Applying MacArthurism to the War on Terror

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (search) (1880-1964) was one of the greatest -- and arguably the greatest -- military leaders ever produced by the United States.

He graduated first in his West Point class of 1903, rose to the rank of brigadier general in World War I, and served as Army chief of staff in the 1930s. During World War II, he was the top commander of Allied forces in the southwest Pacific (search), masterminding the liberation of the Philippines (search) and the island-leaping strategy that outmaneuvered Japanese forces. He became a five-star general, the highest rank in the U.S. army (and one not held by anyone alive today).

After Japan’s surrender, MacArthur oversaw the occupation and the creation of a Japanese constitutional democracy. In the Korean War (search), MacArthur commanded the U.S.-led United Nations forces, repelling the communist invasion of South Korea but then falling back as China entered the war. MacArthur’s desire for air attacks on enemy sanctuaries in China brought him into conflict with the Truman administration, and he was relieved of command. MacArthur was less adept at domestic politics than in war and statesmanship, failing in efforts to become the Republican nominee for U.S. president.

MacArthur will long merit study by those interested in military and geopolitical strategy. Consider the following of MacArthur’s statements and ideas, and their relevance to the crises and conflicts facing the U.S. today:

“I shall return.”

These, the most famous words of the Pacific war, were spoken by MacArthur after he arrived in Australia in 1942, having been ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines, then under Japanese invasion. Officials in Washington were disturbed at the personal nature and egotism of MacArthur’s promise to liberate the Philippines, and pressed him to revise it to “We shall return.”

But these critics were wrong. For many Filipinos, the U.S. government’s determination to rescue the Philippines was in doubt; the U.S. in fact was giving top priority to the war in Europe. But the Filipinos trusted MacArthur, and the first-person singular underscored that help really would be coming.

MacArthur’s statement demonstrates the importance of personal commitment in giving credibility to national policies. U.S. national power counts for little unless the president and senior officials display clarity in their goals and determination to meet those objectives. The use of a phrase that is memorable, optimistic and clear-cut helps as well.

“Hit ‘em where they ain’t -- let ‘em die on the vine.”

This is how MacArthur described his strategy of bypassing the most strongly held of imperial Japan’s island conquests and leapfrogging to more weakly defended islands. Japanese soldiers, indoctrinated to fight to the death, often found themselves waiting indefinitely or perishing without supplies. One result was that MacArthur’s forces often had lower casualty rates than did Allied forces in Europe or elsewhere in the Pacific.

In the current war on terror, there are many options as to where and when to strike, and it is best to engage at times and places chosen by the U.S. rather than by its enemies. The swift collapse of the Iraqi military earlier this year is sometimes presented as evidence that the threat from Iraq did not merit a U.S.-led invasion. But actually, Iraq’s military weakness is one factor, among others, that argues in favor of the war. Fighting weaker parts of enemy forces or coalitions is better than directly assaulting strongholds.

“War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war, there is no substitute for victory.”

MacArthur said the above in his 1951 address to a joint session of Congress, after he had been relieved of command by President Truman (search). The Truman administration, in fact, had shown prolonged indecision in its Korea policy, vacillating over how to fight North Korea (search) and hindered by worries about broadening the war. MacArthur ultimately exceeded his instructions, but his instructions were often unclear and self-contradictory.

Fighting to achieve stalemate rather than victory is morally and strategically debilitating. In the war on terror, stalemate could occur even while defeating terrorist elements in the field, if the terrorists’ state sponsors and financial backers are allowed to go unharmed.

There is a great deal more about MacArthur that is relevant to the current world situation. As the ruler of Japan, he wielded vast power but also conveyed to the Japanese a sense of benevolence; his methods should be studied closely by U.S. officials in Iraq. In both world wars and Korea, he showed remarkable physical courage, a quality crucial not only to soldiers today but also to civilians who find themselves on terrorism’s front lines.

Similar to Winston Churchill (search), MacArthur often seemed to the public to be a figure from the past, embodying virtues and habits from the 19th century. Yet both proved adept at the warfare and statecraft of the mid-20th century. MacArthur, like Churchill, was a quick study and early adopter of new military technologies. In the Pacific war, MacArthur worked with the Army Air Force’s Gen. George Kenney (search) to use air power to devastating effect.

In a speech at West Point in 1962, MacArthur, then 82, showed himself a keen observer of science and technology. The speech, remembered for its evocation of “Duty, Honor, Country,” also includes a noteworthy passage about both scientific change and enduring principles, quoted at length below. MacArthur described the advent of satellites and missiles as the start of a new epoch. He went on to tell the cadets:

“We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe. We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

“We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify sea water for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

“And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.”

Kenneth Silber is a writer living in New York and a contributing editor to