Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,
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Book Review: Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, by James Bradley

A brutal chronicle of the war in the Pacific, and what happened to seven captured American pilots.



Little, Brown, 2003, Approximately 143,000 words


In 1945, eight young American pilots were shot down over Chichi Jima. Seven of these officers were captured by Japanese troops and taken prisoner. The eighth, George H. W. Bush, was rescued by an American submarine -- decades later, he became president of the United States. In Flyboys, James Bradley reveals the never-before-told story of the seven brave airmen who subsequently disappeared from history. This is not only an arresting story of humans under astonishing adversity; it is the riveting account of a U.S. government cover-up that persisted for two generations.




James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers, which became an Oscar-nominated 2008 movie, wrote this book after researching the story of eight airmen shot down over the island of Chichi Jima in February, 1945. You might think that it's one of those "Greatest Generation" World War II histories, boasting of how American air power won the war and detailing the Japanese atrocities that were the reason we fought.

You'd only be half-right. In Flyboys, Bradley writes with genuine love and respect for his country and for the sacrifices U.S. servicemen made in World War II -- but before writing in gut-wrenching detail about the atrocities of Japanese imperialism, he spends some time talking about America's track record:


In December of 1864, an audience in a Denver theater applauded wildly as on stage an ordained Methodist minister displayed the results of the latest encounter between the civilized races and the Others. The minister’s name was John Chivington—Preacher John. Preacher John was a volunteer in the cavalry. Days earlier, he had led an attacking party to Sand Creek, Colorado, where they had surprised and massacred at least 150 Indian children, women, and old men. The braves had been away hunting.

What elicited the roars of approval from the Denver theater audience was not just Preacher John’s tale of "victory" but the grisly evidence. A pile of hacked Indian penises brought laughter. Applause greeted American soldiers who displayed hats over which they had stretched the vaginal skin of Indian women.

None of Denver’s civilized residents saw much wrong with this. No one was ever charged with any wrongdoing. The grateful people of Denver made Preacher John a deputy sheriff, a job he held until he died peacefully in his sleep forty-eight years later at the age of seventy-one.

Teddy Roosevelt not only approved of this atrocity, he thought it was one of the single great moments in American history. About the Sand Creek massacre he said, "In spite of certain most objectionable details . . . it was on the whole as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."


This isn't just a glib moral equivocation of atrocities taking place decades apart. It's very much relevant to the antecedents of the war in the Pacific. Japan was forced out of its centuries-long isolation by American gunboats, built itself into a colonial power just like the colonial powers it was surrounded by, and was a studious observer of how the Americans and Europeans played the imperialism game. From their point of view, the way they treated the Chinese when they started building their own empire was nothing out of the ordinary for a fledgling new expansionist power - it wasn't without reason that they couldn't quite understand where Europe and America got off wagging their fingers at them.

Their response to American protests was: "Hey, guys, what about the Philippines?"


Just three decades before Enomoto-san was taught that the Chinese were beasts, American veterans of the Indian wars sailed off to the Philippines. "We had been taught . . . that the Filipinos were savages no better than our Indians," an American officer said. When Senator Joseph Burton of Kansas defended the slaughter of Filipinos on the Senate floor as "entirely within the regulations of civilized warfare" by citing earlier massacres of Indians as a precedent, "no one even bothered to respond."

America would cause the deaths of more than 250,000 Filipinos—men, women, and children—from the beginning of the hostilities on February 4, 1899, to July 4, 1902, when President Roosevelt declared the Philippines "pacified." That is pretty serious killing. America fought WWII over a period of fifty-six months with approximately 400,000 casualties on all fronts. So Hitler and Tojo combined, with all their mechanized weaponry, killed about the same per month—7,000—as the American "civilizers" did in the Philippines.

The Filipino uprising against their former Spanish masters had been a guerrilla operation, a popular insurgency supported by the civilian population. The brutality of the Spanish response had been one of the American rationales for kicking Spain out in the first place. Now America replaced the oppressor and adopted the same methods—widespread torture, concentration camps, the killing of disarmed prisoners and helpless civilians—but with a ruthlessness that surpassed even that of the Spanish. The majority of Filipinos killed by the American soldiers were civilians. An army circular attempted to assuage any guilt by rationalizing that "it is an inevitable consequence of war that the innocent must generally suffer with the guilty," and since all natives were treacherous, it was impossible to recognize "the actively bad from only the passively so."

One American army captain wrote of "one of the prettiest little towns we have passed through"—the people there "desire peace and are friendly to Los Americanos. When we came along this road, the natives that had remained stood along the side of the road, took off their hats, touched their foreheads with their hands. 'Buenos Dias, Senors' (means good morning)." The good American boys then proceeded to slaughter the residents and ransack the town.


When Bradley then delves into what Japan did to the rest of Asia - and it was monstrous - it's a lot harder to be smug about what a noble country America was.

"So," some of you may be thinking at this point, "Bradley's some kind of blame-America-firster who claims we were no better than the Japanese and that we only fought World War II out of self interest."

No. What Bradley is doing is dissecting the popular American myth that World War II was a "good war" (often, in our popular mythology, the last "good war") in which we were the white knights fighting the forces of evil because gosh darn it, it was the right thing to do. He does this before he delves into the history of that part of the war on which he focuses, because otherwise it would be very easy to start seeing American Flyboys as heroes and the Japanese as monsters, and Bradley wants us to see all of them, on both sides, as human beings fighting a bad war, because there are no good wars.

This book illustrates over and over again, in so much detail that it's impossible to look away or form some other conclusion, that nobody is moral in war. America accused Japan of violating all rules of civilized warfare when they bombed Chinese civilians. A few years later, we firebombed Japan, in a deliberate campaign to kill as many civilians as possible (and then lied about it to the public back home). That this was also against the rules of war never came up, because we won. Likewise, American pilots strafed Japanese fishermen and machine-gunned downed Japanese pilots in the water - also against the rules of war, and something we protested bitterly when the Japanese did it - but no Americans were ever charged with war crimes afterwards.

Bradley doesn't catalog American misdeeds out of a perverse desire for moral equivalency. He shows a stark contrast between how American POWs were treated by the Japanese and how Japanese POWs were treated by Americans. His sympathy and affection for the Americans who went to war - many of them still teenagers - and who were forced to drop napalm on civilians, is obvious. He is also sympathetic to the Japanese soldiers, even the ones who committed war crimes, but he writes with great contempt about the ideology of the "Spirit Warriors" who led the Japanese military. Bradley argues that what they taught was a perversion of the samurai bushido code they claimed to be following, but I think he hammers this point a little too hard, and not entirely convincingly. It's true that many of the extremes to which the Japanese military went in their indoctrination were not, strictly speaking, part of the old bushido code, but neither were they really as much of an aberration as Bradley would have us believe.

What's evident by the end of this book, what I think Bradley wants to tell people, is that war is a vile, dehumanizing thing no matter which side you're on, and there is nothing glorious about it, and no honor in being on the "right" side. Those fighting don't have the mental or physical stamina to question right and wrong; they can only hope they retain some of their humanity if they survive.

Flyboys is the story of seven American airman who deserve to have their stories told, but it's not a tribute to their heroism so much as a eulogy and an explanation for the tragic way they died.

Chichi Jima and the President who got away



I've talked a lot about the moral issues in Flyboys, and that's because this was the most affecting and gripping part of the book for me. Flyboys is supposed to be a history, though, rather than a disquisition about war ethics, and Bradley's intention in writing this book was to tell the story of those eight Flyboys shot down over Chichi Jima.

Chichi Jima was a small island next to Iwo Jima. (James Bradley's father was one of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima, hence his previous book, Flags of Our Fathers.) The Japanese had two well-fortified radio stations there that the Navy wanted knocked out, so it was subjected to relentless bombing, but never invaded; the U.S. didn't need it like they needed Iwo Jima, they just wanted to take out the radio stations. The Japanese soldiers on Chichi Jima didn't know this, though - when Iwo Jima fell, they assumed their island was next, and they knew defeat was a foregone conclusion. They were absolutely certain that they were all going to die, which no doubt had a lot to do with what happened to the seven airmen they captured.

Flyboys talks about each one of these men - their families, their background, their training, and what happened to them on Chichi Jima. To write this book, Bradley talked to their families, to their comrades and buddies, and to Japanese soldiers who'd been on Chichi Jima. He puts together a complete and affecting story of how each one died.

Although the officers responsible were, for the most part, brutal and sadistic, we see that contrary to American views at the time and their own ideology, the Japanese soldiers weren't all of one mind. Some of them befriended the American POWs. Some tried to help them, some did what they could to delay their executions, and some refused to do what they were ordered to do, despite the fact that Japanese officers had the right to immediately kill anyone who disobeyed an order. This raised another point that Bradley doesn't really explore, but which was very evident to me: most people are not naturally sadistic and murderous and don't want to be. Even indoctrinated with a regimen that says life is of no value and obedience without question is the highest virtue, most of the Japanese soldiers didn't want to kill these men, once they met them face-to-face and had to see them as human beings rather than a faceless enemy in the sky dropping bombs on them. This point is echoed when Bradley asks American pilots how they felt about bombing civilians; the answer was that they didn't think about it, because they probably wouldn't have been able to function if they did. There was no widespread sentiment of "This is righteous payback" or any other attempt at justification; it was more like "We have a payload to deliver. Deliver the payload and try not to get shot down." And they tried not to think about the smell of burning flesh rising all the way to the altitude of the bombers.

After the war, the officer in charge of the occupation force on Chichi Jima started investigating what happened to the captured airmen. The Japanese officers initially claimed that all the POWs were killed during the American bombing of the island. This coverup was eventually exposed, and the commanding officers - and some of their men - were charged with war crimes. But the results of the trial were kept secret for over 50 years, because the details were considered so inflammatory.

Bradley interviewed one other person for this book: the eighth airman who was shot down over Chichi Jima, a 20-year-old pilot named George H. W. Bush.

I am no fan of former President Bush, but Bradley actually made me sympathize with him. Bush's actions were unquestionably heroic; he stayed in his plane after it was hit and tried to maneuver it in such a way as to give the other men on his crew a better chance of getting out. He only jumped himself at the last minute, and was almost killed. He was picked up (after floating in the ocean for several hours) by a Navy submarine, and the rest is history, but the other men were never found. Decades later, Bradley describes how the now-ex-President stared out the window and said, "I still think about those guys." When they visit Chichi Jima together, it's obvious that even the former President never completely got over the war.

The author weighs in



While Bradley makes his narrative personal at times, not hiding his own opinions, for the most part he gives an objective account of events. His withering contempt for the Yamato-damashii espoused by the Japanese high command is evident, but until the last part of the book, he does not weigh in on any of the more controversial issues of the war. But there are two big controversies about America's war with Japan that are debated to this day, and Bradley has definite opinions about both of them.

Emperor Hirohito



From the end of the war until his death in 1989, there was a narrative about Emperor Hirohito that went like this: he was a figurehead, a puppet of the military dictatorship. He had no real power, he couldn't have prevented the war if he'd wanted to, he had little or no knowledge of the atrocities being committed in his name, and he certainly didn't condone them.

General Douglas MacArthur argued for rehabilitating Hirohito on the grounds that it would cause paroxysms of violent unrest if they hung him as a war criminal or even removed him from his throne, and so the post-war reputation of Hirohito was that of a peaceful figurehead who had no responsibility for anything that happened during the war.

James Bradley, to put it mildly, does not agree with this assessment.

Emperor Hirohito was a war criminal if there ever was one. Under the Meiji Constitution he had the "right of supreme command." He was responsible for sanctioning military initiatives, promoting officers, and approving budgets. "Much of Japan’s aggression was formulated outside the cabinet in conferences involving only the military and its commander in chief." Soldiers like Masayo Enomoto who garroted Chinese farmers were raised to believe they were performing these deeds in the emperor’s name and with his approval. No general could be promoted, no ship launched, without Hirohito’s knowledge and assent.


On the one hand, there is now plenty of evidence that Hirohito was fully informed about war matters and took an active part in planning the war. On the other hand, the fact that the Japanese Constitution said he was the supreme commander didn't mean much; historically, the Emperor had always been the divine ruler of Japan in name, but in practice a puppet controlled by the military rulers.

It will probably never be known just how much Hirohito really did know, or approve, with regards to Japan's war crimes, nor whether or not MacArthur made the right call in leaving him on the throne. It's a contentious issue to this day.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki



The other great debate, of course, is whether or not using atomic bombs prevented an invasion of Japan that would have cost even more lives. Bradley very definitely is of the opinion that an invasion would have been inevitable and would have cost millions of lives on both sides, though he bases this on the fact that even Japanese civilians tended to fight to the death or commit suicide rather than be captured by American forces at Japanese outposts. However, everywhere else in the book he's quite willing to believe that Japanese were rational and able to see through their indoctrination when confronted with hard reality; here he assumes that Japan would have turned into a nation of suicide bombers all fighting to the last man, woman, and child.

This is another debate that will never be settled, because we'll never know what would have happened if we'd gone down that particular alt-history route. But Bradley does point out that the firebombing of most of Japan's cities killed more people and did far more damage than two atomic bombs did. With 30% of their population homeless and 60% of their infrastructure destroyed, the Japanese high command was putting out pamphlets called "Let's Catch Grasshoppers" and "Eat This Way—Endless Supplies of Materials by Ingenuity" which advocated making dumplings out of sawdust, so it's hard to imagine would else would have induced them to surrender.


Verdict: I thought Flyboys would be a history of air power and the Pacific War, but it's more like an indictment of just how incredibly fucked up and horrible war is for everyone. It's a hard read, because there is a lot of rape, torture, and slaughter, and the only happy ending is the end of the war. But I think James Bradley told this story in about as even-handed a manner as possible, so you'll get plenty of history (yes, he does talk about airplanes, Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Doolittle's raids) along with a brutal deconstruction of everything "glorious" about war.
Tags: books, history, non-fiction, reviews
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