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Iron Eagle: THE TURBULENT LIFE OF GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY by Thomas M. Coffey (Crown: $18.95; 474 pp.)

September 07, 1986|Paul Dean | Dean is a Times staff writer

Within the three decades that military analysts allow as the effective span of great generals, Curt LeMay was indefatigable, truculent, superb. "The ablest big airplane and strategic bomb operator in the world," went his congressional introduction by a superior. LeMay rose from lieutenant to two-star general in four years of World War II while his 8th Air Force flattened Nazi Germany. It was his direction and B-29s that firebombed and A-bombed Japan into defeat; his cocky determination and transports that operated the Berlin Airlift; his protective vision that restructured Strategic Air Command into a global burglar alarm and cocked weapon. Then he was promoted to the Pentagon where LeMay faced enemies he neither understood nor conquered--cutthroat politics and civilian management of the military.

In this easy, understanding, almost conversational profile, author Thomas M. Coffey shows that the very qualities that made LeMay a superlative, revered field commander were his weaknesses as Air Force chief of staff. LeMay's way was to bull through problems. Compromise was for diplomats who were ninnies. Speak loudly, carry the biggest stick and hit first. His simple, black-and-white rule of war: "Once you make a decision to use military force to solve your problem, then you ought to use it and use an overwhelming military force. Use too much and deliberately use too much so that you don't make an error on the other side and not quite have enough. And you roll over everything to start with and you close it down just like that."

That, notes the book, wasn't exactly a philosophy popular in Washington in the '60s. So LeMay differed with President Kennedy over response to the Cuban missile crisis and fought with Defense Secretary McNamara over aircraft acquisition and development. Washington prefered gradualism--military escalation to encourage negotiation--in Southeast Asia while LeMay was advocating paralytic, industrial bombing of North Vietnam.

The final strategy, of course, was not LeMay's and he would later state with bitterness: "In Japan we dropped 502,000 tons and we won the war. In Vietnam we dropped 6,162,000 tons of bombs and we lost the war. The difference was that McNamara chose the targets in Vietnam and I chose the targets in Japan." There are no revelations in this military study that is pleasantly heavy on human examination. There's sadness in its 1965 image of LeMay, a lame-duck chief of staff clearly as obsolete as his B-52s, retiring from military service. He tries private industry and flops. He has a shot at politics as George Wallace's running mate during the 1968 presidential elections and is ludicrous. Overall LeMay--now living in comfortable retirement at Newport Beach--remains angry and frustrated at having won his wars but lost the battle with Washington. Or did he lose? Vietnam, states Coffey, certainly wasn't a justification of the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara policies.

The Air Force is enjoying its recent acquisition of 100 B-1 bombers. In a series of thoughtful and uncluttered quotes sprinkled throughout the volume, LeMay clings doggedly to his way: "In peacetime, mistakes don't show up," he says. "Therefore a decision can be delayed on weapons systems . . . and nobody will know that a mistake has been made until a war comes."

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