LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay by Warren Kozak

After reading about General George S. Patton, I wanted to read about another famous general from World War II and the Cold War – General Curtis LeMay.  Most famously known for saying that the United States should bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age (curiously enough he claims that he never said that and that McKinley Kantor, who helped LeMay write his autobiography, made up the quote for the book), LeMay has been arguably our best air force officer to date.  Warren Kozak captures the spirit of LeMay in his book entitled LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book from its publisher:

The firebombing of Tokyo. Strategic Air Command. Dr. Strangelove. George Wallace. All of these have one person in common: General Curtis LeMay—the most misunderstood military man in 20th century history.

Until now.  Military biographer Warren Kozak traces the trajectory of America’s most innovative—and vilified—military commander.  General Curtis LeMay is perhaps the most infamous general of the 20th century. Despite playing a major role in many important military events of the last century—from defeating Japan without a costly land invasion to being on the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis—historians have been content to paint LeMay as a crude, trigger-happy, cigar-chomping general who joined political forces with one of the most famous racists in American history, George Wallace.

 However, Kozak reveals the LeMay that only those close to him knew—a commander who was gruff yet compassionate, brilliant, and accomplished. Giving an unprecedented glimpse into the might and mind of perhaps the most controversial general in our nation’s history, Kozak shows why today, more than ever, America needs another man like Curtis LeMay.

Kozak follows the traditional format of a biography – the early years, career, and last years of the person being studied.  However, Kozak, unlike many biographies where the biographers gloss over, or touch on briefly, the faults of their subject, provides a very balanced account of the life of LeMay.  Kozak does not shy away from pointing out LeMay’s faults – such as his poor social skills.  This lack of social skills caused problems throughout LeMay’s career.

The book mainly centers on LeMay’s experiences as a commander during World War II and as a commander of the Strategic Air Command.  Although many historians have portrayed LeMay as a warmonger, he was more concerned with using massive firepower to bring an end to hostilities faster.  A case in point, he used incendiary bombs on Japanese cities in order to demoralize and cripple the Japanese to end the war faster – although the bombing cost hundreds of thousands of lives, it saved the lives of millions of Americans and Japanese if the United States had to invade Japan.

Although LeMay was a lightning rod for controversy, he was the first person turned to by his superiors to straighten a situation out.  A case in point, the Strategic Air Command was when Le May was ordered to get the unit into fighting order (most of the crews were poorly trained and many of the planes could not even leave the ground).  LeMay quickly fired the slackers who could not perform up to his high expectations and brought in the right men to help him raise the standards of the unit.  In addition, he cajoled politicians and military leaders to fund new bombers and better equipment.

Kozak writes that many leaders did not agree with LeMay’s tactics, but they respected his will and abilities.  For example, it was well-known that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did not care for LeMay’s leadership.  However, McNamara thought LeMay was the best air force general to lead as Air Force Chief of Staff because McNamara knew that LeMay was not afraid to make the tough decisions if the United States found itself in a pickle with the Soviets.

This book is a fine example of a balanced biography of one of America’s finest and most controversial generals.

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