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A Question of Loyalty By Douglas Waller (HarperCollins, 384 pages, $26.95) The military’s civilian leadership doesn’t always like hearing hard truths from its top uniformed commanders. Former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was all but drummed out of the service two years ago for suggesting an occupation of Iraq could require several hundred thousand troops. Still, Shinseki fared far better than Gen. Billy Mitchell. In the years after World War I, Mitchell was a loud prophet for air power, predicting Japan would launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that would destroy the Pacific fleet. Mitchell’s strident critique of military preparedness earned him a court-martial. In his new book, A Question of Loyalty, Douglas Waller weaves together a blow-by-blow account of that trial with a biography of Mitchell, whose military career predated the Wright brothers’ first flight. At the turn of the century, Mitchell served in the era’s most technologically advanced branch, the Signal Corps, stringing telegraph wires during the Spanish-American War and later during the United States’ occupation of the Philippines. He didn’t even fly his first plane until the age of 36, at a time when the military had fewer than two dozen pilots. He returned from World War I a military tactician and hero, even if airpower didn’t exactly prove decisive over the skies of Europe. In 1921, Mitchell made grown admirals sob when his planes sunk a captured German battleship and proved no amount of armor would make ships invincible against aerial attack. This is no hagiography. Waller presents plenty of Mitchell’s warts, both professional and personal. He was a dandy who fancied himself a country gentleman, even if he could never quite afford the lifestyle: He designed his own uniforms, enjoyed afternoon rides on horseback, and painted his own private insignia on his military aircraft. He often copied ideas from others, and his predictions were proved wrong almost as often as they were proved right. The list of enemies he made pursuing his career was lengthy, and his critiques were harsh and his personality abrasive. What ultimately sparked Mitchell’s undoing were comments he made following the crash of the Navy’s most famous airship, The Shenandoah. The 1925 accident outraged Mitchell, who quickly dashed off a scathing critique of the military’s preparedness and command structure, accusing the president and military leaders of negligence. Ironically, Mitchell’s comments did have one intended effect: unifying the War and Navy departments. But they joined together to target Mitchell, who was subject to a court-martial. Waller brings the seven-week-long trial to life, thanks to the 3,781 pages of transcripts that he had at his disposal. He’s also helped by a supporting cast that included Douglas MacArthur, Carl Spaatz, and Hap Arnold, who would all rise to fame during World War II. The result was the O.J. Simpson trial of its era. Mitchell loved every minute of the publicity, which he thought would both put the military on trial and boost sales of his book Winged Defense. The trial did highlight the vulnerability of the defenses at Pearl Harbor, which would prove so tragically inadequate 16 years later. And he exposed organizational failings in the War and Navy departments that would take decades to solve. But on a personal level, the trial proved far less beneficial. In succeeding years, Mitchell quickly faded into obscurity. With his death in 1936, he did not live to see his warning about an attack on Pearl Harbor come true and his loyalists help win World War II. Nor did he live to see the Air Force become a separate branch of the armed forces as he had advocated nor the true unity of command be achieved with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. But Mitchell’s stock has risen again in recent years. The Air Force Academy class of 2001 voted him the person they would most like to emulate. James Bradley’s Flyboys portrayed him in glowing terms. The Postal Service even honored him with a stamp. Perhaps these are signs that the military and public alike prefer officers who are willing to speak the truth to Pentagon civilian leaders instead of only what they want to hear. Seth Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly .

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