This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction. Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the US military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.
Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself. But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant. Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.
Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems—like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals—it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life. However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.
The Rise of Air Power
It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes. Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the US Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering. As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy—we might today call them “insurgents”—in Libya.
World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers. By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins. Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender. Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.
Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces. A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet. In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories. Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs. Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.
As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet’s intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties—at least for his side. Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the “pressing” was via high explosives and poison gas, and the “points” included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.
That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States. In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy’s will; he boldly asserted that “the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one.”
Even bolder was his American counterpart, William “Billy” Mitchell, famously court-martialed and romanticized as a “martyr” to air power. (In his honor, cadets at the US Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.) At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, US airmen refined Mitchell’s tenets, developing a “vital centers” theory of bombing—the idea that one could compel an enemy to surrender by identifying and destroying his vulnerable economic nodes. It therefore came as no accident that the US entered World War II with the world’s best heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and a fervid belief that “precision bombing” would be the most direct path to victory.
World War II and After: Dehousing, Scorching, Boiling, and Baking the Enemy
In World War II, “strategic” air forces that focused on winning the war by heavy bombing reached young adulthood, with all the swagger associated with that stage of maturity. The moral outrage of Western democracies that accompanied the German bombing of civilian populations in Guernica, Spain, in 1937 or Rotterdam in 1940 was quickly forgotten once the Allies sought to open a “second front” against Hitler through the air. Four-engine strategic bombers like the B-17 and the British Lancaster flew for thousands of miles carrying bomb loads measured in tons. From 1942 to 1945 they rained two million tons of ordnance on Axis targets in Europe, but accuracy in bombing remained elusive.
While the US attempted and failed at precision daylight bombing against Germany’s “vital centers,” Britain’s RAF Bomber Command began employing what was bloodlessly termed “area bombing” at night in a “dehousing” campaign led by Arthur “Bomber” Harris. What became an American/British combined bomber offensive killed 600,000 German civilians, including 120,000 children, reducing cities like Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), Berlin (1944-45), and Dresden (1945) to rubble.
Yet, contrary to the dreams of air power advocates, Germany’s will to resist remained unbroken. The vaunted second front of aerial battle became yet another bloody attritional brawl, with hundreds of thousands of civilians joining scores of thousands of aircrews in death.
Similarly mauled but unbroken by bombing was Japan, despite an air campaign of relentless intensity that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Planned and directed by Major General Curtis LeMay, new B-29 bombers loaded with incendiaries struck Tokyo, a city made largely of wood, in March 1945, creating a firestorm that in his words “scorched and boiled and baked [the Japanese] to death.” As many as 100,000 Japanese died in this attack.
Subsequently, 60 more cities were firebombed until the apotheosis of destruction came that August as atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing another 200,000 people. It quickly became an article of faith among American air power enthusiasts that these bombs had driven Japan to surrender; together with this, the “decisive” air campaign against Germany became reason enough to justify an independent US Air Force, which was created by the National Security Act of 1947.
In the total war against Nazi and Japanese terror, moral concerns, when expressed, came privately. General Ira Eaker worried that future generations might condemn the Allied bombing campaign against Germany for its targeting of “the man in the street.” Even LeMay, not known for introspective doubts, worried in 1945 that he and his team would likely be tried as war criminals if the US failed to defeat Japan. (So Robert McNamara, then an Army Air Force officer working for LeMay, recalled in the documentary The Fog of War.)
But moral qualms were put aside in the post-war glow of victory and as the fear rose of future battles with communism. The Korean War (1950-1953) may have ushered in the jet age, as symbolized by the dogfights of American Sabre Jets and Soviet MiGs over the Yalu River, but it also witnessed the devastation by bombing of North Korea, even as the enemy took cover underground and refused to do what air power strategists had always assumed they would: give up.
Still, for the US Air Force, the real action of that era lay largely in the realm of dystopian fantasies as it created the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinated two legs of the nuclear triad, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. (The third was nuclear-missile-armed submarines.) SAC kept some of those bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons in the air 24/7 as a “deterrent” to a Soviet nuclear first strike (and as a constant first strike threat of our own). “Thinking about the unthinkable”—that is, nuclear Armageddon—became all the rage, with “massive retaliation” serving as the byword for air power enthusiasts. In this way, dreams of clean victories morphed into nightmares of global thermonuclear annihilation, leaving the 1930s air power ideal of “clean” and “surgical” strikes in the dust—for the time being.
Reaping What We Sow
Despite an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used, the US Air Force had to relearn the hard way that there remained limits to the efficacy of air power, especially when applied to low-intensity, counterinsurgency wars. As in Korea in the 1950s, air power in the 1960s and 1970s failed to provide the winning edge in the Vietnam War, even as it spread wanton destruction throughout the Vietnamese countryside. But it was the arrival of “smart” bombs near that war’s end that marked the revival of the fantasies of air power enthusiasts about “precision bombing” as the path to future victory.
By the 1990s, laser- and GPS-guided bombs (known collectively as PGMs, for precision guided munitions) were relegating unguided, “dumb” bombs largely to the past. Yet like their predecessors, PGMs proved no panacea. In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths. That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the US air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity. (Saddam Hussein made his traditionally organized military, defenseless against air power, occupy static positions after his invasion of Kuwait.)
The recent marriage of PGMs to drones, hailed as the newest “perfect weapon” in the air arsenal, has once again led to the usual fantasies about the arrival—finally, almost 100 years late—of clean, precise, and decisive war. Using drones, a military need not risk even a pilot’s life in its attacks. Yet the nature of war—its horrors, its unpredictability, its tendency to outlive its original causes—remains fundamentally unaltered by “precision” drone strikes. War’s inherent fog and friction persist. In the case of drones, that fog is often generated by faulty intelligence, the friction by malfunctioning weaponry or innocent civilians appearing just as the Hellfire missiles are unleashed. Rather than clean wars of decision, drone strikes decide nothing. Instead, they produce their share of “collateral damage” that only spawns new enemies seeking revenge.
The fantasy of air war as a realm of technical decision, as an exercise in decisively finding, fixing, and dispatching the enemy, appeals to a country like the United States that idolizes technology as a way to quick fixes. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that two administrations in Washington have ever more zealously pursued drone wars and aerial global assassination campaigns, already killing 4,700 “terrorists” and bystanders. And this has been just part of our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president’s campaign of 20,000 air strikes (only 10% of which were drone strikes) in his first term of office. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—these attacks, our global war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other groups like the Taliban appears no closer to ending.
And that is, in part, because the dream of air power remains just that: a fantasy, a capricious and destructive will-o’-the-wisp. It’s a fantasy because it denies agency to enemies (and others) who invariably find ways to react, adapt, and strike back. It’s a fantasy because, however much such attacks seem both alluringly low-risk and high-reward to the US military, they become a rallying cause for those on the other end of the bombs and missiles.
A much-quoted line from the movie Apocalypse Now captured the insanity of the American air war in Vietnam. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” says an Air Cav commander played by Robert Duvall. “Smelled like… victory.” Updated for drone warfare, this line might read: “I love the sound of drones in the morning. Sounds like… victory.” But will we say the same when armed drones are hovering, not only above our enemies’ heads but above ours, too, in fortress America, enforcing security and conformity while smiting citizens judged to be rebellious?
Something tells me this is not the dream that airpower enthusiasts had in mind.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com.
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