Poland's Daughter


A flawed account of an atrocity

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
(James Bradley)

I was hugely disappointed with this book. Let's start with the howlers: jet fuel spilling on carrier decks; engines stalling in mid-air; Singapore falling before China gets raped. B-25 bombers called 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 -- a term of contempt when I was in Air Force ROTC. Casualties are confused with fatalities. Aerial warfare takes place in the third dimension, land warfare in the first, and naval warfare in the second. (What was Mr Bradley smoking?) On page 141, 800 Japanese soldiers on Attu Island launch 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 Englis) 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 sticks them into his text without saying where they're from. I generally read histories with my right index finger in the citations page; in this case, it's absolutely necessary, as the only way to know who 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 was certainly understandable.

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 1959 account.

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. Compare this fatuous bit of moral equivalency with Max Hastings's assessment:

"The Japanese, having started the war, waged it with such savagery towards the innocent and impotent that it is easy to understand the rage which filled Allied hearts in 1945, when it was all revealed.... War is inherently inhumane, but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy."

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Flying Tigers

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