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December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor…
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December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor (Texas A&M University Military…

by William H. Bartsch

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Back in 1995, William Bartsch came out with the aptly titled "Doomed from the Start," an account of the travails of the 24th Pursuit Group in the defense of the Philippines. This book was notable for how it emphasized the congenital problems of poor organization, inadquate training, and mediocre equipment the men of the unit labored under for their lack of success.

Flash forward a decade, and since then Bartsch has apparently become rather angry, as this attempt to give the synoptic picture of the state of American military aviation in the Philippines on the verge of war swings a big ax. While Bartsch concludes this work with some throwaway barbs at Douglas MacArthur, many people come in for abuse. From the hapless commander of the 24th Pursuit Group (one Orrin Grover), to General Hap Arnold (for emphasizing aerial offense over aerial defense), to Secretary of War Stimson (for allowing himself to have hope that the Japanese could be deterred by a few bombers), to the American electorate (for not owning up to their imperial responsibilities), they all come in for criticism. This might make more sense if Bartsch made the arguement that the best thing we could have done in the Philippines is to have granted Manila early independence, thus allowing that state to declare neutrality; though maybe then Bartsch should take President McKinley to task for having ever made the Philippines a colony. That's not where Bartsch is going though, even if he admits that there never much hope of creating a proper aerial defense of the islands in the time available. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if he really understands the strategic realities of the whole situation.

The point here is that if Bartsch had been more concerned with doing the sort of factual analysis he did in his earlier book, instead of going off on a counter-factual tangent in the hunt for the guilty, the conclusions might have been different. Bartsch might have admitted that while MacArthur could had been better prepared to make an early move towards breaking the dagger aimed at his throat (Japanese air power in Formosa), it had been doctrine that the B-17 was the cutting edge of American coastal defense doctrine, and that the bombers should be saved to repel an actual invasion. This is not to mention that an actual raid on Formosa seems likely to have been a forlorn hope, seeing as Bartsch does a fine job of convincing the reader that the thirty-five B-17s in the islands were not much of a cohesive fighting force. Maybe the men of the US Far East Air Force could have obtained an "incredible victory;" more likely they hit at air and that's the one shot they get. Everyone would have felt better about themselves but the strategic odds were still lousy, and to pretend otherwise does no one any service.

Having unburdened myself of these feelings of exasperation, why should you even consider reading this book? Mostly because Bartsch has done his narrative homework and gives you a tense countdown to disaster on Dec. 8, starting September 1, 1939 until the day of doom. I really believe that the pity and tragedy of it all inspired Bartsch to seek the justice of accountability on behalf of the men caught in the disaster, and if such is the case I respect his passion. However, the historian also has to play the pathologist and that means keeping in mind that in the long run we're all dead, and sometimes you're just screwed. ( )
  Shrike58 | Apr 3, 2007 |
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