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Sunday Book Review: Beneficial Bombing


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.

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