War Machines: Transforming Technologies in the U.S. Military, 1920-1940

War Machines: Transforming Technologies in the U.S. Military, 1920-1940

War Machines: Transforming Technologies in the U.S. Military, 1920-1940

War Machines: Transforming Technologies in the U.S. Military, 1920-1940


The American military establishment is intimately tied to its technology, although the nature of those ties has varied enormously from service to service. The air force evokes images of pilots operating hightech weapons systems, striking precisely from out of the blue to lay waste to enemy installations. The fundamental icon for the Marine Corps is a wave of riflemen hitting the beaches from rugged landing craft and slogging their way ashore under enemy fire. How did these very different relationships with technology develop?

During the interwar years, from 1920 to 1940, leaders from the Army Air Corps and the Marine Corps recreated their agencies based on visions of new military technologies. In War Machines, Timothy Moy examines these recreations and explores how factors such as bureaucratic pressure, institutional culture, and America's technological enthusiasm shaped these leaders' choices.

The very existence of the Army Air Corps was based on a new technology, the airplane. As the Air Corps was forced to compete for money and other resources during the years after World War I, Air Corps leaders carved out a military niche based on hightech precision bombing. The Marine Corps focused on amphibious, firstwave assault using sturdy, graceless, and easytoproduce landing craft.

Moy's astute analysis makes it clear that studying the processes that shaped the Army Air Corps and Marine Corps is fundamental to our understanding of technology and the military at the beginning of the twentyfirst century.


I first noticed these connections as a child. In the midst of a common boyhood fascination with World War II airplanes, I found that when looking at a photo of an unfamiliar American airplane I could guess with a high degree of certainty whether it had been used predominantly by the Navy or the Army Air Forces. I could not, at the time, explain how I could tell; heavy bombers were easy, of course, but even fighters had distinctions about them that seemed to reflect their services. Some airplanes simply “looked Navy” and others “looked Air Force.”

Only years later did I realize that one big giveaway was the shape of the engine space. Navy planes generally had large, cylindrical cowls to accommodate their big, air-cooled, radial engines; Army Air Forces fighters (with some exceptions) had liquid-cooled, in-line engines that permitted a sleek, pointed nose. But why was this so? Part of the answer, I learned, was that individual airplane companies develop certain design preferences over time. The Navy got most of its fighters from a small set of companies (Grumman, Chance-Vought, and so on), whereas the Army Air Forces got most of its fighters from a different set of companies (Lockheed, North American, Curtiss, and so on). But the look and feel of Navy and Air Force fighters was also shaped by a mundane socio-technical fact: air-cooled engines were easier to maintain and repair. At sea for extended periods, tied to long and sometimes tenuous supply lines, the Navy opted for the simpler and more rugged radial engines, and that is part of what gave the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat, and the F4U Corsair that barrel-nosed Navy look. The Army Air Forces, on the other hand, unencumbered by trying to maintain an air force for carrier operations, opted for the higher performance but increased fragility of liquid-cooled, in-line engines, thus giving the P-40 Warhawk, the P-51 Mustang, and the P-38 Lightning that sleek Air Force profile.

Once you look for them, it is easy to find these sorts of connections . . .

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