LIKE ALMOST ALL THE CIVILIAN ARCHITECTS of our war in Iraq, including the president, vice president, and Secretary of Defense, everything I know about actual combat I learned secondhand. I once sat in a tiny Pentagon office with the late, legendary Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot who was considered the most brilliant military theorist of our time, and listened to him expound on arcane-sounding “ OODA loops,” a strategy for outmaneuvering our enemies that was instrumental in crushing Saddam Hussein’s armies in both Iraq wars. But most of what I know about war I learned from a former Navy lieutenant named Charles L. Ennis. He was my father, and I really didn’t understand some of his most important lessons until he died a few months ago.
My father left behind a brief, typewritten autobiography, a familiar Greatest Generation tale of a kid who grows up during the Great Depression (at the worst of it, he and his family lived off the land in the Northern California wilderness) and then goes off to global war, in his case aboard an aging destroyer-minesweeper that island-hopped from Guadalcanal to Palau before it was finally blown in two. Rescued from the sea, my father was soon shipped out on another destroyer-minesweeper, the U.S.S. Butler. And here his tale begins to read a bit like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The first ominous hint as to what waited at the end of the voyage was the anti-aircraft drills, repeated far beyond the proficiency necessary for a minesweeper’s crew. Then there was the officer’s club at Pearl Harbor, where an encounter with an old college chum introduced him to a word few Americans in or out of uniform had ever heard: “kamikaze.” Rumors of the Japanese suicide planes haunted the Butler’s crew as she steamed toward the island of Okinawa, several hundred miles south of the Japanese home islands, where the largest amphibious invasion force of the Pacific war had gathered for the greatest land, sea, and air battle in history.
The first massed suicide attacks came several days after 60,000 American soldiers stormed ashore, the kamikazes coming in waves of hundreds of aircraft, formations their doomed pilots called “floating chrysanthemums.” In my father’s account, the horror inexorably escalates: the first attacks seen at a distance; the swarms of suicide planes “like gnats in the evening sky”; the first appearance of piloted, rocket-powered baka bombs, launched from Japanese bombers; the eating and fitfully sleeping at around-the-clock battle stations for two months straight, the sense of doom ever more pervasive; the rotting bodies of American sailors floating uncollected in the sea around them. My father’s radioman, standing at his side, has most of his head blown off in a spray of hot shrapnel as four kamikazes, one after another, are splashed within yards of their target. By the time the Butler’s end comes in a huge explosion, it seems inevitable. Five thousand American sailors died at Okinawa, the deadliest battle in the history of our Navy. The carnage was just as hellish on land, where eight thousand American soldiers died and more combatants were put out of action by psychological stress than in any campaign our nation has ever fought.
I often think about my father and the lessons of Okinawa as we endure another summer of our discontent in Iraq, the “central front” in our present-day global war, the war on terror. At Okinawa my dad was one of the first Americans to experience what we refer to now as asymmetric war, the use of often shockingly unorthodox weapons and tactics to get the drop on a more powerful opponent. In its most basic form, it’s puny but cagey David versus overgrown Goliath. The Japanese had actually started the war with an edge in power in the Pacific, and in December 1941 they had attacked all over the Pacific and East Asia with superior air, sea, and ground forces. But we had the inherent advantage once our manpower and factories were mobilized and the Japanese empire had slowly collapsed, its ships and planes eventually becoming sitting ducks for our huge new naval armada, its armies dug into desperate defensive positions. Asymmetric suicide attacks were its last grisly hope.
The current global war, by contrast, started out asymmetrical, when Osama bin Laden, whom we had previously aided in his own asymmetric war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, turned the tables on us. The Bush administration, though obviously not prepared for bin Laden’s September 11 suicide attacks, had actually anticipated the war that would follow. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came into office with the president’s urgent mandate to transform a military built for set-piece, symmetrical combat against the Soviet Union into a more mobile, improvisational force ready for asymmetrical war. The