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By Any Means Necessary
America's Secret Air War in the Cold War
By William E. Burrows
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
398 pg., US$26/C$41

America's secret heroes

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 22, 2001

By Any Means NecessaryAlthough history records the Cold War as a protracted political freeze with occasional armed conflict fought through the proxies of the two super powers, the fact is that the United States and the Soviet Union did occasionally fight minor skirmishes. The forces employed weren't the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and tanks that glared at each other over the Iron Curtain, but rather the battles took place in the air. They were battles that the average American and Soviet were largely ignorant of but nonetheless claimed dozens of lives over the years. The combatants included the pilots and crews of American reconnaissance aircraft and the pilots tasked with stopping them.

William E. Burrows' By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War tells the story of America's aerial reconnaissance programs that primarily targeted the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Vietnam. The uneasy alliance between America and the Soviet Union during the Second World War quickly deteriorated into an uneasier peace. With both sides armed with the atomic bomb by the early 1950s and the threat of a war at any moment, American planners realized that they needed accurate targeting information for their bombers and later ICBMs. In the days before spy satellites, that meant sending near and into enemy airspace aircraft packed with intelligence gathering equipment and their operators, who in their professions are dubbed “ravens.”

On the other side, the Soviet Union resented the easy manner in which their airspace was penetrated by the Americans and were understandably wary of surprise attacks given destruction rained upon them by the Germans during the Second World War despite the fact that the two had signed a non-aggression treaty. That led them to aggressively fight off the largely lightly armed aircraft and even occasionally open fire on them, resulting in the downing of 16 American planes that led to the loss of life.

Rather than a dry recitation of history, Burrows chose to tell the story from the perspective of the men who flew the missions and for those who didn't come home, families who have waited decades to find out their fates. Unfortunately they didn't receive those answers from the government, one that out of national security attributed shoot downs to crashes due to accidents or unprovoked aggression by the Soviets. Nor did they do anything when credible reports arrived that some who survived were being held as prisoners. Instead, the crews of the converted bombers, passenger aircraft or tankers were essentially written off in the name of saving America's face.

As Burrows points out, however, the logic behind the thousands of flights was entirely sound. The information gleaned gave bomber pilots the location of legitimate military targets. More importantly, it demonstrated to America's foes that “that every component of their nation was precisely targeted, was in the metaphorical crosshairs, and that a third world war would therefore effectively mean extinction. This was the doctrine of deterrence. And it worked.” Finally, with that precise targeting information, it reduced for both sides a reliance on nuclear weapons. “There were circumstances in which a single air base or naval facility could be demolished with traditional 'iron bombs' instead of nuclear bombs that devastate an entire region.”

That it came at a great price is a fact that Burrows returns to time and time again and is aptly illustrated by the list of more than 130 names which ends his account, names of men who died collecting information in a high-stakes cat and mouse game. Even with the advent of satellites didn't stop America's aerial reconnaissance program, as Americans found out just this year. A Navy EP-3E Aries II plane was forced to land at an airfield on Hainan Island on April 1, 2001 after colliding with a Chinese fighter and caused the first international incident that George W. Bush had to deal with. Fortunately for the men and women of that plane, greater propaganda value was attached by the Chinese to their safe return then disappearance.

Burrows' account of America's black missions is a compelling look at events which are still largely unknown to official history. Managing to at once paint a broad picture of the flights and their meaning and yet still drill down to the stories of the individuals, By Any Means Necessary also remedies an injustice. The soldiers who manned the lines separated by the Iron Curtain have received the praise but it was the sacrifices of those in the aerial reconnaissance program which may have prevented a third and final world war. If anything, Burrows' superb work is the public acknowledgment that America's government has long denied men who may be the bravest of her servicemen.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy William E. Burrow's By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War at for only $18.20 (30% off)

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