LEMAY: THE LIFE AND WARS
OF GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY
By Warren Kozak
Regnery, $27.95, 354 pages
Reviewed by Martin Sieff
Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay does not lack popular attention, but he can never be discussed too much. Gen. LeMay, the architect of the crucially successful U.S. Army Air Force strategic bombing offensives over both Germany and Japan during World War II and the true creator of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, has been popularized — one should more actually say bowdlerized — by the caricatures of Gen. Buck Turgidson played by George C. Scott in “Dr Strangelove” and by Kevin Conway playing Gen. LeMay himself in “Thirteen Days,” a much simplified and highly colored movie dramatization of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. On the other hand, he has also been the subject of insightful and deeply respectful study by Victor Davis Hanson, whose father served under him in the USAF’s XXI Bomber Command.
Warren Kozak’s new biography does not break much new ground and indeed, despite its size and serious research, in some key areas leaves the reader clamoring for more. But at a time when the pendulum of American popular opinion and punditry is swinging against air superiority procurement programs on the scale required as essential by senior U.S. Air Force generals, it is extremely timely.
Gen. LeMay is easy to despise, easy to oversimplify, and far too easy to hate. But he ranks with George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz as one of the greatest U.S. campaign commanders of World War II and the entire 20th century.
He played a central role in the achievement of air superiority over Nazi Germany in the campaigns of late 1943 to early 1944 and was the sole architect of the extraordinarily bold and unconventional tactics that turned the B-29 Superfortress strategic bomber program from a looming fiasco into exceptionally cost effective triumph in the late spring and summer of 1945.
Mr. Kozak proves a stripped-down but accurate, incisive and valuable account of Gen. LeMay’s background, upbringing and exceptionally rapid meritocratic rise to power. At 38, he was the youngest major general in the entire U.S. armed forces and he had no wealth, personal connections (as Patton did) or charm to grease the wheels for him. It was pure, high octane talent all the way.
Mr. Kozak gives a first-class account of how Gen. LeMay did something so rare as to be all but unique in the annals of military history. Fresh from his plaudits for driving the air campaign that shot the Luftwaffe out of the skies over Europe, he then scrapped the very tactics that had been so successful in the European Theater of Operations and developed rapidly different, often entirely contrasting and contradictory ones, to take advantage of the very different environmental and combat conditions over Japan and the Western Pacific.
Gen. LeMay’s new tactics took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the horrendous firebombing campaigns of mid-1945. But as Mr. Kozak rightly makes clear, in so doing, he also saved the lives of countless millions more Japanese who would have died if Operation Olympic, the U.S.-led invasion of the home islands of Japan, had gone ahead.
Mr. Kozak gives a balanced and penetrating account of Gen. LeMay’s full life including his alter achievements as commander of the Strategic Air Command. Far from being a sloppy, dangerous, irresponsible buffoon like Mr. Scott’s comic genius portrayal of Gen. Turgidson, he was a meticulous, workaholic perfectionist who made the SAC the most powerful force of military destruction ever developed in human history but one that remained under his tight control. Through the most dangerous decades of the Cold War, the deterrent power of the SAC was the ultimate restraint on communist aggression around the world.
Underlying every stage of Gen. Le May’s remarkable life and achievements was, as Victor Davis Hanson had already recognized, a profoundly wise, tragic and even melancholic understanding of the nature of war, military power and deterrence that are essential to preserve peace.
Mr. Kozak, to his great credit, recognizes this side of Gen. LeMay and gives it full coverage and expression. He has provided an essential record and tribute to one of the greatest military commanders in American history. In times of peace, such men are often regarded as blundering embarrassments in wider society. In times of national and global crisis, we should thank God that we are granted them.
Martin Sieff is a veteran foreign correspondent. He is the author, most recently, of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.”