Baa, Baa, Black Sheep is also a classic work of World War II, by Gregory Boyington, mostly about his Black Sheep Squadron, and their deeds in the South Pacific campaign.

I read many books on World War II. Many of these books are not particularly vibrant or unique in their writing, but since I know the story of World War II very well by now, they make good reading for bus trips and the like. When I started reading it, I thought it would be the type of book you would expect to be written by a Marine Corps fighter ace: full of many tales of derring-do, lots of maps, some talk of strategy, and lots of talk that would sound antiquated and racist today. The first chapters of the book, discussing his work with the Flying Tigers in China, before the start of the war, didn't disappoint. During his discussion of the war in Burma, he seems especially callow, speaking as a typical mercenary, drinking and fighting his war, while seeming to have a contemptuous attitude to the native residents. (Pigeonholing him as a racist would turn out to be a mistake when I read further in the book, and even more so when I later found his picture).

After leaving China, he ends up taking a trip back to the United States, and managing to defeat the bureaucracy long along to get assigned to the regular service in the South Pacific. It is during these chapters that I first notice the references to drinking and fighting with the high command get to be themes that would seem to be excessive, even for a "maverick" fighter pilot. However, there is no question that he was also very dedicated to both the pilots in his squadron and to his mission.

The book really becomes interesting when he is shot down, captured by the Japanese, and spends one hundred pages, and eighteen months, as a Prisoner of War. It is during his tales of captivity that his real bravery and sensitivity come out, in equal measure. I was expecting the Prisoner of War stories to be gory and intense, but instead they are touching, nuanced and often humorous. Along with telling about the bravery of Americans, he also tells about the compassion that some of his Japanese captors would show him. And this is also where the tales of his past use of alcohol take on a serious tone.

After the war is over, the book continues, telling of his life as a drifter in California, working as a wrestling referee. His drinking becomes more and more of a problem, until, in what seems to be a strange twist for a book about World War II, the real climax comes when he realizes how alcohol is controlling him, and he joins Alcoholics Anonymous. It isn't unrelated to the rest of the book, though: although this isn't an anti-war book, as the book progresses, there are more and more references to his disgust with oppression and folly. About alcohol, he says that he only could stay sober by learning to progress spiritually. It would seem to be that this might be his suggestion on how the world can set war aside, as well.

The book is very well written, although for people looking for a military history (such as I was), it might not be what is expected, since it is anecdotal, and more focused on Boyington's personal history that the war as such. I had actually been debating for a while what books I would put together as a canon on World War II, and at first I thought this would be one of them. And it still might be, but actually this book is part of a much more valuable canon: this is one of the few books that I would give to someone to try to explain what American culture is about.