winter  was the way MacArthur's actions after Inchon are very much the way Obama seems to be behaving of late.   After his triumph at Inchon, Truman and Congress be damned. MacArthur now had real political clout as well as his military command, and he'd single handedly rid the world of communists. On to the Yalu! What the heck:  take on Peking and Moscow and damn the nukes! 

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. 

In the current winter of discontent it also seems there is to be no debate about the wisdom of Obama's plan to expand the size and scope of the federal government beyond recognition. After a year and a half of fawning media coverage,  Obama may very well believe that he has the political skills to charm his way through any problem even though he knows little or nothing of substance about the issues.  (Profits Earning ratio, indeed.)   He won and he insists we all shut up and climb aboard the mega government will solve all our problems express. We are to let him complain about the loathed Rush Limbaugh and forget about those crazy ups and downs of the financial markets.

But there have been no ups, and those downs are not the reaction of either the stupid or the hysterical-minded. Like the tall, well fed, well trained well equipped soldiers in the funny looking quilted uniforms they warn of potential disaster.

I suspect that the more experienced economic advisors around Obama find themselves in a similar position to the senior Marines in MacArthur's command.  They know you can't charm the market and dread what is coming.  They can do nothing about it because right now the Grandiose One is not prepared to listen to anybody.  He won. He's got the political clout and he's going to run with it as far as he can. All they can do is prepare to fight the inevitable rearguard action.