- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

LEMAY

By Barrett Tillman

Palgrave Macmillan, $21.95, 224 pages

REVIEWED BY SEAN R. SINGER

Legend has it that Gen. Curtis E. LeMay once stood under a B-36 Peacemaker, lit cigar in hand.

When a subordinate warned him that the bomber might catch fire and explode, LeMay replied: “It wouldn’t dare.”

LeMay, the man the Japanese called, understandably, Kikhiku Rumei —monster — has suffered a caveman’s caricature. That depiction — largely disseminated through the writings of the late I.F. Stone — was a convenient mechanism for compartmentalizing the general, distinguishing his macabre Cold War reality from that of polished intellectual elites exemplified by Kennedy’s Whiz Kids.

On the silver screen, George C. Scott seared an image of Patton into the public consciousness with his dramatic Oscar-winning portrayal of the fiery four-star, but Scott relied on parody in depicting LeMay as Gen. Buck Turgidson in the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove.”

Satire was easier than confronting the grim world LeMay waged war in, a world Barrett Tillman explores in his recent biography of the general, a man he argues was one of “two commanders most responsible for defeating the Japanese empire.”

On March 9, 1945 LeMay wagered his military career on a single incendiary bombing raid comprised of a fleet of B-29s flying below 10,000 feet under the cover of darkness. Hours later, one-sixth of Tokyo was reduced to ash along with 100,000 of its residents. More incendiary raids followed at Yokohama, Toyama, Nagoya and Osaka, as city after city burned to the ground inflicting an appalling number of civilian casualties —all before the use of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Tillman’s narrative contains some illuminating vignettes — LeMay’s enthrallment with airplanes from an early age in Ohio, his self-taught navigational expertise, his instrumental role and foresight in orchestrating the Berlin airlift of 1948 and a passion for flying that never died. The reader meets a man whose innovativeness and pursuit of maximum efficiency was only matched by his legendary gruffness.

Always the tactician, he honored his then-fiancee Helen’s request to shave his mustache for their 1934 wedding — it was a “good idea to let them [brides] have obvious victories every now and then,” he said. “Helps the morale.” (Well, that does sound a bit like Buck Turgidson.)

Regardless, morale was something LeMay understood better than most. Revolutionizing America’s Strategic Air Command in the early Cold War began with changes in airmen’s living standards. Improved food, recreational activities including on-base racing, piloting lessons for non-aviators and custom car garages helped transform sac’s culture from the ground up. In retirement, he and his wife dedicated themselves to establishing communities for Air Force widows.

But Tillman’s depictions of LeMay the man, not the general, are few and far between (perhaps an unfair criticism, given the book is part of the Great Generals Series). Mr. Tillman fails to connect the reader with his subject on a personal level, at times over-relying on a dry chronology and modern-day comparisons.

At one point, Mr. Tillman compares LeMay’s early Cold War attitudes to the current administration’s approach to Iraq: “While Saddam’s ability to produce nuclear bombs was not a genuine concern after 1991, the perception that he could employ chemical or biological weapons spurred the American invasion in 2003,” he writes. Tidbits like these add little to our understanding of LeMay and obfuscate his advocacy of preemptive war against what he saw as a threatening Soviet Union with the Bush administration’s preventative war of 2003.

Furthermore, the honest debate about tactics, proportionality and acceptable means to our strategic ends — the debate LeMay lived for — is markedly absent in today’s discourse.

Perhaps Mr. Tillman’s challenge to profile such a guarded, curmudgeonly and professional soldier is insurmountable, but these devices are poor substitutes for a more thorough examination. We learn nothing of LeMay the husband or LeMay the father. The author briefly addresses LeMay as George Wallace’s running mate in 1968 and the attitudes of his subordinates and contemporaries are generally reserved for the final two chapters in a patchwork montage of his career.

Mr. Tillman also lauds LeMay’s grievances with John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, but does not address the potentially disastrous consequences of the general’s prescribed policies, especially in Cuba.

Despite its flaws, the highly readable “LeMay” does a great service to generations unfamiliar with the general’s story. World War II remains an American fixation 60 years after its end. Blockbusters like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Flags of our Fathers” are recent manifestations of its grip on the American public. Popular renderings of history aside, studying LeMay and his role in America’s ascension to global leadership is more pertinent now than ever, and Mr. Tillman’s text is a good starting point.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.

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