The historian Edward Gibbon believed that man held two consuming propensities: the love of pleasure, and the love of action. The love of pleasure should be refined, and tempered, by the duties of a responsible life and the civilizing machinery of a progressive education. The love of action, he believed, was much stronger, and “when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence…becomes the parent of every virtue; and, if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man.”[1]

This same theme—that of the redeeming power of action—was intoned with earnestness by Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated a “strenuous life” as a way to keep one’s personal demons in check.

Get action!, he would call out, in his bombastic, bespectacled Teddy Roosevelt way. One could hardly craft a better motto than this, I think, for a signet ring.

Experience bears out this view. Adolf Von Schell, in his classic treatise Battle Leadership, took note of the necessity of action as an antidote to depression and fear:

When a soldier lies under hostile fire and waits, he feels unable to protect himself; he has time; he thinks, he only waits for the shot that will hit him. He feels a certain inferiority to the enemy.  He feels that he is alone and deserted…It is different during the attack. Here the soldier himself acts; he has something to do; he moves forward; he fires; he assaults and dictates the action of the enemy…He believes he can do everything by himself…He has the feeling that his action depends on his own will, and in consequence he can act in accordance with that will.[2]

Prolonged periods of supine inaction promote defeatism, demoralization, and an enervating paralysis. In conditions of adversity, in times of conflict, it thus becomes critical to take and retain the initiative through the performance of positive action. One wartime example of the implementation of this psychological principle is Doolittle’s air raid on Japan in April 1942.

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One of Doolittle’s bombers coming in low over Japan

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese Empire’s military forces struck all over East Asia. Malaya and Singapore fell in February 1941. Further inroads were made into Chinese territory, which had been under occupation since the 1930s; Australia itself seemed on the edge of invasion. American forces had been routed in the Philippines, and Japanese naval forces were moving boldly into the central Pacific. No one seemed able to stop them. For the first time in living memory, the British and Americans were getting badly beaten by a foreign power. Japan had outclassed the Allies in nearly every category that mattered, and it seemed as if it were only a matter of time before all East Asia came under the control of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Some dared to think otherwise. In the midst of this low point, Navy Captain Francis Low and Army Lt.Col. James Doolittle thought that there might be a way to raid the Japanese home islands by air. The idea was that the enemy, which believed itself protected and invulnerable, should be made to acknowledge the reality of war. It was a way of saying:

You might know how to get us, but we know how to reach out and touch you. We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere. If it’s war you want, then by God, you bastards, you will have it. 

This was the subliminal message of the raid. It would fulfill President Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to hit back at the enemy at the earliest possible opportunity. Something had to be done, the President implored, to give the public a morale boost. Action needed to be taken. But it was not as easy as it might appear. The bombing aircraft of the time lacked a true long-distance capability, and there were no American bases anywhere near a reasonable striking distance from Japan. Yet, as often happens amid the exigencies of desperation, ingenuity and initiative found a way to thread a camel through the eye of a needle.

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A captured airman is led out for execution

After careful consideration, Low and Doolittle selected the B-25B Mitchell bomber to carry out the raid on Japan. No other aircraft had the combination of cruising range, bomb capacity, and maneuverability that would prove suitable for the job. The hazards were daunting. It would be a one-way mission only, as the planes lacked the fuel capacity to return. The bombers would have to fly with no fighter support, and would thus be extremely vulnerable on the approach.

No one had ever flown B-25s off of a carrier before, and it was uncertain whether it could even be done. The aircraft would be lightly armed, so as to enable a greater capacity of bombs and fuel, and would have to fly in low, nearly skimming the waves, so as to avoid detection. It was a daring, hazardous mission, and Doolittle wanted volunteers only. And he got them.

Doolittle eventually assembled his little fleet of specially-modified B-25s and proceeded with his escort ships across the Pacific in strict radio silence. But then, as so often happens in war, things began to happen that necessitated a change in the original plan. The task force was spotted about 650 nautical miles east of Japan by a Japanese patrol boat, which passed on the information to its headquarters. Secrecy had been compromised.  Doolittle made the decision to launch the attack immediately, rather than wait until he was within his ideal striking distance. Thus, while still 170 miles from his original launch point, he gave the order to release the bombers. On his command, 16 B-25s lumbered off the carrier decks and slowly made their way to their targets.

After about six hours of perilous flying, the bombers began to appear in the skies above Tokyo. Residents were incredulous. The planes hit industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokuska, Nagoya, and Kobe. Not a single aircraft was shot down; near total surprise had been achieved. The aviators’ luck held even after delivering their payloads, as a tail wind helped carry them to China.

Most of the airmen ditched their aircraft or bailed out in the Chinese countryside. One crew landed in the Soviet Union, where they were immediately taken into custody by the Russians (Stalin at the time had no wish to anger Tokyo). The crews had each flown an average distance of 2250 nautical miles; it was the longest and most audacious B-25 mission in history.

WWII AIR RAID ASANO ZAIBATSU

What comes around, goes around:  bomb damage in the aftermath

Although the raid had negligible impact on Japan’s industrial capabilities, that was never the intended goal. The goal was to demonstrate to a demoralized public that the Americans could reach out and touch the Japanese in ways that they had never expected possible. Their reaction was one of predictable fury:  intensive sweeps were undertaken by the Imperial Army in China to find the bailed-out pilots; three captured American airmen were put through a “trial” and shot. The raid played some role in the Japanese decision to attack Midway Island, so as to prevent any future air attacks on the home islands. And Midway proved to be the turning of the tide in the Pacific War.

Aftermath of the Doolittle Raid

A crash-landed plane in China

Doolittle himself survived the war, along with most of his comrades. An aggressive, hard-driving man, he set high standards for himself and his men. After crash landing in China, he at first thought the raid had been a failure, and expected to be reprimanded on his return. Instead, there was an outpouring of joy, and he was decorated for his leadership of the operation.

We cannot know the ultimate ends of our actions, and must grope forward, often with the assurance and faith of the sleepwalker. When one is at the lowest point in his fortunes, when all seems lost, and when the knocking of Despair at our door resounds audibly in our ears:  this is the time to rouse oneself from the torpor of inaction, to finger the pommels of our daggers, and ready them for some decisive action. Hit the bastards hard, and keep hitting them. Teddy Roosevelt would tolerate nothing less.

Action, action, and more action. There is a crystalline purity in its purpose, and an ineluctable simplicity in its dialectic. Let this be our creed.

Read More: The Apology That Will Never Be Delivered


[1] Bury, J.B. (ed.) of Gibbon, Edward, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  London: Methuen & Co., vol. II., p. 37 (1974).

[2] Von Schell, A., Battle Leadership, Quantico: Marine Corps Association, p. 14 (1999).