Saturday, January 29, 2005

Book Review: Flyboys

A stunning tale of barbarism, courage and loyalty

Click here for AmazonIn a followup to Flags of our Fathers, James Bradley describes his detective work in determining what happened to nine airmen shot down over the island of Chichi Jima during World War II. One was easy: he was George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States. The other eight were MIA. Starting with recently declassified records from a military trial of Japanese officers on Chichi Jima, his discoveries are both tragic and inspiring. In fact, these true stories of brutality, courage and honor are sometimes almost beyond belief.

Rather than paint a single "snapshot" of the air war over the island near the end of World War II, Bradley tries to look at the big picture. His history lesson is concise, yet insightful. The brutal treatment of native Americans and Mexicans during early American expansionism... Commodore Perry's warships and the opening of international relations with Japan... the Russo-Japanese war that set the stage for World War II... the corruption of the Samurai ideal and the egregious Japanese atrocities in China... all are covered in wide-ranging and learned prose.

Other reviewers have complained about overly harsh treatment of US involvement with native Americans, Commodore Perry's mission, and other alleged "political" agendas. Speaking as an avowed conservative, I found nothing obvious that skewed history either way. War is a brutal business and early Americans were frequently at war. We cannot pretend otherwise.

The book is crammed full of interesting, historic details: American arms accounted for only a third of Japanese troop fatalities during World War II - lack of Japanese supply planning and poor strategy accounted for the remainder. The religious zeal with which Japanese soldiers were inculcated with the "no surrender" philosophy resulted in a brutish and barbaric form of war: "At Kwajalein, the Japanse garrison lost 4,938, with only 79 taken prisoner, a fatality rate of 98.4 percent."

The result was a perceived need on the part of American military planners to devastate the Japanese homeland, knowing that surrender was untenable. To put this in perspective, D-Day required 175,000 invading troops. 7,000,000 American troops were in the Pacific by 1945 preparing for Operation Olympic, the first phase of the invasion.

A War Department report concluded that, "defeating Japan would cost [them] five to ten million deaths and the United States between 1.7 and 4 million casualties, including 400,000 to 600,000 fatalities." Postwar analysis of Japanese homeland defenses indicate that Allied planners actually underestimated these casualty rates. Put in these terms, the fire-bombings and atomic attacks seem almost humane in that the corrupt Japanse military government was forced to succumb before millions of more lives were snuffed out.

This is a stunning book that paints a picture of almost unbelievable courage, honor and loyalty. All the while, it teaches a history lesson that most never hear about in school. Five stars, without question.

Amazon: Flyboys

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