Midair: An Epic Tale of Survival and a Mission That Might Have Ended the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 246 pp., $26.95) is a book that contains two quite different elements. The first is an amazing true-life war story that author Craig K. Collins, a former journalist, relates quite well. The second is the espousal of the controversial theory that the Vietnam War could have been won if only the Air Force had been given permission—as the noted Vietnam War hawk Gen. Curtis Lemay once said—to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”
The heart of the book is the story that Collins—the author of Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture—relates about the military adventures of his uncle Don Harten, an Air Force jet pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions in three different aircraft (B-52, F-105, and F-111) over North and South Vietnam from 1965-72.
The part of Harten’s story that provides the book’s title is an almost unbelievable tale of survival. It took place in June 1965 over the South China Sea. During an intense typhoon Harten’s B-52 bomber collided head on with another B-52 at 30,000 feet. Harten ejected and narrowly avoided death a dozen times before he was rescued.
Interspersed with this almost unbelievable tale of survival is a theory posited by Harten and other pilots that fighter jet bombing operations over North Vietnam, such as Operation Rolling Thunder, were “effed up beyond all recognition,” as Collins puts it.
There was no way, the pilots believed, that “fighter jets could bring even a small country like North Vietnam to its knees by punching at its jungle midsection,” Collins writes. “The consensus was that the jet jockeys needed to let the big boys take out Hanoi in one or two missions.”
The Vietnam War, Collins contends, wasn’t lost “in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t lost in the skies over Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam. And it wasn’t lost in 1975 when the last marine helicopter lifted from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Rather it was lost in the White House, the halls of Congress and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.”
This is a book for you if you enjoy reading a harrowing story of war-time survival—and if you’re convinced that politicians and generals’ perfidy was the reason the U.S. did not prevail in the Vietnam War.