Just finished watching the Kevin Costner movie, Thirteen Days, which depicts events in the Kennedy White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis from 16 to 28 October 1962. Those thirteen days were very unsettling for me and my fellow pilot training students at Webb AFB at Big Spring, Texas. We had just started flying the T-37 and were in the process of soloing the aircraft. Our Tac Officer, Captain Scott “Press-on” Smith, told us we might expect to be sent to some other location and assigned some war-related duties if war between the United States and the Soviet Union broke out as a result of the crisis. Because we were not yet pilots in the Air Force, we could not imagine what those duties might be. We realized our instructor pilots might be sent to short-handed operational units. What would we do? Teach ourselves to fly? In the meantime, we continued our pilot training schedule.
My main objection to the movie is the exaggerated role of the character played by Kevin Costner, Kenneth O’Donnell, in the actual crisis events. O’Donnell was a Boston buddy of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and served as Jack Kennedy’s political advisor. It’s not too surprising that his role was enhanced for the film, because Costner helped to produce the film. Even though Costner had the “starring” role, Bruce Greenwood, as President John Kennedy, gives the most convincing portrayal. Other convincing performances are given by Stephen Culp as Robert Kennedy, Dylan Baker as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson, and Henry Strozier as Dean Rusk.
The most chilling portrayal of one of the key participants in the crisis is given by Kevin Conway as General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff. Conway’s performance as LeMay shows a man eager to launch an air attack on Cuban missile sites without much concern about possible consequences (such as nuclear war). In one particularly unsettling moment in the film, Conway/LeMay tells President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) that he is in “a terrible fix”; Lemay is directly challenging Kennedy, as Lemay is clearly suggesting that Kennedy is not responding appropriately to the crisis. Kennedy defuses the situation by saying that if he is in a “terrible fix,” then so is LeMay (and by association, all of the others present in the room as well).
Curtis LeMay was always a “take it to the enemy” commander, not reluctant to expose his airmen to life-threatening hazards; this trait was especially evident when he ordered his B-29 bomber crews to fly at ever-lower altitudes in their bomb runs over Japan during the spring and summer of 1945 in order to hit ground targets with greater accuracy. This tendency is not necessarily a fault in a military commander, but it is when such thinking establishes a like-minded approach to problem-solving generally.
The camera’s low angle shots of Conway/Lemay during the confrontation with Greenwood/Kennedy emphasize the power and pugnacity of the man (LeMay was short). We can tell that Conway/LeMay has a low opinion of Greenwood/Kennedy as a leader, and we can easily anticipate LeMay’s unfortunate decision to serve as George Wallace’s running mate a few years later. It is easy to understand how high-ranking generals can conceive of themselves as having the experience, insight (and the power) necessary to make important political as well as military decisions. There is no doubt that serving as a military officer at the four-star rank involves “playing politics” at a high level of involvement; however, it is not only unfortunate but inappropriate that some four-star generals think that their service to the country should extend beyond their military service. Such an approach has seldom worked out well. The only high-ranking general who has been a successful president was Dwight Eisenhower, and he did not initially want the job. He was successful because when he was president he thought like a civilian, not like a general (of course, there were other reasons for his success).
One other disturbing take-away from the film is the realization that (as depicted in the film, anyway) the military leaders used the “rules of engagement” as a lever to try to force the President to take military action when he really did not want to do so. This aspect is shown most clearly in the film when the military authorities bring the Navy pilot who flew a low-level reconnaissance flight over Cuba to Washington and ask him if he was shot at during the flight (because if he was, they could order retaliatory strikes against gun emplacements in Cuba). The film suggests that, thanks to the pre-mission phone call from Costner/O’Donnell, the pilot understands the hazards associated with giving the true answer (yes, he was shot at, but tells his fellow fliers that damage to the aircraft was caused by hitting a flight of sparrows), and he replies that the flight was a “cakewalk.” As the film presents the episode, the pilot understands much more clearly than his superiors the importance of seeking non-military answers to international crises.
The “rules of engagement” are normally developed to help combatants make the most appropriate ethical as well as tactical decisions about their actions in potentially hazardous environments. The “rules of engagement” are derived from the principles of Just War Theory and are intended primarily for those individuals fighting in the field, though they are developed by higher-ranking authorities. These are referred to as “jus in bello.” The “rules of engagement” are not intended to justify strategic decisions at the highest levels. Other aspects of Just War Theory (“jus ad bellum”) are intended to apply to state leaders when they are thinking about going to war. These could certainly serve as the basis of an interesting discussion about the merits of starting a war over the Cuban Missile Crisis. But these are not addressed in the film.
Fortunately for us at the time, the missile crisis ended on 28 October, one day before my 23rd birthday, and I and my fellow pilot training classmates were able to complete our pilot training program without interruption.
A little over one year later, I was a co-pilot flying KC-97G aircraft, an obsolete and useless refueling aircraft which had remained in the Air Force inventory long after its scheduled phase-out date because General Curtis LeMay had decided such a step was necessary as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy, the first presidential candidate I voted for, lay dead in Dallas.