The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon
“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.