Still Pursuing the Dream of Bombing

B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)
B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)

W.J. Astore

There you go again, President Obama, echoing a line delivered by that consummate actor, Ronald Reagan.  Yes, we’re bombing Iraq again, in the name of humanitarianism.  This time, we’re only getting the “bad” Iraqis, so it’s OK.  Right?

The only “humanitarian” bombing I’ve ever heard of is in fiction; specifically, in Slaughter-House Five, where Kurt Vonnegut imagined a bombing raid in reverse, with bombs returning to their planes and bodies blown into pieces magically reassembling into living, breathing, human beings.

The U.S. still believes in the dream of airpower: that it’s cheap, surgical, decisive.  But history has taught us otherwise, a fact I wrote about at in March of 2013.  But who cares about history — it’s bunk, right?

So we persist in our “bombs away” mentality, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Libya or Yemen or … well, you get the picture.

Here is the article I wrote about airpower and its lessons.  Consider it as you listen to media reports of how precise and decisive and “modulated” and “measured” our most current raids have been.

The lesson, I think, is simple: So many bombs; so little brains.

The Ever-Destructive Dreams of Air Power Enthusiasts

By William J. Astore

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.)  At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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

9 thoughts on “Still Pursuing the Dream of Bombing

  1. One must take with great grains (okay, spoonfuls) of salt any claims about what’s now going on in northern Iraq. But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that ISIS/ISIL is, oh, 48% as dastardly as they’re being depicted. (I have observed here in the past that the religious fanatic is THE most dangerous individual on Earth, and no form of government more repressive than a theocracy. Supposedly, ISIL wants to establish a theocratic regime, the “caliphate.”) If this is a genuine HUMANITARIAN CRISIS, then it should be the concern of the UN to address it, not the USA unilaterally. Does Obama really think he can “fix” the mess that the US left behind in Iraq through unleashing still more violence? Remember the video recently aired on TV news of a young chap claiming to be an American who had gone to fight for ISIL in Iraq? He promised those forces would be bringing the fight to US soil before long. Foolish youthful bravado? Cheap propaganda? Probably. Yet I have a queasy feeling that these chickens WILL come home to roost, though I usually pooh-pooh fearmongering by elected officials and other politicians. What an excellent policy, Mr. President: poke sticks into a nest of hornets that really, apparently, don’t fear to come and sting you. And the rest of us, trying to go about our daily lives.


  2. Any suggestion that this conflict is first and foremost for the countries in the region to resolve is immediately discarded as naive and unrealistic. But why? Because they don’t have the capability? Judging from their military expenditures over the years, they certainly should by now. Because they cannot be trusted? If so, we should recognize that some of our much vaunted partners in the region in reality are among our biggest enemies, and proceed from there.


    1. Even if Obama sincerely held the belief that “We broke it [Iraq], so have a moral obligation to fix it” he would discover that piecing Humpty Dumpty back together again is just not possible. (After all, the big piece called Saddam is not retrievable.) Imperial hubris won’t allow a US president to admit defeat, but I say the expenditure of one more soldier’s life or limb and one more of our tax dollars on this disaster is TOO MUCH.


  3. Bombing was dis-proven as a viable alternative to land-based alternatives during Britain’s infamous Air-Marshall Arthur Harris bombing of German civilians in WWII. The idea was to disunite the German public from their Armed Forces. The result was completely the opposite.

    I doubt this outcome will be contradicted in the present US campaign in Iraq except for the fact that ISIS is comprised of such blood-thirsty savages… Or has this just been the cover story?

    The most ridiculous political aspect of this entire situation is that ISIS is being funded by American allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. So who is it are we actually fighting against?


  4. I just saw this on the Inter Webs today regarding the next best greatest military boondoggle career ticket-punching crusade against the latest evil-doer in the Middle East:

    US President Barack Obama: “This is going to be a long term project”

    As I like to say: You can always tell when the U.S. military has lost another war the minute they start calling it “long.”

    This has gone so far beyond the simply ludicrous as to constitute criminal insanity.


  5. I wrote this 8/17/2014 after reading about the Presidents inability to act or his ability to over react. Our President is a smart and thoughtful man. I know that it’s hard to think of a politician as smart, because their agenda is self glory, I believe that the President is looking out for the people, whether they like it or not. He will be known for how successfully he fought the opposition party of “no”. So here is my opinion of the Syria/Iraq problem:

    One of the Best Strategies Ever 8/18/2014

    President Obama is taking a lot of heat from the right and the left over what’s going on in Iraq/Syria. He tells the American people and the world, many, many times that the United States, under no circumstances, will put American boots on the ground in Iraq. He said that the American people were tired of fighting and he would respect their wishes. No boots on the ground in Iraq! Could anything be plainer? To an enemy/terrorist?
    Now, the right wing particularly, were complaining that America hadn’t done enough in Syria to help the rebels. McCain(who I think is becoming senile), our most respected Viet Nam veteran was all for going in full blast . Even Mrs. Clinton thought that we should be helping the rebels. The President asked everyone, who are the rebels, where are they and how do we know which ones to arm? There was quite a bit of discussion about all the different factions fighting, some representing Iran, some Al Qaida, some Hezbollah and some actually fighting for their own freedom, but no facts. Typical Washington palaver. But fitting with the President’s plan.
    It was all a ploy by the President to assure the World, the American people and any terrorists that might be listening that the United States was not going to arm anyone in Syria. May the best man win.
    Then to make sure that everything would continue moving in the right direction, the President started talking about getting rid of al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq. He felt that al-Maliki was hindering the building of a cohesive Iraqi state. The Prime Minister had to go, but how? Here’s the plan. The stage is set. The ISIS group in Syria, made up of more than 50 % foreign fighters, is led to believe that the way is clear to go all the way to Baghdad with minimum resistance. Thus they come south from Syria, routing all force ahead of them. They are a bloody bunch, using death as their calling card. The Iraqi army are told by their generals to throw off their uniforms and run back to Baghdad. The ISIS are ex-static with their easy results and go pellmell for Baghdad, and off to the west and Mosel.
    Here’s the situation as it looks to the World and America. ISIS has declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army appears to be useless. There is no Iraqi Air Force. al-Maliki is refusing to step down as Prime Minister. And to give more credence to the hopelessness of the situation and give the ISIS more rope, the President, with much fanfare goes on vacation. Wow, what a setup.
    The bag is fully open and now the President knows who he has to fight. But in order to attempt to unify the Iraqi people, he still has to get rid of al-Maliki. So he lets the ISIS continue their advances on Baghdad. Maliki arms the green area (around the palace) with tanks and loyalists. The President continues to tell him the there will be no American boots on the ground(to save him). In the meantime, the US Naval Air Force starts bombing, with the sole purpose of protecting American diplomats stationed in Erbil. The ISIS are said to be 30KM away and advancing.
    Everything is set up. The ISIL (Their new name) are over extended every where. They are supposed to be excellently trained fighters, but it takes more than warriors to win a war. It takes brains and planning. Their plan was to scare everyone into submission and it seemed to be working, until out of nowhere came the US Naval Air Force, followed by Kurdish forces. The first few days they flew very few missions, allowing the Sunni (ISIL) fighters to feel safe back in Mosel and putting more pressure on al-Maliki to step down. Finally al-Maliki steps down and lo and behold the Iraqi Air Force makes an appearence along with Iraqi special forces and also the Ayatollah of the Iraqi Sunnis says that they will fight to rid the country of the ISIL.
    What a grand plan. al-Maliki is gone, the Kurds and Iraqis are facing the enemy together. They are advancing towards Mosel and have retaken the strategic dam on the Tigris and the US Navy along with Iraqis is flying lots of sorties destroying ISIS men and materials. The noose is tightening on the terrorists. They fell into the trap set by what they thought was a dumb American. Thank you Mr. President for a job well done.
    Bob Bregman
    B-29 Pilot Korean War


    1. Hi Bob: Thanks for your comment. Heck, your scenario could well be accurate — in the short term. One problem with bombing, however, is how unpredictable its long-term results are. Its impact is also quite limited politically, at least in the sense of compelling an enemy to do our will. Bombing offers a quick and easy fix, or so it seems. In Korea, bombing didn’t end the war; it simply drove the Chinese and North Koreans underground. Vietnam was worsened by bombing, especially of course for all those Vietnamese killed (and Laotians and Cambodians).

      The jury is still out on whether the latest round of “humanitarian” bombing will make any worthwhile contribution to regional stability. Based on past results, I tend to doubt it.


      1. Thanks for the feedback. In this particular case we are trying to make an impossible situation a bit better by beating back the terrorists, who we now know, before we didn’t. The Kurds and the Iraqis are fighting as one, because American Air power gave them some backbone. Plus they didn’t feel as if they were alone in the world. As you say the jury is still out on whether the groups will keep fighting as one. With a new prime minister, they have a chance. We did our share to help. At least the President realizes troops won’t help. In my eyes he’s way ahead of our last few presidents. Thanks again
        P.S. The women and children have been saved by our air drops of food instead of bombs.


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