Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial

That Gripped the Nation

By Douglas Waller. HarperCollins. 439 pp. $26.95

The 9/11 Commission's final report identifies four broad failures by the U.S. government and intelligence establishment in the years that preceded Sept. 11, 2001. The first of these was a failure of imagination. Leaders both in and out of government failed to imagine the scale of America's vulnerability and the magnitude of the evil that was stalking us in Islamist fundamentalism. The United States had been lulled into a false sense of security. This was remarkably similar to the interwar decades of the 1920s and '30s.

In A Question of Loyalty, Douglas Waller tells the timely story of the court-martial of Gen. Billy Mitchell, who publicly attacked his generation of leaders for failing to imagine and fully prepare for the growing threat that could be posed by air power in the hands of a hostile power.

Often regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force, Mitchell was a maverick and a visionary who understood the future importance of airpower long before it became a reality. In 1921 he achieved worldwide celebrity by sinking a former German battleship with aerial bombing, an achievement that made onlooking admirals stamp their feet in anger. He famously first predicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1923, 18 years before the event. He was also a loud advocate for a Department of Defense and a Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Mitchell's cause celebre was the creation of a separate air force, which was fiercely opposed by the Army and the Navy.

"The nation victorious in future wars will be the nation commanding the skies," Mitchell argued. "Aircraft will be able to strike at the enemies' nerve centers, to spread panic, cripple industries and collapse governments." This was radical thinking in the early 1920s, when most generals, admirals and politicians doubted the military usefulness of aircraft beyond surveying enemy positions and guiding artillery fire.

During the '20s there was a yawning generation gap in the military; young officers were frustrated by the failure of their seniors to understand the rapid advances being made in warfare. It was a time when the military bureaucracies had become static, close-minded and deeply resistant to change, very much like the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy today. It was a culture that rewarded "yes" men while sidelining those who spoke up about military deficiencies. This was the era when a reformer like Col. George Patton was passed over for promotion to general because "this officer is a disruptive influence on the peacetime Army."

Aviators especially resented taking orders from men who knew little or nothing about aircraft or air combat. Mitchell became a hero for the younger generation of officers because he was one of the few officers in the upper ranks who publicly voiced their frustrations. He too was "a disruptive influence," and retribution was sure to come.

Like many other reformers, Mitchell lacked subtlety. Nor was he without other little imperfections. He was viewed by many as a vain, egotistical, self-publicizing grandstander, and his fiery temperament eventually alienated him from nearly all whom he hoped to influence.

Frustrated by a lack of progress toward a separate air force and a lack of investment in modern aviation technology, he began openly to criticize the establishment. He was clearly looking for trouble. After the Shenandoah airship disaster that killed 14 men in September 1925, Mitchell accused the War and Navy departments of "incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense." This outburst made headlines all over the country and left Mitchell facing a court-martial for insubordination. President Calvin Coolidge and his secretary of war, Dwight Davis, were unimpressed with Mitchell's arguments, which Coolidge viewed as a direct challenge to his authority as commander in chief. It was.

The high-profile court-martial of the celebrity pilot and World War I hero captivated Washington and the nation. The court proceedings were enlivened by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's presence on the jury and by defense witnesses such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Gen. Hap Arnold. Mitchell's defense depended on the accuracy of his claims that the War and Navy Departments were negligent on pilot safety and national defense. The trial was also a fascinating battle of ideas over the future role of air power. Mitchell, however, played fast and loose with the facts of the Shenandoah disaster, and he exaggerated the immediate threat posed to America by aircraft. He was describing a world almost two decades into the future, a world that was simply beyond the imagination of nearly everybody in the early '20s.

Among the spurious but damaging evidence presented by the prosecution was the final report of the President's Aircraft Board, which concluded, according to Waller, that "the nations of Europe may have to build large armies and air forces to protect themselves, but vast oceans 'freed' the United States 'from the heavy burden of armament.' " The War Department had little trouble finding enemies to testify against Mitchell, many of whom had a score to settle.

In the end there was not much defense against the charge of insubordination. A constitutional democracy could not tolerate a challenge to military and civilian authority as harsh as Mitchell's. "In accordance with the army code," Arnold wrote many years later, "Billy had had it coming." Mitchell was suspended from Army service for five years. The court was lenient because of his war record.

Institutional mavericks, whistle-blowers and critics who press for reform have a tendency to be abrasive, outspoken and hard to get along with. Mitchell was all of these. But much of what he said came to pass, and, as a result, his reputation grew. The realities of Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbor and the destruction of entire cities with bombs dropped from aircraft cemented his reputation as a true visionary. Such "Mitchellites" as Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Spaatz and Arnold went on to become the great army leaders of World War II, putting Mitchell's theories into practice. Most were validated, including the decisiveness of air superiority over the battlefield on land and sea and the value of close air support to ground forces. Others proved off the mark, like the inability of surface ships to survive air attack. Still others, like the value of strategic bombing of cities, remain controversial to this day.

As Congress debates intelligence reform, this fascinating book reminds us of Harry Truman's dictum that the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know. *

John Lehman was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission. He is the author of "On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy."

William "Billy" Mitchell before a military court in 1925