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Notebook and Pen

May, 2023

Black Snow


James M. Scott

It goes without saying the prosecution of war is not a pretty thing and those who wage it do so, obviously, with the goal of winning, regardless of right or wrong.  The conflict in the Pacific during World War II was hoisted upon the United States as a consequence of the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.  After which the commitment to win would have to be defined by the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by Naval Admirals, Army Generals, and by the Army Airforce brass. 

When I was a boy, I played with tin soldiers on mock battlefields within the folds of bed covers.  The end game was for me to win.  Rows of infantry were annihilated by imaginary hand grenades, bazookas, machine guns, etc.  I orchestrated the machinations of war and profited in my victories.  Funny thing.  The nature, or appearance, of my wars evolved.  Skirmishes, initially, followed purely military tactics…kill or be killed.  But with time, this form of warfare frankly became boring.  I needed to take it to a new level where soldiers were not just destroyed, but were brutally mutilated in the process.  Heads decapitated, bodies crushed as tanks ran amok, guts spilled, the gorier the better.  The enemy had to pay and pay dearly.  These are the ways of little boys but, in retrospect, the preoccupation with this escalating carnage was kind of sick.

In “Black Snow, James M. Scott chronicles the evolution of the conflict in the Pacific.  The Marianas Islands had been captured by the US.  Airbases were established on these islands as a point of departure to attack Japan.  Tasked to lead these pilots and their machines was Brigadier General Haywood Hansell, Jr., a man of principle.  He was opposed to intentionally, or accidentally, targeting civilian clusters.  As a consequence, the General endorsed daytime high-altitude precision bombing over military installations and munitions factories, avoiding at all costs what he considered innocent collateral damage.  In fact, he was the father of this strategy and had taught it at the war college.  However, due to the unreliability of weather during many seasons over Japan the approach of high-altitude bombing was a bust.  Most of the bombs missed their intended targets.  For the Japanese these were mere pin pricks, and the war waged-on.

General Hap Arnold, head of the Army Airforce, could not tolerate the lack of results.  The outcome of the war depended upon the success of these forays as well as the future of the Army Airforce.  He had no choice but to replace the good Brigadier General Hansell with a man who would get the job done, Major General Curtis LeMay.

Curtis LeMay followed in Hansell’s footsteps and continued the high-altitude precision bombing, but rapidly determined that repeating the same mistake over and over expecting a different outcome was insane.  He had to change tactics, and that he did.  In spite of pilot objections, he adopted nighttime low-altitude attacks using incendiary bombs on parts of Tokyo and other prominent cities occupied by civilians.  The result was massive fire storms that consumed the lives of men, women and children; and destroyed personal property and a cottage industry that had sprung-up in family domiciles which fed the military supply chain.  It was devastating.  Those horrors detailed in this book are difficult to comprehend.  As the morale of the Japanese people crumbled so did their will to continue the fight.  And although the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the atom bomb forced the Japanese to sue for peace, it is not clear if they would not have done so in the face of the unrelenting strategy crafted by LeMay.

I don’t believe LeMay was unprincipled, but I also don’t think he gave the fire bombing a second thought.  It was war and he was there to fight it.  The leadership of the country from the President to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Arnold to LeMay all turned a blind eye, spin doctoring you might say to justify the horrors.  Yet the results were incontrovertible.  Their war had become a conflict of tin soldiers.  And in the end who is to say that a good man who loses a war isn’t as culpable as one who is willing to win it at all costs. 

I recommend this book because it exposes a truth about the cost of war, which is ugly, but should not be forgotten.


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