Air Power Theory Shaped by the Great Depression

It is generally understood that the form that warfare takes is a function of the societies out of which it grows.  I ran across a fascinating proposed example of that today in an article that Malcolm Smith wrote for the March 1990 issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies.  His piece was entitled “The Allied Air Offensive.”  In it he writes: “The idea that the bomber would be the decisive weapon in any renewed war rested on a depressed faith in the future of advanced industrial society, with its economic recessions and social divisions.”

Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, of course, had set the course for this thinking in their writings which came out immediately after World War I.  This war had led to the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the brief installation of communist regimes in Germany and Hungary.  It had also seen a borderline mutiny in the French Army and the temporary collapse of the Italian Army in the 1917 Battle of Caporetto, a debacle widely blamed on low Italian morale and the spread by the Austro-Hungarian of subversive ideas among the Italian troops.  Immediately upon the end of the war, the American military became preoccupied with the “Bolshevist” threat.  The War Department seriously contemplated the possibility of a revolution in the US in 1919-1920 and the famous Palmer Raids of late 1919 and early 1920 made these fears very visible to the public.  Then, of course, toward the end of the 1920s came the Great Depression, the American incarnation of a near-global problem.

Malcolm Smith elaborated how this environment shaped the receptivity and responses of national security leaders in Britain to the messages of the air theorists.

“The supposed ability of the bomber to bring a war directly to the home front, and to win the war there rather than in simply military conflict, made frightening sense in a period of economic dislocation, mass unemployment and political dissent.  It was no mere coincidence that [British Prime Minister] Stanley Baldwin chose the year of the General Strike to ask the House of Commons, ‘who does not know that, if another war comes, our civilization will fall with as great a crash as that of Rome?’  Civil Defense preparations in Britain were even kept secret until the second half of the 1930s, for fear that the very phrase ‘Civil Dense’ would spark off a public panic.  British pre-war preparations for evacuation and post-raid welfare reveal that the government believed that in the next war…the people themselves would be the real enemy.  ‘Civil Defense,’ indeed, was expected to be a policing activity to control an inherently panicky, even revolutionary, population.  Popular literature, as well as film, almost reveled in the fright of the prospect: no less than 133 books were published in English in the inter-war period on the war of the future, the large majority prophesying social revolution as an inevitable consequence of renewed conflict.  The bomber, in short, was molded by the Great Depression.”

It is also interesting, however, that the forms of warfare do not change as quickly as societies do.  Rather, there is a substantial time lag.  In particular, Western society today is vastly different from what it was in the 1920s and 1930s and yet the way we fight today is substantially influenced by the way we thought then.  People continue to read Douhet and Mitchell and Alexander de Seversky not just as purely historical documents (as we read Vegetius, for instance), but also because they purportedly relate to enduring realities of war.

I wonder how our air campaigns against Saddam or against the Taliban in 2001 would have been different if the 1920s and 1930s had not been times of Depression, revolution, and social strife.  What would the theory of air power look like today if the 1920s and 1930s had been like the 1950s: prosperous, self-satisfied, patriotic and featuring a public inclined to curse communists and build bomb shelters?

Mind you, the time lag between social forms and types of warfare isn’t always a bad thing.  Our adversaries aren’t immune to such problems.  In fact, I think one might argue that the persistence of a World War II metaphor of ground combat may have badly harmed Iraq in its face-offs with the US, et al.  It almost certainly would bite North Korea, as well, if there were to be a war on the peninsula.