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Book Forum: Literature   |    
The Emperor’s General
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:2003-a-2004.
View Author and Article Information
Kansas City, Kan.

By James H. Webb. New York, Broadway Books, 1999, 401$25.00.

As long as there is a U.S. Naval Academy, midshipmen will be talking about the fight between Oliver North and James Webb to win the 1968 boxing championship. North won, but only after a terrific struggle and a questionable call.

To hear the whole story, one is advised to visit Annapolis, park oneself in the Rotunda of Bancroft Hall, and listen. The pugilists? One knows more about Ollie North. James Webb, when he graduated from the Academy in 1968, had been a Brigade Honor Committee member for 4 years and was given a special citation for outstanding leadership contributions. He went into the Marine Corps, where he became one of the most highly decorated Marines of the Vietnam era. He has written four best-selling books, the latest being The Emperor’s General.

Webb has been an attorney and an award-winning journalist. He served as Secretary of Defense and was a member of Carter’s cabinet. One could go on and on, but there is his new novel to be reviewed. It is written from the perspective of Jay Marsh, who is younger than Webb by many years but, like Webb, is a smart, brave soldier-lawyer-diplomate.

The Emperor’s General involves the invasion of the Philippines. Marsh serves as a firsthand observer in his role as junior assistant to General MacArthur. His portraits of MacArthur are delectable. MacArthur was a brilliant egomaniac and a fine military strategist, although he came a cropper in the final stages of the Korean War. Webb’s portrayal of Marsh’s bird’s-eye view of the general seems to come from some personal experience of the man, but the book is a work of fiction and one cannot be sure. At any rate the mercurial MacArthur is described in fine detail, and The Emperor’s General will be on the must reading list of every MacArthurphile.

Marsh ends up bamboozling MacArthur. The main problem with conquering Japan was to transform it into a democratic state on the American model and also satisfy the world’s thirst for revenge. Marsh’s main accomplishment is to reconcile the two by preserving the Emperor and following MacArthur’s ruthless lead in searching out scapegoats for the atrocities committed by the Japanese. Both goals are a success. Marsh leaves the Army to become a Wall Street millionaire and a grand old man of the diplomatic corps. Like the author, Marsh is a cat with many destinies.

Although this is a work of fiction, one wonders how much is based on real experiences. Webb, after all, is a military hero and spent a good deal of time being shot at and shooting back. Marsh is an invention, but, like the Emperor, it is difficult to know which clothes he is wearing at any given time.

In ranking Webb’s four novels, it is hard to tell which to praise the most. Certainly The Emperor’s General is one of the best, but A Sense of Honor(1) is probably the finest—a chilling description of plebe life in the 1960s that is beyond compare.

Webb JH: A Sense of Honor. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1981


Webb JH: A Sense of Honor. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1981

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