President Harry Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur for disobeying his orders during the Korean War was one of the more memorable events of my junior high years.
Truman wanted a ceasefire, while MacArthur wanted to press the war further and bomb cities in China, which had been sending troops to help the North Koreans. So on April 11, 1951 Truman dismissed MacArthur from his command.
The dismissal wasn’t popular. MacArthur was still seen as the World War II hero who had accepted Japan’s unconditional surrender on the battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. He had also brought the U.S. forces back from near-defeat in Korea, catching the North Koreans by surprise with a brilliant invasion at Inchon.
He was an icon, and nearly 250,000 people lined the National Mall and the route from the Washington Monument to the Capital on April 19 where he delivered his farewell address to a joint meeting of Congress, which I got to listen to on the school’s loudspeaker system.
MacArthur, then 71 (seen as very old in those days) recalled his days as a cadet at West Point, remembering a song from those days: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” He added that like the old soldier of that ballad, he intended to close his military career he said and just fade away. He told America that he tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see it.
I remember those words as though it were yesterday, young as I was at the time. Millions more do, too.
But in fact, cooler heads knew that Truman was absolutely right to fire him, a judgment now almost universally accepted by historians. Not only was he risking a bigger war, civilian control of the military is part of the foundation of our democracy, and MacArthur had defied a direct order from his commander-in-chief.
Ironically, MacArthur had been a true statesman while he was in charge of the postwar occupation of Japan. He had helped establish a functioning democracy that thrives to this day, expunging the militarists and doing much to bring post-war Japan into the international community.
There were attempts by Republican conservatives to draft him as a presidential candidate, and MacArthur himself seemed to have hoped he would be nominated and elected in 1952. But he was passed over instead for Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had once been MacArthur’s junior aide.
However, his campaign did indeed fade away, and he did also, passing gradually into obscurity before his death in 1964.
MacArthur reportedly remained mentally alert to the last, but millions of Americans haven’t been that fortunate. We are living longer than our parents, and as a result, more and more of us are facing issues of lost mental capacities.
The list includes Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s dementia and various other forms of lost mental capacities. Today, about one-fifth of senior citizens suffer from such diseases – a million from Parkinson’s alone. You have to be brave in this new world where old friends are no longer themselves, parents and sometimes spouses can’t be left alone, and nursing homes are overwhelmed.
Some places have too many pools and too little chlorine. Today, there are far too many, especially older people, who need care, and far too few to provide it. Many nursing homes are filled to capacity, and others turned out to be dangerous spreaders of disease during the pandemic.
The loss of dignity of the nursing home resident is frequently heartbreaking. It too often seems to them that if one’s family doesn’t care enough, or if one has no family, why should others care either? (Even if the caregivers are well paid.)
People don’t simply die from dementia; they are seen, in the clichés of our era, as vanishing in plain sight, fading away, or enduring a long goodbye.
So there is now pent- up demand for long term care that far exceeds the supply of caregivers. Lynn Casteel Harper, a Baptist minister and former nursing home chaplain who now minsters to the elderly at New York’s Riverside Church, has investigated the myths and metaphors surrounding dementia and aging.
In her book, On Vanishing (Catapult, 2020) she addresses not only the indignities caused by this conditions but also the rhetoric surrounding it. The Rev.. Harper asks essential questions about our outsized fear of dementia, the stigma this can create, and what it might mean for us all to try to “vanish well.”
She also expands our understanding of dementia beyond progressive vacancy and dread, makes room for beauty and hope, and opens a space in which we might start to consider better ways of caring for, and thinking about, our fellow human beings. It is a rich and startling work of nonfiction that reveals cognitive change as an essential aspect of what it means to be mortal.
Douglas MacArthur did, in fact, fade away, though the evidence shows that’s really not what he wanted to do. We too are a nation of millions who are fading away, while too many of the rest of us are trying to ignore them as far as possible, something neither moral nor sensible.
Our society needs to address this issue with vigor in terms not only tangible – providing the infrastructure and resources to meet the needs of those fading away. They did their jobs and took care of us. Now it is the younger generation’s turn to take care of them, and by doing so, nurture their own humanity.
Douglas Neckers is a retired distinguished research professor, founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and former chair of the board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash