A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper over southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)
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Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean and selective destruction. Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the US military of command of the high ground and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.
Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself. But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant. Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.
Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems—like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals—it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life. However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.
The Rise of Air Power
It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes. Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the US Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering. As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy—we might today call them “insurgents”—in Libya.
World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers. By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins. Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender. Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.
Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces. A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet. In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories. Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out airstrikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary and poison-gas bombs. Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.