"MacArthur at War" by Walter Borneman

Brian Gongol


The famed line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" goes: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Walter Borneman tears up that advice, lights it on fire, buries the ashes, and salts the earth above it.

The legend of General Douglas MacArthur as the military genius who promised "I shall return" (and did) was strategically useful to the United States, so it was "printed" throughout World War II and well afterward. Even today, MacArthur's name ought to be recognizable to any student in a basic high-school-level American history class, if only for his fulfilled promise to return to the Philippines.

But for the more skeptical reader, Borneman's exacting review of MacArthur as a military leader -- but also as a man with other motivations, especially his political ambitions -- is a relentless effort to print the facts instead. At times almost prosecutorial in tone, "MacArthur at War" is perhaps most interesting as a study in competitive ambitions -- particularly comparing MacArthur to three contemporaries: Dwight Eisenhower, his one-time aide and later his civilian commander-in-chief; Franklin D. Roosevelt, in many ways both his mirror image and his phantom political rival; and George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff who managed MacArthur with the skill of a Hollywood director.

The book is a titanic work -- nearly twice the size of most similar books -- and it occasionally relishes in nitpicking MacArthur's real-life flaws at the expense of the legend. But it is ultimately a fascinating examination of a real-life legend whose place in history is already well-secured. One is advised to stay far away from Borneman's book if one wants to cling to the legend -- but if the reader is open to believing that the only reason MacArthur had to make good on a promise to return is because he made mistakes that necessitated his evacuation in the first place, then "MacArthur at War" is a worthy read.

Verdict: A demanding, definitive, and enormous examination of the legend of Douglas MacArthur