Air Power’s Century of False Promises

A hundred years ago today, an Italian airman named Giulio Gavotti dropped three hand grenades out of his monoplane onto a camp of Arab and Turkish troops at Ain Zara, just east of Tripoli, during the Italian-Turkish War. It was the world’s first aerial bombardment. Each grenade weighed three pounds, and it is likely that no one was hurt. “I came back really pleased with the result,” Lieutenant Gavotti wrote to his father. Italian newspapers raved about the sortie: “Terrorized Turks Scatter.”

From this modest beginning, the air raid as a style of war grew both in scale and imagination. Popular novelists like H. G. Wells had been fantasizing about war by airship and flying machine since the late 19th century. When the First World War began, these science fiction scenes recurred in the policy assessments of military planners, who assumed that victory and defeat in a bombing war would be absolute and immediate.

In 1914, Rear Adm. Paul Behncke, deputy chief of the German naval staff, noted that a raid upon the government buildings in the Whitehall section of London would “cause panic in the population which may possibly render it doubtful that the war can be continued.” In January 1915, the raids began; by the end of the war, German zeppelins had dropped 6,000 bombs on Britain — and killed 556 people. In 1917 Gen. Jan Smuts predicted, “The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centers on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war.”

Bombing always promised to transform war. “No longer will the tedious and expensive process of wearing down the enemy’s land forces by continuous attacks be resorted to,” argued Billy Mitchell, the father of the United States Air Force, in the 1920s. He went on to insist that bombing must surely cause “the amelioration and bettering of conditions in war because it will bring quick and lasting results.”

This was an attractive alternative to the messy land-based wars of the past, and air power’s most enthusiastic proponents were haunted by the memory of the trenches of the First World War, most powerfully described by the poet Wilfred Owen, who famously wrote, “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” Owen had wanted to be an airman, but like so many others, he was killed as a soldier on French soil. More than 57,000 British soldiers fell on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone.

Nothing could be as horrific as that, and if you have to fight a war somewhere, you might prefer the sky to the mud. On May 30, 1942, the Royal Air Force launched its first 1,000-bomber raid on a German city, Cologne. Two weeks later, the commander in chief of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, wrote to Winston Churchill requesting a still greater bomber force. This was the only way, he insisted, to keep British troops from massacre “in the mud of Flanders and France.” At the Casablanca conference in January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed upon a joint bombing offensive. Between July 1944 and April 1945, this combined Anglo-American campaign dropped over a million tons of bombs upon Europe.

The wars go on, as does the bombing. Between 1950 and 1953 the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea, in addition to 32,557 tons of napalm. According to the historian Bruce Cumings: “Korea recapitulated the air force’s mantra from World War II, that firebombing would erode enemy morale and end the war sooner.” This wishful thinking continued to determine strategy. On Feb. 13, 1965, President Johnson ordered the start of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Gen. Maxwell Taylor imagined “a slow but inexorable barrage of air attacks advancing to the north, capable of convincing the Hanoi government that everything in the Hanoi area was going to be destroyed unless the leaders mended their ways.”

Perhaps the bombs sped the ends of these wars, though we can’t know for sure. But no one would claim that bombing campaigns made Vietnam a clean conflict, that they made Korea efficient. Any history of bombing must also be a history of civilian casualty, for bombing saves the lives of soldiers only at the expense of other lives. The statistics of civilian deaths by bombing are always unreliable, but perhaps 500,000 German civilians were killed by Allied air raids during the Second World War. Operation Rolling Thunder is estimated to have killed 182,000 North Vietnamese civilians.

Nonetheless, we continue to shape our wars around a utopian idea about bombing. In March of this year, French planes bombed Libyan tanks outside Benghazi, and began a NATO campaign which lasted until the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Oct. 20. That single event is telling: an American Predator drone and a French warplane were in the skies overhead, but it was Libyan foot soldiers on the ground who captured their former leader.

Aerial bombardment is a form of warfare that was designed as an escape from the past. And yet each new conflict is only another episode in bombing’s long history of promises about “cost-free” victory and clean war. For each example of a conflict apparently made easier by air power, there is a counter-example of a war which air power has only served to complicate and intensify. While the conflict in Libya would almost certainly have been far bloodier in the absence of NATO air power, bombing raids by Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a focus for anti-American sentiment. Bombing is an unpredictable weapon, and perhaps its greatest danger is that, in suggesting an easy conflict, it draws us into wars we might otherwise have avoided. In that way, it is both the symbol of our faith in technology, and the sign of our entrapment in the past.

This summer, a NATO plane bombed Ain Zara — now a suburb of Tripoli. A century later, we’re back where we began.

By Daniel Swift, the author of the memoir Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War

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