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Category: Robert Farley

Sunday Book Review: Beneficial Bombing

[ 20 ] September 29, 2013 |

Mark Clodfelter’s Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 attempts to situate the development of airpower theory within an early twentieth century Anglo-American political context. Specifically, Clodfelter argues that the development of strategic bombing theory (including its “industrial web” variant) in the United States should be understood as part of the big P Progressivism, and that airpower enthusiasts envisioned what was effectively a Progressive vision of the future of war. Clodfelter makes a good, compelling case, although I think that the relationship between strategic bombing theory and Progressivism is a case study in the larger story of twentieth century high modernism.

Put briefly, strategic bombing enthusiasts argued that air forces could win wars through direct bombing of enemy cities, without the need to resort to the destruction of enemy armies. They (as Clodfelter discusses at length) viewed the destruction of enemy cities in essentially humanitarian terms; anything had to be better than the slaughter and chaos of the Western Front. Strategic bombing theory has an international character, and most major European powers dabbled in such theory during the interwar period, but strategic bombing as a vision of warfare only really took organizational hold in the United States and the United Kingdom.  In the continental powers, the needs of conventional armies demanded yoking, to greater or lesser extent, airpower to ground power. Not incidentally, the United States and the United Kingdom were liberal democracies with varying degrees of commitment to a liberal internationalist vision; in both (but especially the United States), there was an elite commitment to a vision of foreign policy that was simultaneously hegemonic and beneficent.

As Clodfelter discusses,the Progressive political vision animating airpower advocacy in the United States pushed strategic bombing theory in a different direction than that of the RAF.  U.S. aviators were less concerned with the demands of “savage warfare,” as the United States had fewer colonial possessions to maintain.  Also, U.S. aviators were more resistant in principle to the notion of area bombing, preferring instead logics of industrial and social disruption.  The institutional commitment of the RAF to area bombing can be overstated, of course, but the rhetorical distinction between night area bombing and daylight precision bombing was taken seriously by both the British and the Americans.

Clodfelter covers familiar territory with regard to the origins of the USAF, and especially of the connection between strategic bombing, independence, and intelligence.  He gives a good account of the progress of the Combined Bomber Offensive, especially in context of how aviators viewed their relationship with the other services, and how they understood how victory would be won. The chapters on Japan aren’t as strong, perhaps because the “beneficial” frame becomes less useful; the firebombing campaign against Japan is less about a Progressive vision of state action than old fashioned racism, punishment, and vengeance.

Obviously, I think that Clodfelter could have used some more James Scott. I think the phenomenon he describes is better understood as a facet of high modernism than as a peculiarly American phenomenon. I don’t think it’s difficult to read Progressive politics as the American manifestation of High modernism. Quick review of Scott’s essentials of high modernism:

  • A strong confidence in the potential for scientific and technological progress, including a reliance on the expertise of scientists, engineers, bureaucrats and other intellectuals.
  • Attempts to master nature to meet human needs.
  • An emphasis on rendering complex environments or concepts  legible, most often through spatial ordering (for example, city planning on a grid).
  • Disregard for historical, geographical and social context in development.

Echoing Clodfelter, I argue in the book that theories of strategic bombing 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 workers’ 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 see only 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. In this context, it is hardly surprising that strategic bombing campaigns fail 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.

I’d add that this animating spirit of the strategic air campaign really hasn’t changed. Warden’s “Five Rings” theory fits very comfortably in the high modernist framework, as do careful, patient explanations of how PGMs and modern intelligence collection capabilities will finally allow airpower to sever the sinews of state control. Clodfelter touches on this with an epilogue on the Kosovo War, and of course has written in detail about the failures of the various air campaigns over Vietnam.

With respect to the post-war pedigree of “beneficial bombing” Perry Smith’s The Air Force Plan’s for Peace gives, I think, a better account than Clodfelter of how many aviators viewed the role of the USAF in a liberal internationalist system, including some (in retrospect) goofy ideas about how fleets of American crewed, American built B-29s would act as the UN air force, enforcing world peace.  Clodfelter doesn’t really follow up on this, preferring to concentrate on the domestic military and political legacy of the Progressive vision of airpower.

Beneficial Bombing is a solid account of the intellectual milieu in which the United States Air Force developed.  I would have preferred if Clodfelter had gone even more in the intellectual history direction, using the operational details only as illustration, but I can understand his choices.  It’s a useful contribution to the airpower literature.

Bye, Lane. It’s Been.

[ 49 ] September 29, 2013 |

Well, that was efficient.

Lane Kiffin has been relieved of his duties as USC’s head football coach, Trojan athletic director Pat Haden announced early today (Sept. 29).

Haden informed Kiffin of his termination upon the team charter’s arrival back in Los Angeles early Sunday morning following USC’s 62-41 loss at Arizona State.

Kiffin’s Trojans have lost 7 of their past 11 games. USC is 3-2 this year and has lost both of its Pac-12 games. His overall record in 4 years at USC is 28-15.

Haden will hold a press conference at USC on Sunday afternoon at a time and place to be announced.

The arbitrary and overly harsh sanctions levied by the NCAA against USC obviously hurt the program, but Kiffin has made a series of bad decisions and has done little with the (still immense) talent available to him. However much I may delight in the Trojans’ failures, the Pac-12 needs a strong USC to be taken seriously as a top conference. Maybe Kiffin can get a job at Kansas…

Saturday Morning Linkage

[ 24 ] September 28, 2013 |

To assist in hangover management:

Foreign Entanglements: Westgate

[ 1 ] September 26, 2013 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, Laura Seay and I talk about the Westgate attack:

Nork Nukes

[ 14 ] September 26, 2013 |

My latest at The Diplomat:

The Goldboro incident is one of afamily of near-nuclear accidents, situations in which a nuclear weapon came far too close to unintentional release. The Cold War experience of the United States and the Soviet Union with nuclear safety suggests a uncomfortable truth: There is a far greater likelihood that North Korea will accidentally drop a nuclear weapon on itself than on South Korea, Japan, or the United States. Managing this problem requires input from all the stakeholders, including China, and may eventually demand a rethinking of the Western position on North Korea’s nuclear program.

On the A-10…

[ 67 ] September 24, 2013 |

This story has received a fair amount of play:

“Can we save the A-10?” was the question from the audience Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference here.

Clarke, director of the Air National Guard, came at the question in roundabout fashion. He loved flying the A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the “Warthog,” Clarke said. He noted that the plane was “near and dear to land warriors” for its GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm rotary cannon that is the heaviest such weapon mounted on an aircraft.

But the Air Force was “looking at reducing single mission aircraft,” Clarke said, and under the sequestration process “we’re not getting any more money – that option is out.”

The first problem is that Air Force leadership doesn’t have a lot of credibility with respect to the A-10; the USAF’s desire to kill the Warthog has occasionally been overstated, but it’s fair to say that the relationship has been troubled. For a more comprehensive history of the A-10 and its relationship with the Air Force, see Douglass Campbell’s The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate. Put briefly, the A-10 performs a mission that, for cultural and bureaucratic reasons, the Air Force is not particularly interested in. For reasons sensible and not so sensible, the Air Force prefers aircraft that can perform the close air support (CAS) mission and also other missions, even if that means that means short-changing CAS. The USAF is willing to short-change CAS because a) it tends to believe that CAS missions put Air Force assets at the mercy of Army whims, and b) it tends to believe that CAS is a waste of effort compared to other missions that airpower can accomplish.

That said, I think that A-10 advocates have a tendency to overstate their case. It’s a wonderful plane, but the mission it was designed to perform (killing Soviet tanks) no longer exists, and in current technological and geopolitical conditions is unlikely to come back during the projected lifespan of the aircraft. The A-10 currently performs CAS in permissive environments (blowing up people who can’t hope to shoot it down), and it’s good at that mission, but it’s not difficult to imagine aircraft that are cheaper and that can perform that mission more effectively. However, because of the aforementioned reasons, no one believes that the USAF will develop of acquire such aircraft. Consequently, it’s the A-10 or nothing, and people seem to love the A-10.

But Cornell Was Okay?

[ 206 ] September 23, 2013 |

This is just fabulous:

The elite academic circles that [Ted] Cruz was now traveling in began to rub off. As a law student at Harvard, he refused to study with anyone who hadn’t been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Says Damon Watson, one of Cruz’s law-school roommates: “He said he didn’t want anybody from ‘minor Ivies’ like Penn or Brown.”

It’s understandable; in grad school, I refused to study with anyone who had an undergrad degree from the minor Pac-12 schools, like Arizona State or Oregon.

Sunday Book Review: 21st Century Mahan

[ 9 ] September 22, 2013 |

21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era is a collection of five essays by Alfred Thayer Mahan, chosen and introduced by LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN. The book is intended to highlight lesser-known aspects of Mahan’s thought on military affairs, and breadth and some depth to Mahan’s popular (?) profile. While The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 made Mahan famous, he continued to write prodigiously almost until his death, contributing to a variety of policy and popular venues. Included are essays on fleet positioning, education at the Naval Academy, Nelson, naval administration, and Royal Navy Admiral Edward Pellew.

The essays themselves are… uneven in readability.  I struggled through the essay on fleet positioning, although it did hold some enduring insights into the relationship between force effectiveness and distant basing. The essay on naval administration was interesting insofar as it discussed the comparative advantages of different administrative strategies, although the relevance of the argument to modern administrative problems is uncertain.

Part of the difficulty in working through these essays is Mahan’s prose, which often becomes florid as he begins to discuss abstractions. Another difficulty is that Mahan resists summarizing the central points of his arguments in a way that facilitates generalization; the post on education is interesting, exceedingly detailed, and contains buried within a set of insights about the skills that a modern naval officer might need, insights which Mahan has little interest in highlighting.

Similarly, the essay on Nelson is both interesting and a bit of a struggle, as Mahan indulges in some exceedingly dull discussion of the field of biography on the way to some useful insights into Nelson’s character, and the value of Nelson’s leadership.  The sharpest writing in the entire book comes in the Pellew essay when Mahan describes the Battle of Lake Champlain, both at the preparation stage and in the actual fight.  When discussing operations, Mahan seems to pick up speed, becoming more economical with prose in order to pack in as much relevant detail as possible. I don’t actually think it’s surprising that The Influence of Sea Power Upon History did well, as it plays to Mahan’s best characteristic as a writer. Concentrating his attention, I daresay, seems to have the same appeal for Mahan as concentrating a battlefleet. Dispersing his attention tends to lead to disaster.

And yet, despite the difficulty of his prose, Mahan was a remarkably popular author in his time. 21st Century Mahan is an important effort. Mahan produced an enormous amount of literature in the second half of his life, and because Mahan’s prose can be so difficult, and because of his unwillingness to organize and set forth his arguments with clarity, a “greatest hits” album is a must. In terms of the essays chosen I might have liked something that was a bit more reflective of how Mahan’s ideas developed over time, but with only five snapshots that’s difficult to do.  I would also have preferred BJ to expand a touch on the essay introductions, in order to better situate the arguments in context both of the arguments Mahan was participating in, and in his professional career. Altogether, however, it’s a useful volume, especially when read alongside The Influence of Sea Power Upon History and a scholarly treatment, such as Jon Sumida’s Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command.

See also James Holmes and Galrahn.


[ 39 ] September 20, 2013 |

Thoughts I wish I had expressed:

It didn’t last. Dexter would never again rise to that level [second season] of quality, and the one time it commanded as much critical and audience buzz as it did in its first two years came almost entirely because of guest performer John Lithgow, who was killed off in the finale of the same season he joined the show. After that fourth season, the show staggered on for another four years of increasing irrelevance, and it will wrap its run on Sunday at the end of a season that has been almost completely free of drama or conflict… Dexter did most of this to itself. Its fifth, sixth, and eighth seasons are frequently and stunningly incompetent, and its seventh season wastes a promising beginning in favor of the same old, same old.

Indeed. Season four is the only exception to the long-term decline of the series, and in retrospect that looks like a stroke of luck, combining a fantastic Lithgow with writers who somehow managed not to fuck it up. The later seasons each held a bit of promise, but in trying to recapture the feel of season four the show managed to utterly waste the talents of Ray Stevenson(!), Edward James Olmos(!!), and Charlotte Rampling (!!!). I may, or may not, manage to struggle through the three episodes I haven’t seen.


[ 41 ] September 19, 2013 |

So this happened last night:

Lindbergh lists the appropriate caveats about Hamilton’s future, but nevertheless was an exciting performance.

A WASPy Hypothesis

[ 127 ] September 18, 2013 |

A friend proposes the following:

The generation of major Italian-American filmmakers that came to prominence in the 1970s has consistently failed to display multi-dimensional WASP characters, largely because of an inability to appreciate the complexities of WASP affect.

I’m not sure I agree with this, but it does explain why Diane Keaton is the worst part of the first two Godfather films, and why I detest Age of Innocence.

Let’s Credibilate That Argument

[ 23 ] September 18, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat continues the conversation on Syria, credibility, and reputation:

You can count me as among the skeptics that the Syria deal is a harbinger of impending U.S. failure. As Dan Drezner and Heather Hurlburt discussed last week, there is a growing divide between academics and policymakers on reputation and credibility. The evidence that commitments are interdependent in a way that meaningfully affects reputation is exceedingly thin. The central problem is that it is extremely difficult to send messages about resolve and determination that will be understood in the way you want them to be understood. States don’t own their reputations; friends and foes are free to draw their own (often conflicting) interpretations of events.


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