Strategic Bombing: The Same Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow?
Review by Thomas E. Griffith, Jr
Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 By Tami Davis Biddle. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. vii, 406. $45 cloth.)
“Today’s aircraft and weapons differ dramatically from those used over the western front in World War I, but—as Tami Davis Biddle points out—ideas about strategic bombing from that era have remained remarkably resilient.”
Anyone interested in understanding the United States Air Force’s bombing operations in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan over the past decade should begin by reading this book. Today’s aircraft and weapons differ dramatically from those used over the western front in World War I, but—as Tami Davis Biddle points out–ideas about strategic bombing from that era have remained remarkably resilient. Biddle, currently a professor at the Army War College and formerly a faculty member at Duke University, traces strategic bombing from fictional concepts to the massive bombing raids on Berlin and Tokyo in 1945. Drawing on a variety of sources and disciplines, she compares and contrasts the American and British experience to show how the ideas evolved in peacetime and then mutated under the pressure of war. This comparative approach allows her to explain strategic bombing, while also examining how military organizations prepare for war, adapt during combat, and ultimately affect political outcomes.
Biddle argues that the conduct of warfare begins with an idea, and the idea behind strategic bombing came before mankind took to the sky. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were just two of the authors who forecast massive physical destruction, devastating economic disruption, and widespread social collapse through bombing. Later expectations about the efficacy of strategic bombing drew upon these fictional beliefs; a point often missed by other authors. Biddle carefully dissects the ideas by placing them within the social, intellectual, political, and technological context of the time. She points out, for example, that beliefs concerning social fragility and weak civilian morale developed out of accepted wisdom relating to the impact of slum living on the underclass, as well as labor unrest in Great Britain.
The first test of strategic bombing came during the First World War. Although the physical destruction from air attacks was small, the impact of these operations on the future was tremendous. Using primary and secondary accounts, Biddle explains how the first strategic bombing campaign was conducted—and perhaps more importantly—interpreted after the war. The bombing surveys commissioned by both Great Britain and the United States documented the nominal material damage, but stressed the “indirect” effects on bombing in terms of lowering the morale of the civilian population and diverting badly needed forces from the combat areas to protect the home front. Rather than being unbiased surveys, the reports served to reinforce existing attitudes about the ability to win wars by attacking the morale of the enemy nation.
These views continued after the war as American and British airmen advocated strategic bombing as a way to avoid the slaughter of trench warfare, while also gaining an independent, war-winning mission. British airmen focused more on affecting the morale of the enemy directly, but remained vague as to how this would happen, what type of equipment was needed to carry out the attacks, or why it would cause an enemy to capitulate. American airmen, on the other hand, analyzed how to influence the enemy will indirectly by destroying the war industries of the nation. Due to America’s isolationist foreign policy, they used a limited study of the American economy as their point of departure and developed the “industrial web” theory. Additionally, the airmen also pushed for technology that would allow for daylight precision bombardment of key economic nodes to carry out their theory.
While predominantly focused on strategic bombardment, small budgets and a lack of rigorous analysis handicapped both air forces from developing the equipment, tactics, and training they needed for combat, thereby creating a dangerous mismatch between rhetoric and reality. This gap was brought home in dramatic fashion before and during the Second World War. Biddle recounts the bombing effort by paying particular attention to where the theories fell short and how the airmen struggled to develop the means necessary to carry out an effective strategic bombing campaign.
For the Royal Air Force, bridging the divide meant a switch to night bombardment and direct attacks on cities and Germany’s civilian population. American airmen struggled to develop a long-range escort fighter that would lower their losses to the German air force and allow them to continue with daylight bombing missions. At the same time, the slide was almost inescapably toward less precise bombing methods as they attempted to make their ideas work in spite of German defenses, the European weather, and unskilled, but brave, air crews. In contrast to the struggle to continue precision bombing in Europe, the American campaign against the Japanese home islands featured massive devastation from area fire raids, culminating in the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A less precision weapon is difficult to imagine.
Unlike most studies in this field, Biddle’s work analyzes a great deal of the historical literature while at the same time using primary sources to tease out the nuances between the American and British approach. In addition to her thorough coverage of the topic, Biddle’s contribution is noteworthy for its respect for the context of the times. Eschewing presentism, she refrains from judging her subjects based on today’s morality or what they knew after the fact. While not hesitant to to document errors, mistakes, omissions, and failings, she restricts her criticism to what was knowable at the time, rather than base her assessment on perfect hindsight.
Rhetoric and Reality delivers an updated and timely synthesis on the employment of strategic bombing. Its obvious appeal will be to those interested students of air power during the Second World War. For them, it is required reading. But Biddle’s work should be read by anyone interested in understanding the shaping of the ideas behind the use of military force and how those ideas ultimately affect political decisions.
Colonel Thomas E. Griffith, Jr. is the Commandant of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He has also served as commander of the 39th Support Group, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey and as flight evaluator and flight commander at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC.
In 1990, Colonel Griffith was deployed for Operation DESERT SHIELD and flew in the initial air strikes of Operation DESERT STORM before his F-15E was shot down over Iraq. He was held as a POW until repatriation and recovery, after which he earned his Ph.D. in history at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has also served in staff positions with the Air Force’s Chief of Staff’s Operations Group and as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has authored numerous articles in military history and is the author of MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific.