Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Mission with LeMay’: Perhaps the worst military memoir I’ve ever encountered

I recently picked up the memoirs of General Curtis LeMay, partly out of guilt that I don’t know more about the history of the Air Force. My problem is, I still don’t. The book is mainly pablum. I gave up about halfway through and skimmed the rest, something I rarely do. I did learn a ...

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Wikimedia

I recently picked up the memoirs of General Curtis LeMay, partly out of guilt that I don’t know more about the history of the Air Force. My problem is, I still don’t.

The book is mainly pablum. I gave up about halfway through and skimmed the rest, something I rarely do.

I did learn a few things:

–Alamogordo, New Mexico, seems to be the only Air Force base so lonely that even the chaplain once deserted.

–LeMay had a contempt for professional military education typical of the fast-rising officers of World War II. “It was utterly absurd, sending a lot of people to the War College after the war, when they’d already been through the mill.” I wonder if the seeds of the Vietnam War are contained in that view — that if you fought in the big one, there was nothing more to learn?

–I didn’t know that he actually wrote that the solution to the Vietnam War was to threaten “to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” He did.

–He did seem to use mission command, and see it as particularly American. “My notion has been that you can explain why, and then you don’t need to give any order at all. All you have to do is get your big feet out of the way, and things will really happen. Forever I took the same course. Get the team together. ‘There’s the goal, people. Go ahead.'”

That said, much of the rest of it is the type of claptrap that H.L. Mencken made a living destroying. I had expected that having Mackinlay Kantor, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville, as co-author of the memoir was a recommendation. I didn’t realize that Kantor was a hack.

So I would rate this memoir as even worse than Douglas MacArthur‘s, which at least gave the reader a strong sense of that general’s querulous grandiosity. And also worse than Tommy Franks‘ book, which had some memorable passages that inadvertently revealed that man’s ignorance of his profession. (Plus, you can buy it used for one penny.)

I recently picked up the memoirs of General Curtis LeMay, partly out of guilt that I don’t know more about the history of the Air Force. My problem is, I still don’t.

The book is mainly pablum. I gave up about halfway through and skimmed the rest, something I rarely do.

I did learn a few things:

–Alamogordo, New Mexico, seems to be the only Air Force base so lonely that even the chaplain once deserted.

–LeMay had a contempt for professional military education typical of the fast-rising officers of World War II. “It was utterly absurd, sending a lot of people to the War College after the war, when they’d already been through the mill.” I wonder if the seeds of the Vietnam War are contained in that view — that if you fought in the big one, there was nothing more to learn?

–I didn’t know that he actually wrote that the solution to the Vietnam War was to threaten “to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” He did.

–He did seem to use mission command, and see it as particularly American. “My notion has been that you can explain why, and then you don’t need to give any order at all. All you have to do is get your big feet out of the way, and things will really happen. Forever I took the same course. Get the team together. ‘There’s the goal, people. Go ahead.'”

That said, much of the rest of it is the type of claptrap that H.L. Mencken made a living destroying. I had expected that having Mackinlay Kantor, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville, as co-author of the memoir was a recommendation. I didn’t realize that Kantor was a hack.

So I would rate this memoir as even worse than Douglas MacArthur‘s, which at least gave the reader a strong sense of that general’s querulous grandiosity. And also worse than Tommy Franks‘ book, which had some memorable passages that inadvertently revealed that man’s ignorance of his profession. (Plus, you can buy it used for one penny.)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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