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Document created: 1 June 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2007
Col Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF, Retired*
I tend to agree with Lt Col William J. Ott’s argument in a previous issue of this journal regarding the inadvisability of posthumously promoting Billy Mitchell (“Maj Gen William ‘Billy’ Mitchell: A Pyrrhic Promotion,” Winter 2006). Here’s my own read on the matter.
Yes, Billy Mitchell was a great Airman—a visionary who saw a future for airpower that far transcended its use as a mere adjunct to surface forces. In the current era of “military transformation,” those in uniform, of all ranks, are encouraged to “think outside the box”—not simply to devise improved methods of doing old things better and more effectively, but to imagine totally new methods, doctrines, and concepts of fighting and winning wars. Mitchell’s belief in airpower’s ability to transform war was perhaps his greatest achievement. He passionately believed that airpower offered a new way to fight. Having seen the trench carnage of World War I, he looked for a better way. Strategic airpower offered a totally different path to victory. Though Mitchell’s vision was imprecise—often the case with prophets—his fundamental understanding of airpower’s transformational possibilities, as well as his ability to inspire a host of other Airmen to share that vision, marks him as a seminal and heroic thinker.
Billy Mitchell was indeed a great Airman. But should we promote him now, so many years after his death? In my view, only two reasons justify contemplating such a move: (1) because of continuing service to his country and significant achievements not previously recognized, or (2) because of a need to redress gross and obvious injustice.
This sort of rationale has previously played a part in promoting men long after they left the service. For example, in 1985 Jimmy Doolittle and Ira Eaker became full generals 40 years after their retirement. Not only had they performed magnificently in World War II, for which they were justly rewarded with three-star rank, but they had also continued to serve their country afterwards by becoming spokesmen for airpower—by serving on various commissions and panels, working in the air and space industry to advance the technical boundaries of those mediums, and displaying a seemingly never-ending willingness to talk to men and women of all ranks regarding the wonders of the air. As a junior Air Force officer, I heard both men speak and found them inspirational.
On the other hand, we must balance such criteria against the possible negative effects felt by others in uniform. In the case of the two men noted above, I heard two other senior Airmen—both full generals long retired—express dismay at the promotions of their old colleagues. They were not being petty but simply stating what seemed to them a simple fact: Doolittle and Eaker had retired at an early age to enter business and earn substantially more money than they ever could have made in uniform. That was their reward. To promote them retroactively would slight the toil of all the people who stuck with their service during lean times in the aftermath of war.
It is useful to remember here that the military has always taken the position that it does not consider promotion a reward for past actions—that’s what medals and decorations are for—but as a sign of the promise and potential that an individual possesses for future tasks. In the case of Billy Mitchell, he contributed relatively little after leaving the Air Corps in 1926. He lived for another decade, but in truth, he became largely a forgotten figure, seldom called upon by his country or his service. His one book, Skyways: A Book on Modern Aeronautics, merely rehashed old ideas previously published.
As for the case of using a delayed promotion to right an obvious injustice, we must be careful. Did the military or its justice system truly abuse the individual, or is the proposed promotion merely an attempt to soften a decision in today’s kinder and gentler world? If the latter, then the concern is misplaced. The military justice system, with its necessary emphasis on duty and responsibility, must be upheld. In the military, whose members’ lives depend upon the decisions made by a commander, it is most unwise to undermine or soften a system in which the consequences of failure are so high. The buck really does stop here for the military commander.
In the case of Billy Mitchell, we must ask if his court-martial in 1925 for insubordination was an unjust act. No credible evidence supports that conclusion. Mitchell did in fact accuse his superiors in the Army as well as senior admirals in the Navy of “incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense”—very harsh words for a group of men who had served their country for decades and who had seen combat themselves, on several occasions.1 At his court-martial, Mitchell’s attorney stated that every American had a constitutional right to express his or her opinion. This is pure rubbish. Military officers must abide by different rules; they must follow orders and exercise self-discipline. As for his charges of incompetence and malfeasance within the service hierarchies regarding the state of aviation at the time, the truth tends to remain largely in the eye of the beholder. All of the branches complained of fiscal strictures, and all feared that they did not have the resources to do their jobs adequately.
Regardless, after reading through the transcript of the court-martial, one must conclude that Mitchell quite simply did not know what he was talking about regarding the status of naval aviation—and recall that his charges were made as a specific result of the crash of the US Navy dirigible Shenandoah—or even that of his own service. Indeed, his performance on the stand was an embarrassment. The court, composed of 10 general officers, found him guilty, and his punishment—suspension from rank and duty for five years and forfeiture of all pay and allowances during that time—was reasonable. The prosecutor had called for dismissal from the Army and hinted at prison time. Instead the court handed down a lenient sentence, taking into consideration Mitchell’s combat record in the war. Pres. Calvin Coolidge lightened the sentence even further, granting him half pay for those five years. But Mitchell elected to resign. After the Air Force became independent in 1947, it attempted to reopen the court-martial, hoping to reverse its findings. After review, however, service leaders concluded that Mitchell was indeed guilty as charged.
Then there is the matter of Mitchell’s private life. Forget that he virtually deserted the children of his first marriage, philandered, and had drinking problems. The recent revelation—discovered in dusty inspector-general files long forgotten and brought to light by Douglas Waller in A Question of Loyalty, his biography of Mitchell—of a domestic incident between Mitchell and his first wife staggers the imagination. The file tells of military police arriving at the Mitchell quarters after Mrs. Mitchell had suffered a gunshot wound in the chest during an altercation with her husband. She claimed that he shot her in a drunken rage; he claimed that she shot herself in a drunken stupor. No one witnessed the event. Fortunately, the wound was not serious, but they divorced soon after. Even in a modern age that tends to overlook personal immorality as long as it doesn’t affect job performance, this behavior is a bit much. Is this the role model we wish to honor?
In sum, Billy Mitchell was a great Airman who served his country well in war and peace. He was rewarded for that service—in 1941 Congress even struck a special gold medal in his honor. But Mitchell also had deep flaws that affected his performance as an officer, a commander, and a man. We must not forget this fact when we consider the issue of promotion so long after his death.
West Chicago, Illinois
* The author is retired from Northrop Grumman and living in West Chicago, Illinois.
1. “Statement of William Mitchell Concerning the Recent Air Accidents” (statement to the press, San Antonio, TX, 5 September 1925), 1, http://www.afa.org/magazine/july2006/keep_billy.pdf.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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