Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945

By Tami Davis Biddle | Go to book overview

Conclusion

HOW aircraft might be employed in war—and what they might accomplish—were among the most pressing military questions of the early twentieth century. Those who envisioned radical answers followed in a long tradition of speculation about the power of both flight and aerial bombardment, and the vulnerability of civilian societies to aerial onslaught. Two ideas, in particular, drove this kind of imagining. The first was that the overwhelming power of bombers—especially their ability to inflict wanton destruction anywhere their pilots chose to fly—would prove overwhelming to human nerves. The second was that since modern societies were complex and interdependent, they were vulnerable to the kinds of pressures bombers could impose. These notions have retained a remarkable tenacity into the twenty-first century, even in the face of evidence that has called them into question.

The advent of aircraft forced governments and militaries to respond to them. During the First World War, sustained German air attacks on Britain—London in particular—aroused anger among the British people and convinced a nervous government to act. The Smuts Report of 1917 set in train a far-reaching and consequential reorganization of British military resources, and furthered the development of ideas about long-rang bombing. Remarkably, most of the key ideas shaping strategic bombing in twentieth century were developed rapidly—and articulated by 1917–18. In Britain, Tiverton perceived a natural opportunity to attack “bottlenecks” in the enemy's war-fighting infrastructure. Direct attack on key industries and resources would offer an efficient means of undermining and ultimately collapsing the enemy war effort. To him— and the Americans who appreciated and indeed appropriated his thinking—the idea was obvious and logical.

If the gap was great between the heady promises of the Smuts report and the reality of Britain's Independent Force, Trenchard sought to close it through rhetoric of his own, emphasizing the “moral”—including indirect—effects of aerial bombing and the disruption it caused. If his claims were expeditious, they were nonetheless readily grasped from the

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