Sunday, September 05, 2010

The First Heroes

This past winter, I read a book by Craig Nelson entitled The First Heroes. I had picked it up because Geoff suggested Nelson's book Rocket Men to me, which was essentially a biography of the Apollo project, and always one to go on the premise when you find a history writer you like, read all of his stuff, I read his Thomas Paine biography (which is really bringing this full circle) and then First Heroes.

The First Heroes is the story of the Doolittle Raid and more importantly, the story of the Doolittle Raiders themselves. In the book, Nelson makes the case, like so many World War II histories, that these were essentially ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances and that the stories that came from the Doolittle Raid were just that, extraordinary circumstances.

The B-25 Mitchell bomber that flew over Michigan Stadium Saturday as a part of the rededication ceremonies was a similar model to the one flown over Tokyo by the Doolittle Raiders. The Doolittle Raid was an audacious plan by an unconventional man who felt a strong sense that, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, America had to do something to strike at the heart of the Empire of Japan, so what better than to design a crazy, shouldn't work on paper, never been tested plan that would break the Japanese of their long-held belief of invincibility, and boost American morale...

If it worked.

Doolittle knew that there was a huge chance that for all of the planning, all of the training, the raid still had a very small chance of success. Even if the planes were successful in their mission, there was still no guarantee that any of them would come home. Doolittle himself loved to point out that the raid only meant something in retrospect, that because of what happened after the Raid, including the Japanese decision to attack Midway and the decisive American victory there. Most of the Raiders themselves would not even know what the raid meant for many months afterward because of the nature of what happened to their planes after the mission.

Which brings us to a football game.

Rich Rodriguez may not count Jimmy Doolittle among his heroes, but it would not surprise me if he did. Doolittle was an innovator, someone who saw possibilities born of necessity, who met with resistance among the traditionalists who could not see what he was seeing, who would get in trouble just to show his bosses he was right, and who was willing to take risks where others worried about their career track. Doolittle's development of instrument flying was to give the pilot complete operational freedom, and his efforts to convince Shell to develop 100 octane aviation fuel allowed planes to run faster, fly longer, and do more. In 1932, he won the three major air racing trophies of the time by flying faster than any one ever had. Most importantly, Doolittle knew that a pilot was only as good as his plane.

And in the spread offense, a coach is only as good as his quarterback.

Denard Robinson is not, even metaphorically, a B-25 Mitchell bomber. He is a quarterback, but he is also an evolutionary improvement, something better than it was because the opposition compelled improvement in the machines given to the planners. In a way, Rich Rodriguez looked at his Michigan teams, and he looked at his quarterback position and what he wanted to do with what he had. Metaphorically, Nick Sheridan was a Brewster F2A Buffalo, Steven Threet was a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. They were equipment he inherited who were designed before the rules changed. He needed something more, and so he went out and got Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Tate is a Grumman F6F Hellcat, taking the lessons of battle and applying them, getting something much quicker than its predecessors and effective in getting the job done. But Denard is a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, as fast as anything built to that point, different than anything people had seen. When you watch him, he's more a fork-tailed devil, a dual threat who does things that the opposition has never seen before this point. (By the way, to painfully conclude this metaphor, there is part of me that wants to believe that Devin Gardner is a North American P-51 Mustang, the evolutionary conclusion of the lessons learned, just as fast as the Lightning, but more robust and able to handle a greater variety of missions. Time will tell on that front. For now, this is Denard's day.)

If the lesson of last September is that September means nothing without knowing how October and November will play out, then we cannot get too excited about one game, no matter how good it feels. This is the larger working thesis of several prominent national writers and they are correct. In the end, only time will tell what today meant. Was it the start of something that has been longed for by Michigan fans for the last two seasons? Was it part of a roller coaster ride of good days and bad days which will tease us for weeks with its absence? Was it the high point that marked the beginning of the end of an era? We don't know today, and we cannot know today.

When word of the Doolittle Raid got back to America, it felt good; it was necessary relief and release for a people both stunned and angry at something that happened to them that they never saw coming until they were in the middle of it. But Doolittle himself noted in his autobiography (entitled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again) that it would have been a footnote, a blip, if the war had gone differently; that without planning, preparation, dedication, and no small amount of luck, the Raid would have just been a hill of beans. But with the success of the Raid, America once again believed that it could win, that it may take longer than they thought, but that victory was possible, even against long odds and monomaniacal opposition.

It's one victory. It feels really good in the moment. It may end up meaning nothing, and the next test of our resolve is right over the horizon. But for now, let us believe again that victory is possible, but we cannot presume it will be there. We must earn it.


Mikoyan said...

Actually the Doolittle Raid was a success in that it led Japan to realize that they had to sink the American Carriers. This led to the attack on Midway and the rest is....

Geoff said...

I think that this makes Pat White a Spitfire.