Professor Volokh points to this article by Max Boot relating to the battle of Iwo Jima and the justifications for it. Boot cites a book by Marine Capt. Robert S. Burrell, a history instructor at the Naval Academy, and describes how, after the first justification for the battle, the need for fighter escorts did not pan out, a second justification was created:
When the fighter-escort mission didn't pan out, U.S. commanders had to come up with another rationale for why 26,000 casualties had not been in vain. After the war, it was claimed that Iwo Jima had been a vital emergency landing field for crippled B-29s on their way back from Japan. In a much-quoted statistic, the Air Force reported that 2,251 Superforts landed on Iwo, and because each one carried 11 crewmen, a total of 24,761 airmen were saved.
Burrell demolishes these spurious statistics. Most of those landings, he shows, were not for emergencies but for training or to take on extra fuel or bombs. If Iwo Jima hadn't been in U.S. hands, most of the four-engine bombers could have made it back to their bases in the Mariana Islands 625 miles away. And even if some had been forced to ditch at sea, many of their crewmen would have been rescued by the Navy. Burrell concludes that Iwo Jima was "helpful" to the U.S. bombing effort but hardly worth the price in blood.
A good point and a worthy historic inquiry. Boot, though, then comes up with two of the most spurious conclusions I have read recently (taking the second one first):
No such criticism was heard at the time, in part because of the rah-rah tone of World War II press coverage but also because Americans back then had a greater appreciation for the ugly, unpredictable nature of combat. They even coined a word for it: snafu (in polite language: "situation normal, all fouled up"). It's a shame that so many sentimental tributes to the veterans of the Good War elide this unpleasant reality, leaving us a bit less intellectually and emotionally prepared for the trauma of modern war.
Huh? No such criticism was heard because Americans back then had a greater appreciation for the ugly unpredictable nature of combat? He just spent the first half of the article explaining how the the U.S. military created a myth as to why Iwo Jima was necessary, a myth that is still being debunked 60 years later. A myth that was created to avoid criticism. This is not evidence that Americans had a "greater" appreciation of the realities of war. Evidence of a greater appreciation would have been that the commanders had admitted their mistake and every one reacted by saying well yeah mistakes will happen in war.
Boot also makes this comment:
In modern parlance, you might say that Iwo Jima was a battle of choice waged on the basis of faulty intelligence and inadequate plans. If Ted Kennedy had been in the Senate in 1945 (hard to believe, but he wasn't), he would have been hollering about the incompetence of the Roosevelt administration, which produced many times more casualties in five weeks than U.S. forces have suffered in Iraq in the last two years.
Wow, can Boot not distinguish between a poor strategic decision in a war and the choice to go to war in the first place. Yes in war mistakes happen and soldier's lives are wasted. That is why you don't go to war for the wrong reasons. We had no choice about the war with Japan.
And if during the war the commanders and the commander in chief make mistakes, is it really good for them not to be questioned, especially where, as shown by the Iwo Jima example, it was not a mistake in the heat of battle but a choice that was poorly thought out? Are we only supposed to think about the decisions 60 years later?