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March 15, 2006

A Question of Loyalty

(the court-martial of Billy Mitchell)
Douglas Wallar - ISBN # 0060505478

Published in late 2004, this book--as interesting as it might have been in 1923--is further enhanced by the predictions of this legendary figure. It is adequately comprehensive, entirely balanced, and a breezy read which never bores, and will captivate anyone interested in air power from the time of WW I to the present.

Thruout, Waller laces the narrative with “thumbnails” of Mitchell’s life outside of his military career, but dedicates most of the book to the court-martial itself.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gen’l Mitchell, he was a decorated combat pilot/leader in the early air services of the military who grated on the governmental powers of the era, both military and civilian, because he was dedicated to, and convinced that, air power was to be the principal determinant in future combat. Most notably, he proved that air-power could support ground troops, sink battleships (which brought the Admirals to tears, literally), and predicted that Pearl Harbor would be attacked from the air, by the Japanese (18 years before they did!), that planes would ferry men who would jump from them into combat. As well, that planes would fly trans-continentally, carry passengers and military ordinance across vast oceans—in mere hours--and fly faster than the speed of sound. All of this was considered irrational, at best, by most of the command structure of the military, and the public as well.

While his crystal ball wasn’t always as accurate or retrospectively intriguing, he has been proven forward-looking, if not comprehensively clairvoyant, by history, as we all know now.

The personalities of the participants of the court-martial are well described, as well as the attitudes of the prosecution, defense and the jury. Again, it is a completely fair appraisal of all sides and participants. The trial of nearly five weeks was riveting, involved the entire country, and was covered in detail by all of the newspapers of the era. The public was, with unusual exception, favorable to Billy, considered him a hero (which in fact he was), and respected his abrasive bravado as much as the military disdained it. Today he is as respected in most quarters, including the military, as he was at the time. The debate is about whether he assisted or retarded the recognition and implementation of the potential of aircraft.

“He deserves a place in history. [His personal flaws notwithstanding] he was a brilliant and innovative officer . . . a brave and daring commander . . . an inspiration to his men . . . [and] a visionary willing to challenge the status quo. [An opportunist, perhaps, but one who in the end, laid] his military career and his reputation on the line for what he believed in. He had the courage of his convictions.”

In the end he was judged guilty of insubordination, severely chastened, and resigned from the Army shortly after the court-martial. All were results which he anticipated, yet he proceeded in order to expose the dismal state of the aerial combat strength (or, rather, the lack thereof) of the U.S. military.

Posted by respeto at March 15, 2006 12:28 PM