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Published: 5/6/2012

COMMENTARY

MacArthur, the Corps, and core values

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

Gen. Douglas MacArthur effectively ended his public career 50 years ago this week. He appeared among the ghosts and memories of West Point and spoke to the sparkling young men who could have known only vaguely how Vietnam would shape and, in some tragic cases end, their lives.

On the surface, he was there to accept the Sylvanus Thayer Award, a coveted honor named for the father of the military academy. But in truth he was there to say good-bye to the world stage and to the millions whose lives he touched and commanded and whose spirits he lifted -- or repulsed.

He did so with his customary flourish and flair, and in the florid language that was as much a hallmark of his personality as his corncob pipe:

Duty. Honor. Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

These are the three words most commonly associated with General MacArthur, but they trace their provenance back to General Thayer. Thus, when General MacArthur chose to make these words the leitmotif of his acceptance speech, he was identifying himself firmly with the grandest traditions of West Point.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be. These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.

This is in many ways the most remarkable element of this remarkable speech, for General MacArthur is the best-known violator of the most sacred element of the relationship between the military and civilian lives of our nation -- the notion that policy is made by civilians and prosecuted by soldiers.

General MacArthur's criticism of President Harry Truman, in a letter read on the floor of the House, led to his dismissal. Yet here, in the late autumn of a life that would end two years later, he presented an unmistakable critique of his greatest failure as a general.

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

He spoke this passage without notes, deliberately creating the impression that he was no longer speaking from his head but instead from his deepest sentiments. This was MacArthur showmanship at its greatest, for he had worked for days to memorize these words.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

These are the final words of the speech. To our ears, this sort of rhetoric is antiquarian, more suited to the days of Rudyard Kipling than to the era of Norman Mailer.

But there remains something intoxicating about the final passage: "The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps."

It possesses a martial rhythm, echoing like shots in the very night that occasioned General MacArthur's dreams of guns crashing and musketry rattling.

Glenn "Bo" Schembechler was 33 years old and still an assistant football coach at Ohio State when General MacArthur delivered this West Point valedictory. In 1969, five years after General MacArthur's death, he would ascend to the top coaching job at Michigan, where he would coach for 21 seasons.

It cannot be a coincidence that the remarks for which Schembechler is most famous -- indeed, some of the most enduring words ever uttered by a football coach -- carry eerie echoes of General MacArthur. Some 21 years after the West Point speech, Mr. Schembechler spoke of "The Team, The Team, The Team."

General MacArthur now is a figure of history, his life remembered by few, his achievements studied by fewer.

But this speech, given 50 years ago this week, deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest delivered on these shores, and revered beyond West Point and by more than The Corps, The Corps, The Corps.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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