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Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy

15 August 2014

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: the interwar rivalry over Air Power, Thomas Wildenberg, 2013, ISBN 978-0-87021-038-9, 271 pp.

Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: the interwar rivalry over Air Power by Thomas Wildenberg

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: the interwar rivalry over Air Power by Thomas Wildenberg

Billy Mitchell — hero, celebutante or a man overtaken by events?

Billy Mitchell is a personage of utmost importance and achievements  in aviation’s history. He also has the singular trait of being the only person a U.S. military aircraft has been named for — the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber (which is especially fitting since he was a great proponent of aerial interdiction strategy in what has become the U.S. Air Force).

Mitchell was also quite controversial in the way he went about things and, to some, he was a visionary on a quest and, to others, he was insubordinate. Perhaps due to the emotion involved in these assessments he is also difficult for most of us to research by reading the many books written about him. Most books seem to be biased, or at least less than objective, and since more than one author inserts opinion as fact or don’t go to the original sources (professional historians always use original sources obtained from archives and compare what is found as the means of verification).

Fortunately author Thomas Wildenberg has thoroughly looked into the man writing this professional and unbiased biography of Billy Mitchell — Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy. This book is so well written it can be used to teach a college level course about the man as well as a course about the business of historically researching for a biography. There is an amazing amount of analysis in Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy comparing what Mitchell said about the same item of interest from instances which were separated by years (often Mitchell’s recollections were significantly different from one year to the next). There are also opinions of the author but they are clearly stated as such and supported by the presented facts.

As Wildenberg shows, Mitchell was a complex man and to say he was significant is much like saying Einstein was a scientist or da Vinci was an artist. Yes, Mitchell was complex and much of that is due to his salesmanship like, or statesmanship as you may prefer, personality.

The reader will likely conclude that Mitchell was all three — a hero (certainly a war hero and archetypal combat leader, a celebutante (in that he used his personality and the media in attempts to further what he felt was good for his country as well as his career) and a man overtaken by events (in that the U.S. Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force, elevated his status in its competition for budget dollars against the U.S. Navy).

Wildenberg writes well and with completeness about Mitchell’s combat leadership (where his personality conflicts developed from the latent to the overt clashing with his peers as well as his superiors) where he was significant in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and the St. Mihiel Campaign in World War I. Notably, he flew combat missions during these same battles so he was a brave man who led from the front. During this time he worked with RAF Marshall Trenchard and this appears to be where he first developed his ideas about strategic bombing (back in the day that was the term but as air forces have evolved in power today we would term it interdiction bombing).

Between the wars, when Congress again slashed military budgets by as much as 90%, he became involved in two inseparably intertwined processes — competition for too few dollars (these were the days prior to the Military Industrial Complex after all) and the heady ideas of strategic bomber forces being the end all of war time strategies (driving Mitchell to the belief that all air forces of the Army and Navy should be under a unified command — leaving the Navy without their aviation arm — and having Mitchell in overall command). It is at this point that Mitchell, frustrated at the lack of progress especially used his social standing to go to the media, which was fond of him for his war time achievements, to simultaneously promote his agenda as well as disparage the U.S. Navy’s aviation at every term. Wildenberg provides numerous instances in their full context of the time to help us understand both Mitchell’s actions as well as his thoughts (letters to his wife are helpful for this dimension) — and this is why Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy is such a rich biographical treatment as the reader learns history as well as gets to know the man with all of his strengths and foibles. He certainly was a patriot, and should be recalled as such foremost, but his actions caused much harm as well as good. It would be an oversimplification to judge Mitchell as narcissistic since he should be judged by the standards of the time (which Wildenberg explains) not to mention that many effective military leaders of great import were, and are, narcissistic.

Mitchell’s strategic bombing philosophies were not his own (though he later claimed them to be) but he developed them and most importantly successfully employed them. His most pernicious aspects were his attacks against naval aviation as well as his caustic conclusions regarding the tragic crash of the U.S. Naval airship USS Shenandoah — conclusions arrived at while the wreckage still lay in the field uninvenstigated and the servicemen who perished yet to be buried. Mitchell had well learned the first to the media often was the victor. It was this use of the media to ravish the U.S. Navy to advance his agenda which brought him to his court marshal.

Wildenberg illustrates the path Mitchell traveled in a most revealing, dramatic (there is no other way to tell the story of this complex, incendiary and forward thinking man) and understandable way. This is not a book for those who look for a polarized and clear understanding of this significant part of history — it is the book for those who knows that human history, especially history involving war and politics, is a gumbo where some flavors remain identifiable and some blend to make other flavors.

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