Flyboys: A True Story of Courage

(James Bradley)

Flawed account of an atrocity

I was hugely disappointed with this book.

First, the howlers: jet fuel spilling on carrier decks; engines stalling in mid-air; Singapore falling before China gets raped. B-25 bombers are misnamed Billys. The book refers to Roosevelt as the Dutchman; Hirohito as the Boy Soldier; the 20th Air Force commander as Curtis; and American flyers of course as Flyboys. Casualties are confused with fatalities. Aerial warfare takes place in the third dimension, land warfare in the first, and naval warfare in the second. On page 141, eight hundred Japanese on Attu Island made a suicide charge against American troops; on page 143, the number is 2,350. Japanese pilots become "another notch in a Flyboy's belt."

Second, the historical research: Bradley's technique seems to have been to find the most startling book--in English--on a subject, then to borrow heavily from it. Often enough he doesn't bother to rewrite the excerpts; he throws quotation marks around them and inserts them into his text without saying where they're from. I generally read a book like this with my right index finger in the citations page; in this case, it's the only way to know whom he's quoting.

Third, the faulty reasoning: He says that American soldiers during the pacificiation of the Philippines earlier in the century killed 7,000 locals a month, then declares that "Hitler and Tojo combined, with all their mechanized weaponry, killed the same per month." Huh? Hitler and Tojo killed a million people a month, of whom 7,000 happened to be American servicemen.

It's the same with his analogies: sure, the Japanese murdered a few prisoners, but what about Americans who sank Japanese transports, then machine-gunned the survivors in the water? To Bradley, these are similar atrocities, rather overlooking the fact that soldiers in the water haven't surrendered and will become combatants if they get ashore. Killing them wasn't pretty, but it wasn't a war crime.

Even the cannibalism on Chichi Jima isn't as unknown as he makes out. I read about it long ago in Lord Russell's Knights of Bushido. Indeed, the most eye-popping bit of evidence in Flyboys (a formal order to produce the flesh of an American pilot for a battalion feast) is lifted from Russell's book.

Bradley did do some original research. He walked the ground on Chichi Jima--always a good idea, but one seldom pursued by historians--and best of all he interviewed some of the Japanese survivors, including one of the cannibals. Surely he could have made a book out of this material without the foolish Flyboys, Billys, and Dutchmen, and without the strained efforts to show that the Japanese, if no better than the Americans, were at least no worse. It would have been a shorter book and a better one.

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