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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 266


Review:                  The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, by Michael Sherry (Yale University Press, 1987).


Michael Sherry's The Rise of American Air Power is a highly original look at the development of American strategic bombing from its first beginnings in World War I through the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Essentially an intellectual history rather than a blow-by-blow account of American bombing campaigns in World War II, Sherry explores the origins and subsequent mutation of the idea of strategic bombing.  As he states in the preface, the book is intended as "an explanation, not a remembrance, of the rise of strategic air war."[1]  Although he looks at the use of air power in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war in some detail, the book is weighted towards the Pacific, where American bombing reached its peak of intensity against Japan in 1945.  An underlying motive behind the book is that by understanding how we got into our present-day dilemma of nuclear stalemate, we can perhaps find a way out.  Sherry also finds a certain bitter irony in the fact that Great Britain and the United States, the "good guys" of World War II, did more than anyone else to establish the modern precedent, which we now take for granted, that all civilians are fair game in war from the air.

Sherry weaves together numerous themes throughout this dense, closely-argued account, but what ties everything together is his thesis that the failure and immorality of strategic bombing was due to an increasing separation of technique from results.  He calls this "technological fanaticism -- a pursuit of destructive ends expressed, sanctioned, and disguised by the organization and application of technological means."[2],


At bottom, technological fanaticism was the product of two distinct but related phenomena: one -- the will to destroy -- ancient and recurrent; the other -- the technical means of destruction -- modern.  Their convergence resulted in the evil of American bombing.[3]

The evil lay in the fact that the perfection of the technique of air bombardment became an end in itself, increasingly unrelated to any strategy for bringing the war with Japan to an end.  Thus, sheer destruction, measured by tonnage of bombs dropped and acres of cities leveled, became the index of air force success, and proceeded far beyond what the rational use of force to secure victory required.

Sherry's argument certainly contains some weaknesses.  For instance, he contends that a focused precision bombing campaign could have succeeded in defeating Japan more quickly and more humanely than the area firebombing actually conducted, which is based on his assertion that "a good deal" of the detailed economic intelligence necessary "was available and more could have been assembled."[4]   This smacks of 20-20 hindsight, a charge that could be leveled at other parts of his argument as well.  Another problem is his failure to give any real sense of the mood of the time.  His often excruciating analyses of contemporary attitudes towards bombing tend to bog down in psychological descriptions which are unconnected to any time or place: "In the power to inflict total death lay also the power to control life itself -- those who could take life could also give it and thereby triumph over their own mortality."[5]

Still, The Rise of American Air Power is far from a polemic, and if Sherry reaches some pointed conclusions, he bases them on a thorough analysis of all sides of the problem.  He recognizes that strategic bombing was largely responsible for breaking Japanese morale, to the point where the combination of Russian entry into the war and the atomic bomb attacks led to their capitulation without an invasion.  However, he takes issue with the morality of the firebombing campaign, basing his moral argument on the hard ground of necessity -- was there a way to obtain the same end without the same scale of destruction?  He concludes that the economic arguments for area bombing, such as "dehousing" workers and creating "a serious loss of labor," were mainly rationalizations for a juggernaut of destruction that had built up an unstoppable momentum by 1945.  "LeMay and the air force had chosen a kind of bombing they could do best, without a compelling rationale for the economic benefits claimed."[6]

While it is doubtful that Sherry will have the last word on strategic bombing, he successfully widened the terms of debate on the subject.  Possibly his largest contribution is his demonstration that the conception of air power from the early part of this century into the nuclear age has remained essentially the same.  He challenges the idea that the atomic bomb marked the dawn of a completely new age, showing how many aspects of modern nuclear strategy, such as deterrence and the search for technological solutions, have their parallels in the pre-nuclear view of air power.  By focusing attention on a part of American experience in World War II that most people would prefer to forget, Sherry has provided a new perspective on the modern nuclear impasse.

[1]  p. ix.

[2]  pp. 251-252.

[3]  p. 254.

[4]  p. 287.

[5]  p. 203.

[6]  p. 287.

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