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“VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER”–A SELF-DESTRUCTIVE MYTH

In History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on April 4, 2022 at 12:10 am

Victory Through Air Power is a 1943 Walt Disney animated Technocolor feature film released during World War II. It’s based on the book—of the same title—by Alexander P. de Seversky.

Its thesis is summed up in its title: That by using bombers and fighter aircraft, the United States can attain swift, stunning victory over its Axis enemies: Germany, Italy and Japan.

Although it’s not explicitly stated, the overall impression given is that, through the use of air power, America can defeat its enemies without deploying millions of ground troops.

The movie has long since been forgotten except by film buffs, but its message has not. Especially by the highest officials within the U.S. Air Force.

Although the Air Force regularly boasted of the tonnage of bombs its planes dropped over Nazi Germany, it failed to attain its primary goal: Break the will of the Germans to resist.

On the contrary: Just as the German bombings of England had solidified the will of the British people to resist, so Allied bombing increased the determination of the Germans to fight on.

Nor did the failure of air power end there.

On June 6, 1944—D-Day—the Allies launched their invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

The operation was the largest amphibious invasion in history. More than 160,000 troops landed—73,000 Americans, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadians.

Allied air power bombed and strafed German troops out in the open. But it couldn’t dislodge soldiers barricaded in steel-and-concrete-reinforced bunkers or pillboxes. Those had to be dislodged, one group at a time, by Allied  soldiers armed with rifles, dynamite and flamethrowers. 

Soldier using flamethrower

This situation proved true throughout the rest of the war.

Then, starting in 1964, the theory of “Victory Through Air Power” once again proved a dud—in Vietnam.

From 1964 to 1975, seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II.

Yet the result proved exactly the same as it had in World War II: The bombing enraged the North Vietnamese and steeled their resolve to fight on to the end.

Hanoi ordered the distribution of rifles to its citizens—to be used for shooting at American planes. Although this probably didn’t bring any planes down, it greatly increased morale among the populace.

American bomber

The belief that victory could be achieved primarily—if not entirely—through air power had another unforeseen result during the Vietnam war. It gradually sucked the United States ever deeper into the conflict.

To bomb North Vietnam, the United States needed air force bases in South Vietnam. This required that those bombers and fighters be protected.

So a force to provide round-the-clock security had to be maintained. But there weren’t enough guards to defend themselves against a major attack by North Vietnamese forces.

So more American troops were needed—to guard the guards.

North Vietnam continued to press greater numbers of its soldiers into attacks on American bases. This forced America to provide greater numbers of its own soldiers to defend against such attacks.

Eventually, the United States had more than 500,000 ground troops fighting in Vietnam—with no end in sight to the conflict.  

But it isn’t enough to subdue a conquered nation—it must be occupied. And air power alone will not suffice. 

Americans learned this to their dismay in Iraq after quickly taking Baghdad and subduing the forces of Saddam Hussein. On May 1, 2003, President George W. bush declared the war over.

Except that it wasn’t.

A nationwide insurgency quickly mushroomed—and there simply weren’t enough American troops to prevent or stop these attacks. These continued until the United States finally withdrew from Iraq in 2011.

Since February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has directed carpet-bombing attacks on Ukraine, Russia’s neighboring republic. They have leveled cities such as Mariupol with cluster bombs and phosphorus bombs.

Vladimir Putin 17-11-2021 (cropped).jpg

Vladimir Putin

Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Cluster bombs contain small explosive bombs called “sub-munitions.” Dropped from an aircraft or fired from the ground, they open in the air and release the sub-munitions. This scatters a carpet of bombs over a large area without any degree of accuracy.  

They don’t explode on impact but remain hazardous as anti-personnel landmines. Up to 87% of recorded victims are civilians. 

And yet Ukrainians continue to fiercely resist. At least seven Russian generals have been killed, and NATO estimates that Russia has lost between 21,000 and 45,000 in dead and wounded. 

Finally, pulverizing cities from the air comes with a cost—to those doing the pulverizing.

In the 1964 classic, Becket, England’s Chancellor, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) has captured a French city for his king, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and is about to lead a peaceful parade of soldiers into it.

“In my day,” complains an English baron, “we marched into a city and slaughtered the lot.”

“Yes—into a dead city,” retorts Becket. “I want to give the King living cities to increase his wealth.”

It’s more than a safe bet that Victory Through Air Power will prove as hollow a slogan in the future as it has in the past. 

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