Daylight Precision by Douglas Lackey and directed by Alexander Harrington presents an elucidating historical perspective of the events surrounding the creation of the U.S. Air Force prompted by our involvement in WWII. Based on real accounts and the true-to-life inspired characterizations of influential people from that time, Lackey explores the controversies about warfare that trend for us today. One of the issues he deals with is the extent we dupe ourselves into believing that war is just and ethical, despite the massive number of innocents mowed down as casualties of conflict. Though it is not directly confronted, a sub theme Lackey posits is that perhaps no war is justifiable. And it certainly is not if the pro war “Rah, rah, get ‘em boys” protection propaganda we often cling to masks barbarism and wanton bloodletting in the name of power, domination, and wealth.
To present this philosophical construct beautifully, Lackey uses as his unappreciated and very human hero, General Heywood Hansell (an expert performance by Pat Dwyer). An initial advocate of strategic bombing, General Hansell helped establish the plans for daylight precision bombing and helped create the command formation for an independent Air Force separate from the other military branches. Daylight Precision focuses on General Heywood Hansell’s career as it cross sections General Curtis LeMay’s (a hard-nosed Joel Stigliano). Both men were engaged in air command and specifically strategic bombing. Le May advocated area bombing of cities and “Bombing the enemy back to the stone age.” Hansell advocated bombing military targets. With growing fervor he presaged the logical rationale for avoiding the bombing of cities which were largely populated by civilians: women, children, the disabled, and elderly. Lackey brings these two positions front and center and shows how LeMay and Hansell struggled with the problems surrounding both.
The playwright creates scenarios which bring to light how Hansell arrives at his decision that destroying military targets will weaken the enemy and bombing cities only strengthens the citizens’ resolve to fight with resilience to the death. Lackey soundly shows Hansell coming to this conclusion in an evolving process through discussions with others, rumination, and dream sequences. Lackey solidifies Hansell’s resolve not to bomb any more cities after Hamburg is destroyed (45,000 perished in a night raid firestorm). He illustrates the decision through an effecting scene between Hansell and a well known pacifist at the time, Vera Brittain ( Danielle Delgado). Though Hansell and Brittain never met, her views were well known and supported by many of the most erudite in the U.S. who opposed civilian aerial bombing. Hansell’s views mirrored theirs. The scene evokes how Hansell might have been driven to that perspective by those whose views he respected.
Hansell’s career accelerated as one of the most influential generals to have effectively organized the allies’ air strategy against Hitler. LeMay reports to him. However, Hansell must continually justify his philosophy and position because military targets are dangerous whereas civilian targets, the bombing of women and children appear to result in fewer airmen deaths. The effects of killing civilians is brutal, immediate, and quantifiable. These are visible results: numerous enemy deaths. The effect of bombing military targets does not show immediate results. Buildings, terminals, and factories are destroyed to what effect? A moral one? Of what need is morality in war? The Germans quickly move for reconstruction. Then what? Eventually, Hansell is overshadowed; the politics change: area bombing of cities is embraced. Dresden and Leipzig are cut down in great brutality to the justified tune of “War is hell!”
Lackey brilliantly evolves the action of the play to show how the shift occurred from setting military bombing targets (materials factories, ball bearings factories, railroads, steel mills) to civilian bombing targets of entire cities. As Hansell’s views are shuttered and shouted down, LeMay’s views about bombing cities, the more populous the better, are lifted up. The war hawk, whose simplistic barbarism is easily rationalized by those in power, takes over.
LeMay’s career rises; Hansell’s falls. Hansell is shuffled to the Pacific front in the war effort. Eventually, disputing tactical maneuverings in air command and insisting that precision bombing of targets is the most effective and moral of strategies, he is relieved of his duties. Somewhere in the crosscurrents, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bombed back to the stone age.
Hanesell’s personality and character are greatly humanized by Lackey (and Pat Dwyer’s talents) in brief scenes where he reveals Hansell’s appreciation of the arts, Shakespeare, and poetry. Because Lackey reveals this philosophical sensitivity and sensibility, we are not surprised at Hansell’s moral views. Nor are we surprised that he uses his brilliance to initiate tactical maneuvers which in the long run were highly effective in shortening the war in Europe. Years later Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, claimed that by bombing ball bearings factories (Hansell’s plan) the course of the war was irrevocably changed and would have been different if these factories had been left in tact. After Hansell was dismissed, the Air Force moved toward a strategy of bombing civilian populations. This encouraged a dependence on the more potentially devastating and inflexible doctrine of nuclear warfare and nuclear weapons escalation and stockpiling that lasted for decades.
How has history viewed these two generals? Lackey’s Daylight Precision sheds new light on the careers of both men. Hansell’s overlooked brilliance and acumen trumped Le May in every aspect including morality and ethics. He is an understated hero whose philosophies ring true for every age, especially ours in light of our current strategies in the Middle East. Lackey’s play and the direction by Alexander Harrington and fine work by the ensemble cast allow Hansell to soar back in command as we appreciate his efforts and are reminded that bombing women and children serves no rational military purpose.
Cast: Pat Dwyer, Joel Stigliano, Kyle Masteller, Joseph J. Menino, Eric Purcell, Maxwell Zener, TJ Clark, Danielle Delgado
Daylight Precision will be performed at Theater for the New City through March 16th.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.