Sarah Palin closed her confused resignation speech by quoting a famous American general:
In the words of General MacArthur said, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.”*
Of course, given the depth of Palin’s erudition—like Reagan, she’s “dumb as a fox” to those who watch her press conferences on mute—it should surprise no one that she grabbed the first patriotic-sounding quotation about “advancing” that Google returned and tacked it onto her speech.
This is what passes for knowledge among some conservatives: the ability to quote-mine the internet for something that sounds patriotic. (Google may not be making us stupid, but the same cannot be said for many of them.) Because their paragon of intellectual achievement is a woman who cannot remember what newspapers she reads every day, it is only fitting that Palin’s last words on the national stage—intended to demonstrate that the “easy path” in life paradoxically involves “plod[ding] along” by “sit[ting] down and shut[ting] up,” because everyone knows that “a quitter’s way” is one of perseverance in the face of adversity—should be a misattributed misquotation ripped from its context in a way that conservatives would, under normal circumstances, consider insulting.
In attributing the quotation to General MacArthur, she is disrespecting the life and service of the man who actually spoke something similar to those words; and in analogizing her plight to that of the men who served under the General she disrespected, she is belittling the memory of their sacrifice.
In the winter of 1950, General Oliver Prince Smith and his 1st Marine Division were ordered to march north to the Yalu River, on the border between China and Korea. The order was given by Major General Edward “Ned” Almond, an obsequious lackey with an ego to rival Patton’s who functioned as “MacArthur’s MacArthur [by taking] MacArthur’s vision of what was supposed to happen and [bringing] it directly to Korea, where he employed it, whether it fitted the Korean reality or not” (The Coldest Winter 163). Smith, called “Professor” for his deliberate manner and attention to detail, surveyed the land and determined that the Korean reality didn’t fit MacArthur and Almond’s vision at all, and though he obeyed the command to press north, he did so in a manner that befitted his nickname:
General Almond had already begun to notice that the spearhead was hardly moving at all. We were in fact just poking along—deliberately so. We pulled every trick in the book to slow down our advance, hoping the enemy would show his hand before we got more widely dispersed than we already were. At the same time we were building up our levels of supply at selected dumps along the way. (432)
When the Chinese attacked the 1st Marine Division (19,000 soldiers) with six divisions (60,000 soliders) of its own in the Chosin River Basin, Smith and his soldiers were prepared: by day, they would avoid the roads by moving south through the mountainous terrain, shelling the advancing Chinese from the high ground; by night, they would temper the bitter chill of winter by hunkering down near the dumps Smith had had the foresight to supply.
Smith had calculated the odds of a successful push north, found them wanting, and prepared for the inevitable. So when the vastly outmanned 1st Marine had to move back through the Chosin Reservoir, they were able to inflict massive casualties on the superior Chinese force, which lost 40,000 troops to the 1st Marine’s 561. When a journalist asked how Smith and his men had done so much damage while retreating, Smith replied:
Retreat, hell . . . we’re simply attacking in another direction. (470)
Palin’s hastily convened press-conference and incoherent statement are, to her mind, analogous to Smith’s carefully planned counter-offensive—or would be, if she knew Smith said it. Which means that for her, MacArthur is not a hero to be venerated, but a prop to wheeled out when it’s politically expedient to do so. She cares nothing for the man himself or those under his command. If she did, she would show her respect by doing more than a Google search and pulling the first “good” quotation she found. After all, nothing demonstrates a deep and abiding respect for the military more forcefully than the sort of stunt my freshmen pull.
So Sarah Palin flubbed the quotation and the attribution. So she appropriated the phrase of a man who fought the inane orders of blinkered bureaucrats and took what she so arrogantly dismisses as “the worthless, easy path.” He took what she calls “a quitter’s way out,” laying the groundwork for his success in the face of adversity by “keep[ing his] head down” and “plod[ding] along.” So what: Smith is the quitter. He didn’t even advance in a different direction, he merely attacked.
To go back to an analogy with which Palin is comfortable—basketball—Smith looked at the game plan, surveyed the opposing team, and ran the point in a way that would guarantee a shot at victory. He urged his men to challenge the bigger, stronger team in the lane; to take the charges, shoot the foul shots, and keep the game the close until the buzzer. Palin, however, panicked when the situation on the floor didn’t correspond to her game plan, grabbed the ball and ran crying off the court.