The Billy Mitchell Affair
Who remembers Billy Mitchell? If he is remembered at all, he may be confused with Gary Cooper who played the screen version of his screen-version life: the brilliant officer who correctly understood that airplanes would change warfare and ruined his career trying to advance military aviation against the designs of army men who were either too obtuse or too self-protective to read the handwriting on the wall. The story has a benign shape, like the story of Robert Fulton or of other visionaries who were later proven right; Mitchell’s just happened to be a vision of destruction, honored today only by the most obviously destructive institution in our society, the United States Air Force.
Burke Davis, Mitchell’s latest biographer, is a cool and scholarly researcher, neither wholly worshipful nor hysterically derogatory in the manner of Mitchell’s earlier partisans or detractors. He clarifies a number of points which seemed to arouse people in the 1920s but which have lost much of their interest with the years. Thus we learn, for instance, that Mitchell was not “martyred” by his 1925 court martial, but welcomed the chance for a spectacular exit from the Army. We learn that he was a particularly clever strategist, predicting not only the course of aerial warfare but also (in 1923) the precise form of the war in the Pacific, including the timing of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We get a judicious look at the chicken-and-egg question that consumed the public during the height of his notoriety—whether Mitchell was promoting airpower or simply promoting Mitchell. Reading Davis’s biography, one comes to admire Mitchell’s foresight; one can even share his frustration with the generals and admirals who failed to see that their military role was changing, and who confined their own strategic inquiries to the question whether Japanese people could teach themselves to fly. (Most thought not.)
But it is easier to write about a “prophet vindicated” than to deal with the implications of his vindication. Davis finishes his 350-page study without raising any questions that seem pertinent to the present. He hardly seems to notice that Mitchell was the first American to advocate mass bombing of civilians. The saturation bombing of World War II, the raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the daily missions against Hanoi are all part of Mitchell’s legacy. Perhaps we are so accustomed to aerial murder that its origins seem to merit no special attention. Davis teaches us to “respect” Billy Mitchell. But it is the kind of respect the last human might have for Herman Kahn were pages of On Thermonuclear War to flit before his eyes in the seconds between the holocaust and extinction.
MITCHELL’S FATHER was a pacifist, an anti-imperialist Senator from Wisconsin who denounced the adventures of 1898. “Since the advent of the white man every leaf in the history of Hawaii is either red with blood or black with intrigue and jobbery,” he said in a Senate speech, and he argued, on …