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Aerie Visions

The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon

by Michael S. Sherry
Yale University Press, 435 pp., $29.95

Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going,” says Macbeth of the “dagger of the mind” that hovers before him, insubstantial, unable to inflict real wounds itself, but inspiring him to the murder. Michael Sherry, a professor at North-western, boldly argues that modern air power has been a “dagger of the mind,” a thing of the imagination out ahead of the technology, determining how that technology would develop, at least as much as technical developments established their own priorities. It is common to say, of our destruction of cities in World War II, that we did it because we could do it. According to technological determinism, means establish goals. Sherry agrees with that rule, and describes in great detail the way it has operated. But he sees that something else was at work, too, what he calls technological fanaticism—the belief that air power must be qualitatively different from all other kinds of war, apocalyptic in its promise of blessings (quick victory) or curses (the obliteration of whole civilizations, not merely of opposing armies).

These apocalyptic imaginings about air power were present before any plane actually dropped a bomb, and Sherry rightly begins his history of air power in this century with the fantasies of H.G. Wells and the almost equally wild forecasts of military theorists like Giulio Douhet and Basil H. Liddell Hart. The common theme in all this aeromancy was that air power would have a strategic effect scaled to the degree of its technological advance over other means of military locomotion, surveillance, and destruction. War was going to take a quantum leap; it would never be the same. Outmoded tools would no longer determine the outcome, no matter how useful they might be in an ancillary role. Whoever controlled the air had already won.

Sherry moves from the prophets of air power to its visionaries, men like Charles Lindbergh and Billy Mitchell, who demonstrated some of the new things planes could do and extrapolated from them the nearly everything that air power would do. The visionaries might frighten or embolden—Lindbergh thought Germany had become invincible because of its concentration on air power, and so did Hitler. But they were united in criticizing army and navy proponents of “old war” theory, who were condemned as butchers of the World War I type, stuck in the slugging matches of trench warfare. Air power offered the hope or the threat of a “knockout blow.” It could not only overcome but overawe an enemy, breaking his will as well as destroying his forces. The horror of exposing civilians as well as soldiers to assault anywhere behind the lines was a psychological menace under which the nerves, literal and figurative, of modern civilizations would simply buckle. The weapon would be magic in its effect, paralyzing the foe, forcing capitulation by its mere threat, useful even when not used. Deterrence theory had its defenders among the visionaries of air power, long before it was elaborated as a justification for nuclear weapons. Air power had made modern war “unthinkable.”

When, nonetheless, World War II began despite the existence of air power, the solution seemed to be more air power, the sooner the better. Franklin Roosevelt was an aeromantic, and ordered accelerated construction of bombers before he knew quite how they were going to be used, where they would be based, how far they could reach, or what relation they would have to other parts of the armed forces. Sherry describes the course of the war in brilliant detail as a tug of war between what it was felt planes should do and what, at any moment, they could do. In the early days of the war, before there were any bombers with the range to reach Japan, people were conducting experiments for the incendiary bombing of its “wooden cities.” The air force was in its King Lear phase:

I will do such things
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

Even as the Blitz was proving, in London, that an enemy’s will was not easily broken by heavy bombing of his capital city, England was—under the leadership of Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris of RAF Bomber Command—preparing to demonstrate the same thing in the opposite direction. Sherry traces the development of night bombing, area bombing, city bombing, firestorm bombing, as a combination of technical constraints (one lost precision but took fewer casualties by flying at night) and the promise always out there that simply enough bombing would reach a magical threshold and somehow end the war. Yet all the bombing of cities did not preclude the need for an invasion of Europe. In fact, it did not demonstrably help the invasion that occurred. (Air cover was something different from the air raids, in which the airmen had vested their real hopes.)

In Japan, the use of napalm in firestorm bombing did have the anticipated physical effects—but not the anticipated pyschological effect of ending or even of shortening the war. One of the many achievements of The Rise of American Air Power is the entry into the mind of General Curtis LeMay, into the departmentalized professionalism that made LeMay ingenious in experimenting to get a maximum of destruction at a minimum of risk to his men (more bang for the blood) yet incurious about the strategic efficacy of his tactical inventiveness. In fact, despite LeMay’s efficient leveling operations on city after city, preparation for an invasion of Japan was still necessary until the atomic bombs were dropped—and even they did not end the war without a last-minute yielding by the US on the point of unconditional surrender. The Japanese were bribed with the promise of a retained emperor to make sure the “knockout blows” would work.

The military visions of air power had been betrayed by the war, yet they were not abandoned; they were simply transferred to nuclear weapons. These would finally make war unthinkable, their possessor unopposable, their threatened victims submissive. Yet during the period when America had a monopoly on the new weapon, the Soviet Union made its major postwar advances, by retaining occupied territories while indigenous Communists seized China and threatened other countries. Once again, the magic had not worked. Yet we still relied on air power in Vietnam, where we loosed on a small region roughly the bomb tonnage expended in World War II, and did not prevail—showing once again the disjunction between the ability to destroy and the ability to win.

That dissociation of destruction from victory is the distinguishing mark of modern war, and Sherry shows that, throughout World War II, the technological procedures of destroying failed, over and over, to mesh with strategic evaluation of the means toward prevailing. The two were not brought into accord because people assumed they were inseparable. That had never been entirely true, but it was roughly true of past wars: in order to prevail, a nation had to have the surplus manpower and economic productivity not only to make and service weapons but to carry them to the scene of conflict. One had to meet the enemy—always in sufficient numbers, most often in superior numbers—and use the weapons to gain actual control of territory or personnel, by slaughter, capture, surrender, or a combination of the three. The means of destroying and the means of controlling the outcome were interrelated when not identical.

But the very promise of air power rested on its divorce from the conditions of control that cost so much in the past. Now one did not need to take an army to a city in order to destroy it. At Hiroshima, one plane and one bomb could do that, with not a single casualty suffered by the attackers. But after the raid the attackers were still at home, and the attacked were left in control of their own territory, however damaged. The promise of such vast destruction accomplished so quickly, at a distance, on the cheap, was so great that people assumed that the old destructive effects would lead to victory without use of the old means (physical occupation and control of the territory and population). Destruction was in itself a means of control for the visionaries.

But modern war has taught us repeatedly, without our heeding its lesson, that one can destroy and destroy without winning. Clausewitz defines victory as making the enemy do one’s will. Forceful persuasion is the means toward that end, not mere unfocused destruction (which is why we had to resort to the bribe of retaining Japan’s emperor). The enemy must be convinced not only that he must submit or die, but that it is better to submit than to die. Air raids have not been good persuaders. Yet we continue to rely on them, or on their threat, or on their successor—the threat of nuclear missiles. Military history is ignored while we follow, hypnotically, our own “dagger of the mind.”

Military history in general gives the lie to talk of “perfect” weapons, “foolproof” tactics, “impregnable” defenses. Such history is more than ever necessary when the dazzle of new technologies is added to dreams of a military solution for the world’s problems. There are anticipations, throughout Sherry’s account (which ends with World War II), of the postwar rhetoric we would hear about the “superbomb” (the hydrogen bomb that would do what the mere atomic bomb could not do at Hiroshima), or multiple warheads (independently targetable), or, now, the Strategic Defense Initiative. The “solution” beckons us on toward more problems, filling the planet (and, soon, space itself) with military implements that litter the trail of those in quest of a grail that has been beckoning and receding ever since H.G. Wells wrote down his fantasies about air power. It is an “airy” power whose spell Sherry helps to break merely by describing it so well.


Aeromance November 24, 1988

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