Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 19 News List

The truth is in the details, if you can stomach it

`Flyboys' is, on the one hand, a flag-waving account of American pilots' bravery in World War II, it's also a gory account about the horrors of battle

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
By James Bradley
398 pages
Illustrated
Brown & Co

Flyboys is the latest example of how easy it is to be ambushed by mainstream popular culture. This book may have hit best-seller lists, but its popularity is no guarantee of the benign. Think of all the budding book lovers who raced out to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, only to be regaled with a gruesome showdown at the end of the story. Think of the audiences who briefly made the hyper-gory Kill Bill: Vol. 1 the nation's hottest movie, only to discover that it had all the wit of a falling brick.

Now look at James Bradley's gung-ho military history, in which the Greatest Generation takes to the skies over the South Pacific during World War II. It has all the earmarks of a nice gift for Dad: heroes, fighter planes, remarkable acts of derring-do.

What is less immediately apparent is that this book breaks the Hannibal Lecter barrier in following its group of wholesome young pilots to their horrible fates.

As Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers, returns to the vicinity of Iwo Jima, he now moves his attention to another small, strategic site of horrors: Chichi Jima, where nine American pilots were shot down. Eight became prisoners of the Japanese. One, lucky enough to be rescued, became president of the US. Bradley recruits former President George H.W. Bush in part of the telling of this story.

Flyboys begins with considerable padding about the history of American relations with Japan, and with the occasional monstrous harbinger of what is to come. In typically hearty terms, Bradley also traces Japan's

history with "the marauding Russian Bear," maintaining that "internally, the Russo-Japanese war became to Japan what football is to the University of Notre Dame." He also explores the pre-World War II Japanese atrocities in China. It was there, he says, that the soldiers who would torture American captives learned the tricks of their trade.

"Soldiers chopped off so many heads that their arms grew weak," writes Bradley about this campaign against China. At moments like these (and there are many of them) Flyboys gives the unavoidable impression that such details are being served up as much for entertainment value as for reasons of conscience. Much of this account has a B-movie luridness that cheapens the events described, even if the details are accurate: "Then the general smacked the two helpless boys, took a swig from a nearby sake bottle, and exclaimed, `I feel great. I am revenging the enemy!'"

As readers go on to recoil over the unusual ingredients used to make sukiyaki on Chichi Jima, Bradley risks letting these hellish details obscure his book's larger point. His emphasis on atrocities against those jingoistically named Flyboys is so sickening that very basic questions almost go unanswered. Why were the families of these pilots never told what became of them? "The Marine guards told me," says a lawyer involved in war crimes trials, "the Navy didn't want people back home to know that their sons were eaten."

What else went unremarked upon in Americans' perception of the Pacific war? It is here that Bradley finds material that is inflammatory, quite literally. He discusses the dropping of huge quantities of napalm on Japanese cities, noting that 99.5 percent of Toyama was destroyed, and that the number of casualties from an intensive 1945 bombing raid on Tokyo reached nearly 100,000. He quotes Paul Fussell, the historian and World War II veteran: "The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war."

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