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

Article excerpt

Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 by Tami Davis Biddle. Princeton University Press (http://www.pupress. princeton.edu), 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540-5237, 2002, 408 pages, $45.00 (hardcover).

Tami Biddle has written an important and innovative intellectual history of American and British strategic bombing in the age of total war that should appeal to both academic historians and military professionals. The author discusses how strategies of airpower originate, develop, and are later executed, as well as why gaps occur between the genesis of an idea/strategy and the actual reality of implementing it. She also wrestles with the problem of why militaries fail to adapt to new and differing realities.

The book's central idea entails comparing the development of ideas in the United States and Great Britain regarding long-range bombing, raising such key questions as why the British and Americans were interested in strategic bombing in the first place. Biddle also considers why American and British expectations were at odds with reality and how perceptions and interpretations shaped plans, policies, and campaigns. In many ways, her book is about the assumptions of airpower. In illuminating these various questions, she casts a wide intellectual net, using unique and original approaches such as cognitive psychology and the role of popular culture.

Early on, Biddle emphasizes the importance of World War I and its long-lasting influence upon both the interwar period (1919-39) and World War II. In many ways, her discussion of the Great War highlights the role of personalities-Sir Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, for example, was one figure who dominated the scene. She takes a more critical view of Trenchard than have previous authors, thus providing an important corrective to early hagiographical works on him. Trenchard was investigated by the Army for his overtaxing pilot training and very high casualty rate. In fact, one could argue that Trenchard fought a war of attrition in the air. According to Biddle, he commanded more by instinct than by systematic analysis and ignored recommendations regarding targeting. By analyzing British bomb damage assessment (BDA) at the end of the war, she demonstrates that Trenchard heavily influenced BDA to justify his conduct of the war. This report and Trenchard himself, both of which provoked discussion about the moral effects of heavy bombing, shaped the development and force structure of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which organized itself around strategic bombing during the interwar years. Furthermore, Trenchard's overemphasis on the moral effects of strategic bombing leads Biddle to blame him for Britain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

In an interesting discussion of professional military education (PME) in the RAF, Biddle argues that the service developed dogmatic doctrine in the interwar years partially because the RAF staff college's curriculum and teaching were lackluster and highly conventional. Faculty and staff seemed to consider it more important that students feel good about themselves and be air-offensive-minded rather than think out of the box or perform well in class. Thus, the school emphasized riding and sports to the detriment of analytical stvidy. Consequently, the RAF rearmed itself in the 1930s without understanding the strategic vision of the Luftwaffe; it also ignored the lessons of the wars that took place during this period in China and Spain. Indeed, the RAF's disinclination to alter its policies in light of a changing international environment could prove to be a cautionary tale for current American PME.

In the third chapter, Biddle demonstrates that the dependent status of the Army Air Forces (AAF) did not hamper its intellectual development. However, she fails to discuss either the popular cultural context of the development of US airpower or the relationship between the development of theory and technology. …