edited by John Andreas Olsen, Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., 2012, $45
The U.S. Air Force and its predecessor organizations have been blessed with some extraordinarily fine leaders, men of competence, integrity and vision. Norwegian air force colonel and scholar John Andreas Olsen has selected some equally gifted authors to write capsule biographies of 12 of these men, and in doing so earned his book a spot on the library shelves of air power students and buffs alike.
Air Commanders is divided into three parts, showing how different commanders were tasked to lead American air power from its halting, budget-limited beginnings through its mammoth efforts in World War II and the Cold War, on to its present extremely high-tech, budget-limited and, alas, insufficiently appreciated status today. The authors do this through a candid appraisal of each commander’s leadership technique combined with a critique of the results.
The reader will be struck by the fact that each of the leaders who faced these vastly different challenges had very different personalities. Some, such as General Carl A. Spaatz, were not very articulate but were “people persons,” able to convey their ideas effectively through their staff. Others, such as General Curtis E. LeMay, were forcefully plain-spoken, and had such a powerful presence that they not only delegated duties to their staff, but also stipulated the methods by which they would accomplish them. Some fought with the knowledge that the nation and their government were fully behind them in the execution of their work. Others would have to fight hampered by political interference and the indifference, even the outright opposition, of some of the public.
The challenges to the authors were different as well. American military leaders during WWII and the Cold War were backed not only by the approval of the public but also by a growing, confident economy that met every need. The warriors who led in the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East confronted very different situations. In every case, however, the reader will conclude that the strange and often arbitrary selection system by which each of the leaders eventually reached a top position worked well.