Gods in Flight

Gods in Flight

Mini Teaser: Think airpower is the military strategy cure-all? Martin van Creveld begs to differ. His latest offering argues that aerial armaments have failed to confer a decisive advantage, tricking aggressors into believing that victory will be easy.

by Author(s): Richard Overy

That still leaves nuclear weapons, the true successors to airpower. They are capable, in the wrong hands, of obliterating an entire city or, in the right numbers, the globe. They are also the epitome of how and why airpower has been a disappointment—they are both too destructive to use and irrelevant to winning battles, that is, unless you were willing to incinerate continents of people. The logical end point of airpower development ever since the Italians used small grenades in the Libyan Desert has been the search for the perfect delivery system and the perfect armament. During World War II, the Royal Air Force thought it had found the solution with the Lancaster bomber, which could carry thousands of incendiaries and proved itself capable of doing to Hamburg something not very different from an atomic bomb. But the firestorm could not easily be reproduced, since it depended on certain meteorological conditions and a highly inflammable target, while its strategic effects were negligible, since Hamburg was producing 80 percent of its pre-raid output within three months. The answer to these shortfalls was the Manhattan Project, and by 1945 only the United States was rich enough and free enough of war damage to see it through. Even today there are thousands of nuclear warheads and hundreds of missiles waiting to deliver an awful apotheosis from the Pandora’s box opened a century ago. That still begs the question of whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were actually necessary, or made the difference in 1945; much more emphasis is put by today’s historians on the conventional firebombing and the Soviet destruction of the Japanese Kwantung army in Manchuria in ten days. Van Creveld hedges his bets on this one, though it is surely a classic case of airpower overkill—huge expense to deliver a weapon whose effects could be reproduced as easily by conventional incendiaries on inflammable Japanese cities, if it could be justified.

By the early 1960s, a U.S. nuclear strike could have killed an estimated 80 million Soviet citizens; by the late 1960s, perhaps 300 million. These were figures too grotesque even for the modern discourse of “total war.” Airpower had reached a paradox. Either airmen gave up and relied on nuclear weapons, or they carried on developing sophisticated weaponry knowing that nuclear warheads could not be used. The result has been massive military spending by the richest states on technologies that can never be fully exploited. The effort bankrupted the Soviet system both literally and metaphorically; it threatens to bankrupt America, which spends as much on defense as the rest of the world put together.

THERE WILL be complaints van Creveld is too critical of the airpower age, and that there is a remorselessness to his pursuit of the ill-judged strategy or misplaced technological confidence which he sees as characteristic of so much of this narrative. But there are two questions that he does not really answer: Why were aircraft such sources of fascination to the generations that lived through the world wars and the early Cold War? And why did the great powers engage in bombing campaigns that resulted, often deliberately, in the death of over one million civilians, most of them killed by America and Britain, two states dedicated in the 1930s to searching for peace and outlawing city bombing?

Part of the answer lies in the crude democratization of war making after 1914. The world wars involved huge numbers of civilians in home-front activities. There was soon a sense that modern war, in some awful Darwinist sense, was always going to be about survival in a contemporary jungle of competing nation-states or social systems. Aircraft were an obvious product of that age, requiring a vast tail of ground crews, factory hands, designers and technicians before they even reached the battlefield. There was also something supremely, if ironically, democratic about bombing, which was regarded as a uniter of all social classes and both sexes. George Orwell’s claim in 1944 that there was no reason why young men in uniform should be the only ones made to suffer expressed the logic of democratic war. Though the modern age thinks that bombing cities in World War II was ethically unacceptable, the surprising thing is that German and British citizens expected it to happen and did not see it as a war crime. Bombing was the open manifestation of a new age of conflict, something to be coped with but not something to be outlawed. The one curious exception was the mutual restraint shown in not using biological and chemical weapons, the most egalitarian armaments of all.

This raises an important point. All sides saw biological and chemical weapons as unethical and waited to use them only if the other side started it. Moreover, no Allied commander would have sent his troops into Hamburg with orders to machine-gun thirty-seven thousand of its inhabitants. It would unquestionably have been a war crime. But Allied aircraft killed just that number in July 1943, and there has never been even the merest suggestion that those who ordered the raid ought to have stood trial after 1945 (though there is now a widely held view that this was a war crime). Indeed, bombing killed hundreds of thousands in horrible ways. What made this kind of airpower different? It can partly be explained by the fiction that only military targets were being hit, a policy which the Royal Air Force in practice abandoned in 1941. Or it can be explained as an unfortunate escalation provoked by the desperate struggle for victory and the relative morality that all such discourses generate—the war on terror as much as the war against Hitler.

In the end it happened because no one stopped it from happening. Enthusiasm for airpower as a new way of waging war, perhaps the real war winner, infected Allied and German politicians as it infected popular enthusiasm. It is striking that in the UK the key moments immortalized in modern memory are the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and the Dambuster Raid. The Lancaster bomber and the Spitfire fighter plane are universal symbols, embedded in popular culture. Where are the submarines, tanks, artillery pieces or handguns to rival this imagery? There have been films made of B-17s and modern fighters, of the Red Baron and the designer of the Spitfire. But who would make a film about the man or men or women who pioneered centimetric radar or designed the T-34 tank or built the first drone? In a way, we have only ourselves to blame for the airpower age, for its sense of urgent modernity, for its sheer excitement, for its daring defiance of the rules of engagement first laid down in the late nineteenth century. A Geneva convention on bombing was possible in the 1930s, it just was not wanted enough.

Perhaps the message at the heart of van Creveld’s book is simply that it is time for the modern world to grow up and accept the mistakes that the airpower age has made. Aviation has to be put into perspective and the claims of its enthusiasts set aside. Airpower has inherent limitations and they are growing more evident year by year. The cost of civilian damage, in violation of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention that protects victims of armed conflicts (finally signed by some countries only in 1977, though not ratified by all), is no longer justifiable in the name of exporting “democracy.” The strategy of “shock and awe,” exploited against Baghdad in 2003, is not only ethically unacceptable but evidently achieved almost nothing. Coalition troops are still in Iraq eight years later; insurgents were neither shocked nor awed and have taken a huge toll on the occupying ground forces. In Afghanistan, it is the NATO soldiers that see a mounting number of losses; and the high casualties from aircraft strikes have promoted insurgency rather than limiting it. With Libya now, the same mistakes are being made: Qaddafi’s fall from power will not be enough to claim that airpower did the trick. It is surely time to close Pandora’s box.

Pullquote: We have only ourselves to blame for the airpower age, for its sense of urgent modernity, for its sheer excitement, for its daring defiance of the rules of engagement.Image: Essay Types: Book Review