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Jewish World Review May 10, 1999 /24 Iyar 5759

Ben and Dailel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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'MacArthur' not wanted for Belgrade

( THE INDECISION AND DELAY, the restricted means and fuzzy objectives, the unwieldy coalition and war by committee, the resilient enemy, the mutual recriminations between soldiers and civilian policy makers, the political maneuvering on the home front -- Kosovo would have seemed familiar to General Douglas MacArthur. He saw it all as commander of U.N. forces in Korea.

Oh, and it was the weather's fault in Korea, too! Snow was blamed for the failure of aerial reconnaissance to detect the massive Chinese crossing of the Yalu River into North Korea.

"MacArthur," a new PBS television biography of maybe the greatest (and certainly the most controversial) American general of the 20th century, airs May 17 and 18 on public television stations. It is must viewing for armchair generals commanding NATO forces in the Balkans from their Barcaloungers.

Some soldiers, like MacArthur's long-time subordinate Eisenhower, depend on wars to release their greatness. MacArthur needed them only to confirm and spotlight his own. MacArthur was first in his class at West Point, the most decorated American soldier of World War I (he preened on the front without gas mask or helmet), Army Chief of Staff and the highest paid soldier in the world as military adviser to the Philippines -- all before World War II and the events that would etch him forever into American memory.

The so's-your-mother rivalry between the two dominant U.S. generals of World War II intermittently lightens the grave, world-at-war tone of "MacArthur": "Best clerk I ever had," a jealous MacArthur would say of Ike after the latter's swift, wartime rise. "I studied dramatics under MacArthur for seven years," cracked Ike of the man whose theatrical style was by turns comically pompous (the ever-present Philippines field marshall's cap) and profoundly inspiring ("I shall return").

MacArthur was perhaps the first important American military figure to recognize (and bitterly resist) the new military realities of the nuclear age -- the modulated means and moderated ends of "limited war." The debate about limited war that echoed through Vietnam and the Gulf War and continues today in the criticism of the Balkan air war all began with MacArthur in Korea.

In late November, 1950, 300,000 Chinese and North Korean troops swept down from the mountains and divided MacArthur's advancing armies, forcing the longest retreat (300 miles) in U.S. military history. Despite the reversal, MacArthur remained committed to the objective of reunifying Korea (the Truman administration had expanded its original goal of ejecting North Korean forces from South Korea after MacArthur's electrifying Inchon landing). The general reasoned that the military threat to South Korea would persist until Kim Il Sung's communist regime in the north was defeated.

(Then, too, the proud old warrior hardly wanted to end his legendary military career with an embarrassing setback dealt by the communist dictator he derided as "Kim Buck Too.")

To achieve his ambitious goal, MacArthur launched a harassing bureaucratic campaign against the Joint Chiefs and the Truman administration. He demanded authority to expand the war -- to blockade China, bomb its industrial base and use nationalist Chinese troops in Korea and on the Chinese mainland.

Not wanting to siphon resources from the far more important European military theater and fearing a wider war involving the Soviets (who had the bomb by then), Truman rejected all of MacArthur's demands. Truman had decided the policy, says series host David McCullough: "Limited war."

The restrictions, MacArthur harrumphed to the press, were a "handicap without precedent in military history."

On his own narrowly regional terms, MacArthur may been right. North Korea remains a military threat to this day -- not just to South Korea, but to Japan as well. But presidents, unlike theater commanders, are paid to think globally, not act locally -- and Truman held his shaky alliance together and repulsed communist aggression without starting World War III. And his containment policy brought ultimate victory in the Cold War.

But if limited war was a frustrating but necessary adaptation to the Cold War's unique dangers, does it make sense when justified, as today in Kosovo, primarily as a way of keeping U.S. casualties within politically acceptable limits? One could argue that if NATO had mobilized for a ground war and turned the lights out in Belgrade when the ethnic cleansing started, many lives -- in Kosovo and Serbia -- might have been saved.

Clinton's half-a-loaf, Rambouillet-based objectives are frustrating, and may need to be escalated. But not all victories need to culminate in surrender in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the Missouri. We do not want to install a MacArthur-like viceroy in Belgrade. We do want the Russians in on a solution.

Let's put the Serbs back in their box, dump Slobo if possible, and get on with a chance at a 21st century less bloody than the one that saw MacArthur command U.S. troops in three major wars.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.


05/03/99: Reality: home and abroad
04/26/99: John McCain: born leader
04/19/99: Gore in the balance
04/13/99: Hollywood is sharing the spotlight
04/05/99: Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia
03/26/99: Politics as dog food
03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
03/08/99: Axioms for good politicians
02/26/99: L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past
02/23/99: The sprawl brawl
02/11/99: Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99: Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99: The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
01/14/99: Sum of scandal? It's OK
12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
12/11/98: Better dead than read?
11/25/98: Polling the Pilgrims
11/13/98: The icon and the iconoclast
11/06/98: What happened? Nothing!
10/28/98: Two billion never-borns!
10/22/98: Election pundits know nothing
10/15/98: The too-big-to-fail doctrine
9/29/98: The Jerk Factor at work
9/24/98: American civic engagement thriving
9/16/98: Anatomy of a cover-up
9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

©1999, Creators Syndicate