The Longest War


Vietnam was a military defeat, but that was because of the poor tactics of our generals, who were hobbled by the larger geopolitical situation of the time. Today, America’s political landscape is hardly beset by civil unrest. Instead, there is unity and recognition that our home soil has been attacked. Nor is the country likely to see an overseas war as a nexus of domestic racial, sexual, and cultural unrest. Our present Secretary of State and national security adviser are African-American, our military is coed, and its officer corps is fully integrated and diversely represented. Criticism of the current war therefore will not be couched in the lexicon of Vietnam, especially when those most likely to die in the war are American civilians at home and highly trained and professional pilots rather than reluctant adolescent draftees.

Western nations from Greece on have been lethal.

During the initial phases of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, impatient critics raised false analogies with the past in attempts to dismiss the effectiveness of airpower. It is true that bombing has been greatly misunderstood, partly because of the inflated promises of early Air Force advocates and partly on moral grounds, recalling the horrendous civilian losses inflicted on Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, undertaken after World War II, suggested that strategic bombing hadn’t greatly altered the war’s outcome since German industrial production had stayed the same or even increased after 1944. But most historians now concede that the methodology of the study was severely flawed, and its conclusions cannot be trusted. The survey sought to weigh damage to industrial production against the staggering losses in Allied aircraft, without asking critical questions about the toll taken on the German economy by the forced relocation of plants and distortions in weapons production.

For instance, Germany retooled after sustained American and British bombing to produce 10,000 antiaircraft guns, expending resources that could have been better used against advancing Russian and American armor. Thousands of German aircraft were lost in the sky and on airfields in homeland defense, and fatal decisions were made to retaliate against incendiary attacks with rocketry and jet bombers when the precious industrial capacity that provided them should have been allotted to ammunition, tanks, and fighter planes. And B-17s and B-24s used tactically—to disrupt transportation in France before the Normandy campaign, to bomb German armor in preparation for the American breakout—were deadly.

The fire raids by B-29s on Japanese cities are highly controversial in terms of their brutality, but not in terms of their effectiveness. Essentially, Gen. Curtis LeMay incinerated the main urban centers of Japan in a matter of weeks, mined its major harbors, and drastically curtailed even widely dispersed industrial production among residential neighborhoods, ensuring that naval and air resistance by mid-1945 would be minimal and that large land forces, such as those at Okinawa, could not be supplied from the mainland.

Bombing since World War II is equally misunderstood. Despite restrictions on targets, devastating air attacks by B-29s during the Korean War restored equilibrium and, with help from American artillery, devastated the Chinese army. Many of China’s purported one million dead in Korea were annihilated by tactical bombing, which explains why the nation was not eager to enter the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, the record is more checkered; it worsened as ever more dramatic results were demanded from airpower on its own. Carpet attacks on rural areas in the South proved ineffective and inhumane, in sharp contrast with the more limited raids on Haiphong and Hanoi, especially during the last months of the war, when first-generation smart bombs brought the communist leadership back to the peace table. Airpower alone could not have won the Vietnam War, but the freedom to strike continuously and unrestrictedly at command and control in the North in the mid-1970s might well have brought the hostilities to a standstill.

The last decade has witnessed a revolution in bombing, as the old banes of airpower—ineffectiveness, collateral damage, and aircraft losses—have been vastly reduced through technological breakthroughs. What was once seen as a very costly and often inhumane method of attack has now been transmogrified into a relatively precise, tolerable, and safe tactic of retaliation, permitting the houses and offices of the enemy, rather than merely a country’s industrial and military assets, to be singled out for selective demolition. In that regard, the quickness of the land war in the Persian Gulf was due largely to weeks of preliminary bombardment. The attacks in Kosovo proved to be exclusively an air campaign, and the Serbian leadership gave in without a single American fatality.

The lesson, then, is not that airpower can alone win wars. It cannot. Rather, with new generations of complex ordnance and sophisticated technology, bombers can increase their already prominent role to match the importance of conventional ground forces, shorten the war, and thus save lives on both sides.