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Flyboys: A True Story of Courage Audio CD – Abridged, Audiobook
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About the Author
James Bradley is the author of Flags of Our Fathers and the son of one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. He lives in Westchester County, New York.
Atrocity has always been a part of war, but after WWII the details of the horrors of the Japanese POW camps remained rumors for years. FLYBOYS shares the story of eight American pilots captured by the Japanese in the waning days of the war. Even George H.W. Bush, the young pilot who escaped capture, didn't know the story until his presidency. James Bradley succeeds at recreating the lives of the men on both sides of the war. He reads his material gracefully, making the soldiers sympathetic, but tends to tease the listener a bit too much by hinting of the pilots' grisly fate. While its message of forgiveness is well stated, this book doesn't spare the details of the horror of cannibalism, which some listeners will want to avoid. J.A.S. © AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine
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What cripples the book is the author's belief that he has to give you a history lesson. As a result, he starts his account of the raids on the island by describing Japan prior to Admiral Perry's arrival in 1852. He takes a sort of anecdotal approach to things, recounting various events in American and Japanese history. His reason for doing this, apparently, is to give the events of the subject of the book context.
And that brings us to the main difficulty with the book. The author has a rather skewed view of American history, one that's decidedly more critical of it than is warranted, at least in my view. Further, his recounting of fact is at times inaccurate and incomplete. There is one good thing he doesn't do: he doesn't attempt to minimize Japanese atrocities in WW2. What he does instead is insist that the Americans committed crimes just as terrible, the implication being that the Japanese were punished because they lost the war.
Let me go over these accusations in some detail, so I'm not misunderstood and we're all clear. In the chapter dealing with America's 19th century history, he recounts the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars and then tells you that they are instances of American war crimes that the Japanese took as proper behavior for a western country, and that this meant that if the Japanese became regarded as civilized they could do these things too. The difficulty comes in the recounting of the wars themselves.
The Mexican war is dismissed in a few paragraphs, mostly recounting U.S. Grant's opinion that the war was sinful and wrong. He also said (in the same passage in his autobiography) that he thought the U.S. Civil War was punishment for the Mexican-American War, but that's left out of Bradley's summary of what Grant said.
Bradley then recounts the Indian Wars by telling you of the Sand Creek massacre. Sand Creek was probably the most egregious and senseless murder of Indians during the Indian Wars. Using it as an emblem for the whole is similar to using O.J. as an example of how all football players treat their wives. While the U.S. was harsh and unfair with American Indians in the 19th century, it wasn't universally so, and the depth of the unfairness varied depending on where they were or lived or other factors. Bradley ignores all of this.
Then Bradley really goes off the reservation, so to speak. Many people know the history (at least in outline) of the Mexican-American War and the Indian War, but the insurrection in the Philippines is by contrast very obscure. Bradley's recounting of the U.S. experience there is almost entirely from one source, one book called Benevolent Assimilation. I have a book called The Philippine War, which includes a critical bibliography. In it the author dismisses two other books on the war, then labels Benevolent Assimilation "even more factually inaccurate" than those two books. Bradley relied on this book almost completely for his account of the war. He should know that if you're going to write the history of something, you consult more than one source.
The author also has a goofy habit of referring to people in an eccentric fashion in the book. This starts with the term Flyboys, which he insists on using (capitalized) as if it were a title or rank, when he refers to American and British aviators from the War. He refers to President Roosevelt as "the Dutchman" repeatedly, calls Curtis LeMay "Curtis", and sarcastically labels Japan's military leadership "Spirit Warriors" and their emperor the "Boy Soldier" (because he was educated in part by generals). It's all very weird, and a bit juvenile.
What does all of this lead to? The author seems to have a feeling that all war leads to war crimes which all sides commit, and that the one way to prevent this is to prevent wars. There's a sense of moral equivalency running through the book that's annoying when faint and insulting when he gets more insistent about it. There's also, as a side annoyance, the pro-Marine bias that's so common in books that deal with them in contrast with the army (check out my review of Martin Russ' book Breakout if you want to learn my opinion of this in more detail). It's not stated much here, the one outrageous comment implying that the Normandy invasion was a cakewalk.
The oral history part of the book is very valuable, however, and the author, to his credit, doesn't flinch in recounting the Japanese war crimes or their aftermath. For this I commend him, and give him the two stars he gets above the one minimum one. I would recommend this book, but only very guardedly, given the inaccuracy of the backstory in the early chapters.
Please be aware this book contains some horrific details of the murder and muliation of US service men by Japanese forces in the Pacific which may be well beyond the comfort level of some readers.
There was much about this book I found compelling:
The Flyboys themselves were wonderful, admirable characters which demonstrate once again the debt owed to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and those who fought along side them.
Flyboys is one of a number of books which at long last are addressing openly the horrifying facts of Japanese behavior in the Pacific theater. Unfortunately, this is coming generations too late to avoid the near universal denial of such things in Japan over the last 60 years.
The US knew far more of the details of prisoner treatment and execution than if shared with the public or with families.
However, there was one huge negative I never could quite overcome and that was the author's continual effort to compare US actions such as the use of fire bombing Tokyo to the actions of Japanese officers in the field which are not moral equals. To question whether the use of napalm was an effective war measure is fair. to use it to justify sadistic murder and canibalism strains jouranlistic, even novelistic credulity to the breaking point.
As the son of a WWII vet Bradley of all people should understand that war, any war no matter how unavoidable, is an obsenity requiring good men to place the great deal of their humanity aside so that they may restain an even greater evil. Yet somehow it escapes the author that horrific, although impersonal US bombing, no matter how you want to define the morals of war on the civilian population, does not require the same level of moral depravity that is required to kill a defenseless prisoner by hand and then remove from their still warm and quivering flesh, their internal organs so that you may dine on these morsals. One action reflects even in the worse case a perhaps flawed methodology of trying to end the war, while the other reflects deeply personal sadism and evil.
For all its virtues and flyboys has many this comparison left me dismayed.