MacArthur Returns Again

by John J. Miller on February 11, 2010

in Culture

  • Sumo

June 14, 1999

Book review: The Emperor’s General, by James Webb (Broadway, 416 pp., $ 25)


At the conclusion of their first meeting, not long after Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito posed for a photograph. The resulting image-the tiny, bespectacled Hirohito looks like MacArthur’s butler-ran in newspapers all over Japan and did more to diminish the country’s opinion of its royal head than even its recent military defeat. Yet as James Webb tells it in this history-meets-fiction novel, Hirohito had just won an important victory behind closed doors: MacArthur agreed not to prosecute the emperor for war crimes, despite pressure from the Allies to initiate a set of Nuremburg-like trials in the Pacific.

Preserving the emperor’s personal dignity was one of MacArthur’s chief accomplishments during the American occupation of Japan. Hirohito renounced the idea of imperial divinity, declared the people sovereign, and allowed the adoption of a new constitution. These steps, of course, were vital in helping to transform Japan into a postwar ally of the United States. Yet they came at a price, as Webb makes clear. Several of Hirohito’s close associates, who were responsible for atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking, never had to show their faces in court. And at least one innocent man, the crafty but honorable Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, was condemned to die as a scapegoat for the crimes of those protected by Tokyo deal-makers.

The Emperor’s General is really a kind of Bildungsroman, tracing the military career of Capt. Jay Marsh, a red-haired boy from Arkansas, from the landing at Leyte in October 1944 (“I have returned,” declared MacArthur) to the occupation of Japan. Marsh, a 23-year-old whose story is told in the first person, starts out as an aide to MacArthur and a self-described SLJO (“sh***y little jobs officer”). He is a fluent Japanese speaker, however, and during the occupation becomes a top-level translator for MacArthur and an informal conduit between the general and the crown. At first, Marsh is merely a “trusted listener” observing great events. But before long he’s an intriguer with a private agenda that puts him at odds with both the Americans and the Japanese.

Webb doesn’t tinker too much with what actually happened. At the first MacArthur-Hirohito encounter, for example, only the emperor’s personal translator sat in; in Webb’s telling, Marsh is also there. Webb’s purpose is not to write an alternative history, but to engage in modest speculation about the motives that drove MacArthur and Hirohito. These have always been poorly understood, and Webb fills in the blanks with interesting, often Machiavellian, possibilities.

The book’s greatest strength is the character of MacArthur. Through the eyes of Marsh, the general comes across as one of the great men of history, a brilliant commander whose mighty willpower carries his country to victory and helps it secure a future peace. Yet the bombastic MacArthur was not the kind of guy you would invite to a cookout. He craved admiration the way a truck craves diesel fuel. He had a lofty sense of self-importance, even for a man in his position. Personal grievances interfered with his judgment. As a psychological biography of a complex man, The Emperor’s General is a solid success.

Webb also expertly describes several famous scenes, like the emotional reunion in 1945 between MacArthur and Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, the man MacArthur left behind in the Philippines to defend against an irresistible Japanese offensive. (“I shall return” must have been small comfort to the men who would soon face the Bataan death march.) Again, Marsh is present to observe. Webb’s version doesn’t unfold exactly as it did in reality-but it’s awfully close, and arguably even an improvement.

If the book has a flaw, it’s Marsh. Self-absorbed and morally obtuse, he is not a terribly likable character. In this way he mirrors MacArthur, even betraying his Filipina fiancee to a geisha girl and later abandoning her, just as MacArthur wrongly condemns the innocent Gen. Yamashita to a sham trial in the Philippines. Fortunately for readers, fascinating events and personalities surround this Marsh. It’s a great backdrop-and, on these pages, the backdrop is the story.

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