NEW YORK — Presidential candidate Donald Trump admires the late Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, both World War II generals. They were winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys, he says in campaign speeches. But Trump’s pledge to imitate their styles sets modern-day military experts on edge.
Although unquestionably in the pantheon of U.S. military heroes, MacArthur and Patton were also controversial figures remembered by historians as flamboyant self-promoters. The commander in the Pacific, MacArthur was eventually fired by President Harry Truman for speaking out against Truman’s policies in the Korean War, which followed World War II. Before Patton died in December 1945, he questioned the need to remove Nazis from key posts in postwar German politics and society.
As Trump edges closer to the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 election, he likely will face more pointed questions about the policy ideas behind his sweeping statements. His main Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have offered far more details about their foreign policy visions as has Hillary Clinton, front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Born in 1946, a year after World War II ended, Trump often praises MacArthur and Patton for the blunt ways he says they commanded respect. “George Patton was one of the roughest guys, he would talk rough to his men,” Trump told an audience last week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “His men would die for him,” Trump added. “We don’t have that anymore.” He said Patton would wipe out Islamic State without hesitation were he still in command.
But military historians and retired generals say Trump has an inflated view of the two military men and especially their relevance to an era of modern warfare when armies rely more on technology and when battle successes and failures and civilian casualties are communicated far more rapidly than when MacArthur and Patton commanded troops 70 years ago.
The candidate’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Trump made a habit of citing the two World War II figures to “emphasize the need to strengthen the U.S. military, talk less and do more to protect America.” She declined to comment on the criticisms. She said Trump had consulted military experts, but declined to say how many, who they were or whether they were retired or active.
Trump was unavailable for an interview.
Interviewed by Reuters, recently retired military personnel voiced doubts about Trump’s grasp of U.S. military operations. One retired four-star general called Trump’s references to Patton and MacArthur “bumper sticker foolishness.” Another said Trump was comparing “apples to oranges” by likening America’s role in World War II to the fight against Islamic State.
“He has no understanding of how it works, at least in my view,” said an aide to a third retired four-star general. “He makes these bold statements and one-liners, but that doesn’t translate into understanding what it takes to be a military leader, what it takes to develop a plan.”
All three criticized as inflammatory Trump’s recounting, at a Feb. 19 rally in Charleston, South Carolina, of a myth about World War I Gen. John Pershing ordering the execution of alleged Muslim insurgents in the Philippines by shooting them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, an extra offense to Muslims because Islamic law prohibits the consumption of pork.
Trump often says that in the spirit of MacArthur and Patton, he never wants to reveal his specific plans for military operations, since that would give the enemy a chance to prepare and counterattack. “I don’t want my generals being interviewed,” he said in Myrtle Beach.
Trump’s statement had an irony about it, given his oft-repeated comment that he knows what military experts have to say from their interviews on television. But historians said the comment also showed he has little understanding of just how often MacArthur and Patton spoke to the media.
“They were the media whores of their time,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor at International politics at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University who often writes on national security. He said anyone vaguely familiar with Patton by way of the 1970 George C. Scott film “Patton” would know he got into trouble for remarks that were politically controversial.