America's secret heroes in an undeclared nonwar

Although history records the cold war as a protracted political freeze with occasional armed conflict fought only through proxies, 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 a few secret planes in the air.

They were battles of which average Americans and Soviets were largely ignorant, but that 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 Burrows's "By Any Means Necessary" tells the story of America's aerial reconnaissance programs that primarily targeted the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Vietnam. The uneasy alliance between the US and the USSR during the Second World War had quickly deteriorated into an uneasier peace. With both sides holding atomic bomb weapons 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 "ravens," aircraft packed with intelligence-gathering equipment, near and sometimes into enemy airspace.

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. That led them to aggressively fight off the largely lightly armed aircraft and even occasionally open fire on them, resulting in the downing of several American planes and the disappearance of 16 others. All told, hundreds of service personnel were killed or wounded during these operations.

Burrows tells this hair-raising story from the perspective of the men who flew the missions. Some never came home. Their families waited decades to find out the truth. Unfortunately, they didn't receive answers from the US government, which, for national security reasons, attributed the shoot downs to accidents or unprovoked aggression by the Soviets. Nor did the government do anything when credible reports arrived that some who survived were being held as prisoners. Instead, the crews 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 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, that precise targeting information 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 this information 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 in this high-stakes cat-and-mouse game.

Even the advent of satellites didn't stop the United States' 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, after colliding with a Chinese fighter. It was the first international incident of President George W. Bush's career. Fortunately for the men and women of that plane, the Chinese attached greater propaganda value to their safe return than to their disappearance.

Burrows's account is a compelling look at events that are still largely unknown in official history. Managing to 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 who may have prevented a third and final world war. If anything, Burrows's superb work is public acknowledgment, which the government has long denied those who may have been America's bravest servicemen.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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