Home / Robert Farley / You Can’t Destroy a State from the Air

You Can’t Destroy a State from the Air


Matt Duss takes on James Fly in this week’s installment of Foreign Entanglements:

Yeah, good luck with that. Telling that Fly can’t offer any examples of successful regime change through the air, or really very much in terms of what a target set would look like. Excerpt time, wielding James Scott in the service of whacking strategic bombing!

Theories of strategic bombing, conditioned by the belief that the fog of war can be pierced, represent the essence of high modernist thinking. They posit an essentially intelligible target population or organization, and propose a relatively programmatic series of steps for influencing and reorganizing that population. The most sophisticated theories of strategic bombing delineate the social, economic, and organizational impact of the destruction of particular targets. Destroy this police station and criminality will ensue. Destroy worker’s homes and industrial production will slow. Destroy this factory and the German economy will collapse for lack of ball bearings. Destroy this communication facility and Saddam Hussein will lose control over his military and security services. Sufficiently damage North Vietnamese industry, and Hanoi will conclude that further war is too expensive. All of these theories presuppose a social system that is both highly legible and highly susceptible to outside influence.

However, the state can only see certain things. Many social structures and human relationships are essentially invisible to the state, beyond the ability of bureaucracies to catalogue and organize. In active and passive ways, these structures resist high modernist efforts in such areas as urban planning, agricultural reform, and social revolution. Experience in the twentieth century, not just in the case of strategic bombing but across the universe of state activity, has demonstrated that states tend to have a vastly over-optimistic sense of both the legibility and malleability of social institutions. In this context, it is hardly surprising that strategic bombing campaigns have failed in particularly destructive ways. Even strategic bombing campaigns that do not depend on deep insight into a target population do demand a very sophisticated understanding of how the enemy thinks about costs and benefits. Strategic bombing campaigns fail because they cannot meet the huge informational demands for success. The campaigns run up against concrete limitations on the reach of the state, and the ability of nations to force the world into their preferred shape.

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  • Njorl

    Strategic bombing campaigns fail because they cannot meet the huge informational demands for success.

    Obviously we need to get out target nations heavily into Facebook before bombing them.

    • Njorl

      “our” , not “out”

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Sounds monetizable! No doubt FB will soon be adding strategic bombing as one of their permitted uses of your data.

        • Njorl

          Just think of the devious things you could do with the right data. You could determine how many plumbers you had to assassinate before chronic toilet clogs drove the people into rebellion.

          I joke, but there probably would be some useful aggregate data on facebook for shaping foreign policy, if a country were saturated with it. It would be more along the lines of “I like blue jeans” than “I hope someone strategically bombs my government”, though.

  • Good for Duss! I like the way he responds to “Well, then, what would you propose?” by not taking the bait, and steering the conversation back to Fly’s claim.

    The link between urban renewal-era urban planning and regime change bombing is a good one, and it illuminates one of the central problems of “high modernist” thinking: evaluating a program only by comparing the current situation with the desired end state (Office towers are better than slums. Democracy is better than dictatorship.) without taking into account the process of going from A to B, and the costs it would impose (displacing thousands of families and breaking up social networks, collateral damage and resentment of the foreign “liberator”) as outcomes that, themselves, need to be taken into account.

  • UberMitch

    Destroy this police station and criminality will ensue. Destroy worker’s homes and industrial production will slow.

    Just sayin’, this would work in SimCity.

  • rea

    William Pitt (1777) explains the fallacy of strategic bombing:

    You may ravage—you cannot conquer; it is impossible: you cannot conquer the Americans. You talk, my Lords, of your friends among them to annihilate the Congress, and of your powerful forces to disperse their army: I might as well talk of driving them before me with this crutch! …If you conquer them, what then? You cannot make them respect you; you cannot make them wear your cloth: you will plant an invincible hatred in their breasts against you.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Two words for you: straw man. How ’bout we stop whacking strategic bombing and consider how to make intelligent use of our military resources within the context of whatever engagement we are contemplating? Maybe recall that bombing did indisputably (although little remembered) persuade Saddam to comply with the UN resolutions and offer to withdraw from Kuwait, an offer not accepted, after which bombing did pretty much paralyze his army and facilitate an easy, low-cost Coalition victory. Bombing did pretty much force North Vietnam to accept a cease-fire and the continued existence of South Vietnam, at least until Nixon self-destructed over Watergate and a resumption of bombing, once pledged, was no longer in the cards. (As historian Ronald Spector noted, NVN “had to get America out of the war at any cost.”) If you take bombing off the table, whatever you want to do in the military sphere becomes a lot harder, if not impossible. So enjoy your bashing, but when push comes to shove….

    • Ben

      If Seeing Like a State doesn’t convince you, check out Bombing to Win. It addresses what you bring up point by point.

      • Robert Farley

        Indeed; there’s so much wrong with this comment, let me list:

        1. The offer wasn’t accepted because no one believed it was genuine, with good reason…

        2. Linebacker II had virtually no impact on Hanoi’s negotiating position (although it certainly changed Saigon’s); there is extensive literature on this point.

        3. Saddam’s army was not paralyzed in Gulf War I, and the major effects on the Iraqi Army were because of the attrition campaign, not the strategic campaign; there is extensive literature on this point.

        But thanks; comments like this remind me why it’s necessary to keep hammering airpower advocates.

    • cpinva


      Bombing did pretty much force North Vietnam to accept a cease-fire and the continued existence of South Vietnam, at least until Nixon self-destructed over Watergate and a resumption of bombing, once pledged, was no longer in the cards. (As historian Ronald Spector noted, NVN “had to get America out of the war at any cost.”)”

      gen. curtis lemay proposed “bombing north vietnam back into the stone age.” since n. vietnam was only just barely out of the stone age, massive bombing had little effect.

      NV had practically no industrial base; all its war making capability was imported from russia & red china. it had little modern infrastructure; the ho chi minh trail was exactly that, a trail cut through the jungle. intensive bombing caused delays in the supply chain, it never stopped it. the advantage of primitive primary assets is the ease with which they can be rebuilt, and put back into service.

      the US required massive, expensive transportation facilities to bring in troops, and keep them supplied, and sufficient time to do so. the NV knew this. once the americans had left, they couldn’t easily turn around and return, in sufficient numbers to prevent the fall of SV. it therefore made sense to hit the peace table. with the bombing stopped, NV forces could simply be built up along the borders, in suffient numbers to defeat the mediocre SV army, and overthrow the SV gov’t, long before america could realistically get back in the war.

      that’s why the NV came to the peace table; the bombing was an annoyance, doing little actual damage to NV, since there was little of real value to bomb. absent a policy of carpet bombing hanoi, NV could have gone on for a long, long time, in a war of attrition with the US. see: USSR:Afghanistan

  • jon

    Fair point in general. However, I recall Serbia folding like a wet paper bag under NATO bombardment. Exception that proves the rule?

    And it’s probably also fair to say that Japan’s suit for unconditional (rather than the prior, conditional offers) surrender that followed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was precipitated by those bombs.

    It has been amply shown that WWII bombardment of England only stiffened resolve, and the phenomenal bombing devastation of Germany was insufficient to bring surrender, much less reduce armament production.

    It’s insufficiently shown that there is any level of bombardment that can cause capitulation, on its own.

    • blowback

      Strictly, it wasn’t unconditional surrender, they got to keep the emperor, which was the Japanese government’s concern all along. The Japanese military were prepared to continue the fight after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and attempted to stage a coup in support of the emperor, the only problem was that the emperor was prepared to accept US conditions. However, probably just as influential was the entry of the Soviet Union into the war on Japan. After the Battle of Khalkhin Gol where they lost an army, the Japanese had a healthy fear of Soviet military capability. They (and the Americans) knew that once the Soviet Union took land from the Japanese in war, they were unlikely to return it, after all they would only be doing to the Japanese what the Japanese had done to the Russians. If the war had continued into 1946, Hokkaido would have become part of the Warsaw Pact at the least and the Korean War would never have happened.

      After Operation Gomorrah, the fire bombing of Hamburg, I think it was Goebbels who stated that five more events like that and Germany would have sued for peace. There was a difference in scale between the Blitz and the strategic bombing of Germany. During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe dropped 51,000 tons of bombs distributed across the UK over 9 months, while in Operation Gomorrah alone, the RAF and USAAF dropped 9,000 tons of bombs on Hamburg alone in just eight days.

    • MikeJake

      I’m reading Max Hastings’ book about the last year of WW2 in Europe, and he makes the point that the strategic air command leaders for the western Allies were rather haphazard in the missions they pursued. Charles Portal was one of those who believed that firebombing German cities could win the war, which obviously didn’t pan out, but he was driven by a desire to carve out a fully independent role for the RAF. But with Allied air superiority and not much useful for them to do in 1945, they became a fleet of hammers searching for nails.

      The greatest success occurred when they began targeting Germany’s synthetic oil plants. They had to be regularly raided (every 2 to 3 weeks or so), but it lead to crippling fuel shortages for Germany in the last year of the war, which largely negated their ability to maintain production of tanks and airplanes (they could continue to produce them, but they had no fuel for them).

      Given the incentives that Hitler had to continue the war to the bitter end, the firebombing of German cities in the last months of the war comes off as rather cruel and pointless.

    • Robert Farley

      Huh. I recall a three month bombing campaign against a country without a terribly sophisticated air defense system launched by the most powerful military alliance in history, and I recall the target didn’t crumple until Russia abandoned it and it began to worry about a ground invasion. But maybe we’re remembering different Kosovo Wars.

      And I also recall that the Kosovo War did not, under any circumstances, destroy the Serbian state; the Serbian state continued to operate quite well, so much so that it could undertake military operations, police its populace, conduct diplomatic relations, and finally decide to cede a province. If you want to compare that to what Fly is suggesting with regards to Iran, I welcome your effort.

      • Lurker

        And the terms of the treaty ending the Kosovo War were actually not that bad: they were essentially the same terms that the Serbs had been offered before the war, but they did not include the right of the NATO troops to move through Serbia. The result of the war was negotiated peace, not an unconditional surrender.

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