In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Hiding Behind Initials | Main | We got suckered... »

June 10, 2008

A Modest Military Proposal

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once upon a time, before 1947, the United States had no Air Force.

What we had were two air forces. One was the Navy's and the other was part of the U.S. Army. The Army's air force was taken away and became a separate branch of the armed services as part of Truman's reorganization that resulted in creation of the Department of Defense. Previously, defense needs were handled by the Navy Department and the War Department, each headed by a Cabinet-level secretary.

The transition from being part of the Signal Corps to Air Force independence was a multi-step process that resulted in a quasi-independent air force when World War 2 was underway. (For some information about this, click here.)

The doctrine favored by air officers during much of this gestation period can be encapsulated by the term strategic bombing which had its roots in the thinking of Italian general Giulio Douhet and others in the 1920s and 30s. The theory was that bombers were virtually impervious to attack and were fully capable of destroying an enemy country's armaments industry, infrastructure and the morale of its populace.

By the time World War 2 got nicely underway it became obvious to military men (though not so much to the general public getting its war news filtered through censorship) that bombing accuracy was not very good even with the aid of the best bomb-sights available. And rather than being invincible, bombers proved to be highly vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and attack by interceptors alerted or guided by radar (a late-30s development). Further, the Battle of Britain and the later Blitz revealed that civilian morale was harder to crack than had been anticipated by the bombing enthusiasts. Air commanders continued to insist that strategic bombing was an important part of warfare. They were correct, though the fire-breathers among them probably continued over-stating their case when they claimed that such bombing alone could win a war. (True, Japan surrendered before it had to be invaded. But anti-shipping warfare by submarines and the failure of Japan to mass-produce advanced interceptors in 1944 contributed to their ultimate relative weakness in the summer of 1945.)

The domination of thinking by "bomber generals" continued in the U.S Air Force well into the strategic missile age. This was probably mostly for the best while the U.S. and Soviet Union faced each other across the Arctic during the first 15 years of the Cold War because bombers were the only means of conveying strategic weapons in those days.

By the 1970s the situation had changed. Land and sea-based missiles became the strategic weapons and B-52 "strategic bombers" were being used for tactical, Army-support missions. By the time of the Gulf Wars, air activities were largely in the form of ground support and transportation and communications interdiction; strategic attacks were a small part of the picture.

So, I ask, since the Air Force is nowadays largely an Army-support service, why not simply make it a branch of the Army again? And as for the strategic missiles, some army officers have been contending for the last 50 years that a missile is pretty much an artillery shell writ large.

While they're at it, why not recreate the War Department and have a Secretary of War in the Cabinet? Truth in advertising and all that.

Oh, and brown uniforms again, please.



posted by Donald at June 10, 2008


I'm with you. I can't stand the dress uniforms of most modern armies. They are really tacky. Those pre-WW2 outfits were sharp and classy almost across the board in all armies except the Soviets. (The quasi-peasant look in the Soviet army was droll.)

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 10, 2008 3:20 PM

When you say air commanders what you really mean is Curtis LeMay who I believe, with the possible exception of Nimitz, was the most indispensible man of WWII for the Americans.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on June 10, 2008 3:35 PM

Charlton -- I suppose going whole-hog would mean Sam Browne belts for officers. But there was controversy about upkeep and its presence in close-combat situations. I'd be happy for the Army to wear something like Marine Corps browns, though apparently they now want dress blues and combat togs to replace those un-military greens.

Pat -- I'm reading Michael Korda's biography of Eisenhower, and Korda reminds me that Spaatz and perhaps other fought Ike's plan to divert heavy bombers from strategic to tactical use during the cross-channel invasion and for a while thereafter. So LeMay wasn't the Lone Ranger.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 10, 2008 3:59 PM

The RAF lives in perpetual fear of being disbanded, for pretty much the reasons you give.

Posted by: dearieme on June 10, 2008 5:43 PM

Military science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle has expressed similar feelings, for much the same reasons; his comments are at:

LeMay was certainly one of the greatest commanders in WWII, but one can't help but note that his successes were gained as part of the U.S. Army Air Force. Has the independent air force produced anyone even slightly comparable since then?

Posted by: tschafer on June 10, 2008 6:31 PM

So LeMay wasn't the Lone Ranger

Yes he was. The bombing campaign against the Japanese was a failure till Le May stepped in. The bombing campaign in Europe was transformed by the tactical innovations he introduced. The two most important elements in the destruction of Japan were the firebombing of the cities and strategic mine laying which paralysed japan shipping. He was responsible for implementing both. In the Pacific theater of war he continually had to fight the navy for misusing air power and apparently the only time he got drunk in his life was when the independent air force was created.

His military thinking was far more nuanced than many people give him credit for. He saw that if the Air Force was subordinated to the Navy or Army it's full power would not be utilised, instead being misused as flying artillery. He may be known for his strategic bombing but few people know that he was instrumental in the Berlin airlift, the development of rockets and missiles, introduction of judo and that he was against involvement in the Vietnam war. He was also against the U.S. being the world's military policeman. He is out of favour since he was Wallace's running mate, but if you want to get an idea of his military thinking, I suggest you get an out of print book called America is in Danger, a different Le May emerges.

Agree with you on one point though, those WW2 uniforms were pretty snazzy.

Posted by: Slumlord on June 10, 2008 6:51 PM

This is an idea whose time is long overdue.

The Army should be responsible for all power projection on land. All air support of the ground element should belong to the ground element.

The Navy should be responsible for command of the "global commons" Sea-Air-Space, and to project landpower across the global commons. All transport aircraft would belong to the Navy. The Navy would retain its own aircraft for its sea control mission.

One service should have all nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, make it the Navy.

Aircraft should be allocated on a mission-specific basis.

The fatuous notion that aircraft, merely because they were a new kind of machine, merit their own service, should be discarded.

"why not recreate the War Department and have a Secretary of War in the Cabinet?"

There is more to this than you may realize. The Founders, relying on English experience, provided that Congress shall have the power:

Clause 12: To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

Clause 13: To provide and maintain a Navy;

Note the distinction. Armies were to be raised on a temporary basis, as needed -- note the two year time limit. The British rule was that any army had to be authorized by Parliament on an annual basis, lest it become an instrument of Royal oppression. The Navy was to exist at all times, because it takes a long time to build ships and train crews and you cannot build up naval power quickly. The Navy was to be subject to executive authority, under the President who is also commander in chief, for immediate use.

That it is why we have a Marine Corps, to be the permanent land component for non-major operations below the level where Congress has to raise an Army, and/or declare war. The Marine's Small Wars Manual, which was published in 1940, but encapsulates decades of experience, starts with this sentence:

"Small wars are operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our Nation."

Emphasis added.

A lot of this history appeared to be obsolete due to mid-20th Century Cold War conditions. But it is long past time to revisit it all.

BTW, Curtil LeMay was a truly great American. By making Strategic Air Command into an extremely reliable and efficient organization, he preserved deterrance during the darkest and most dangerous days of the Cold War. That achievement is too little appreciated.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 10, 2008 7:19 PM

There should be statues to LeMay in this country.

In addition to the achievements already stated he was the youngest 4-star General in American history other than U.S. Grant (who beat him by a few months). He was directly responsible for the development of the B-52 which has been in service an incredible 50+ years. He introduced the M-16 rifle into military service in 1964 and that is also still in use with no sign of replacement. He introduced SSB radio technology into the Air Force (by literally yanking out the AM radio and replacing it with his own ham radio to prove it workled better). He took over SAC when it was a demoralized backwater and made it the lynchpin of U.S. defense.

Anyone who thinks of LeMay as just the "bomb 'em back to the stone age" guy should read up on his amazing accomplishments.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on June 10, 2008 7:57 PM

I recent read a good short biography of Lemay, which I recommend to anyone interested in his life and achievements.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 10, 2008 9:17 PM

Didn't LeMay sully his reputation by being the then-segregationist George Wallace's running mate in 1968?

Posted by: Peter on June 10, 2008 10:33 PM

My dad was in the Army Air Force in 1948 - 1950. He worked on the planes - didn't fly 'em. I have a great photo of him standing on the wing of a plane (you mechanical dudes/war gurus will probably know the make/model) taken in Japan.

I'll see if I can find it and post at my place tomorrow evening or so. Maybe someone can tell me more about the plane.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 11, 2008 12:16 AM

Didn't LeMay sully his reputation by being the then-segregationist George Wallace's running mate in 1968?

He did. But he wanted to split the democrat vote so that Nixon could get in. He knew he had no chance for the presidency. He was disgusted with the way the Democrats, particularly MacNamara was running the war in Vietnam. Furthermore he was appalled by the pointless loss of American life. He felt that it was his last duty to his country and ran despite the protestations of his old Airforce buddies. Their ticket polled 15% of the vote. He was not racist.

Posted by: Slumlord on June 11, 2008 12:38 AM

LeMay was certainly no racist. He was the guy who led the push to integrate the Air Force.Like many military men, he was also a bit naive, and he was actually shocked when people called him a racist due to his association with Wallace.

I doubt if re-uniting the Air Force with the Army is possible at this juncture, but at the very least, the disasterous "reform" of the early 1990's, which eliminated SAC, should be undone.

If we wanted to honor LeMay, re-creating his beloved Strategic Air Command would be the way to do it.

Posted by: tschafer on June 11, 2008 10:11 AM

In his new book "Nixonland", Rick Perlstein writes that George Wallace first asked Happy Chandler the ex-Governor of Kentucky and the man who was the baseball comissioner in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color line to be his Vice Presidential candidate. Some of Wallace's close suporters, including Nelson Bunker Hunt, balked at Chandler and Wallace withdrew his invitation to Chandlet and asked LeMay instead.

Posted by: grandcosmo on June 11, 2008 1:48 PM

"... re-creating his beloved Strategic Air Command ..."

Dismantling SAC was the revenge of the fighter guys against the bomber guys. It was a big mistake.

The recent "oops" moment, with nuclear bombs being flown hither and yon over the US heartland by accident would NOT have happened under SAC, in LeMay's day, or after.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 11, 2008 2:31 PM

The U.S. actually has four air forces: the Air Force, Naval aviation, Marine aviation, and Army aviation. The last is exclusively helicopters, because under the "Treaty of Key West", the Army ceded all fixed-wing operations to the Air Force.

Since the AF doesn't much care for ground support missions, this resulted in neglect and underuse of the most effective ground-support aircraft, such as the A-10 "Warthog". The Army had to make up for this with less effective helicopter gunships.

The history of the post-WW II restructuring is surprising. The AF glamor-boys convinced themselves that they could win any war by airpower alone. (This despite the evidence of the war, though to be fair with A-bombs it was plausible.) They wanted to gut or even abolish the other services.

They had such a grip on the public mind that they thought they could get that. RAdm Dan Gallery crippled his career by going public with the Navy's case.

The acquisition of A-weapons by other powers began a new era, where Great-Power war is impossible, and the real arenas of battle are only partially military. Even after sixty years, the disaster of Vietnam, and the difficulties in Iraq, the U.S. has not figured out how to fight a war that is military and political and informational.

Re-integrating the AF into the Army might at least reduce the effort put into costly air-based weapons which are not particularly useful in the current context.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 12, 2008 12:30 AM

Let me say a word in defense of the Air Force. Firstly, I can safely assume that few of the people commenting here have much recent experience in a combat environment or have worked with either the Air Force or Army in an operational environment.

Having the Air Force merged back into the Army would be a disaster. The Army would degrade the very complicated systems now in use by the Air Force. The Army is not the innovative force it was in the intial stages of Vietnam, it is rather a stiff beast that smothers initiative at every opportunity. The Army would turn its fixed wing assets into flying humvees.

Secondly, the Air Force is more than just F-16s and snobby fighter pilots. Besides the B-52s and A-10s that are the most feared weapons in our arsennal (as stated by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters), there are also Air mobility and Space assets (space lift, GPS, and ICBMs). The Army doesn't have the culture for running these assets properly.

The Air Force does have to take ground support more seriously and chasten the fighter pilots that have snagged too much power in the organization. But the answer is a change in focus, rather than dismembering the organization and having the Army (mis)manage tactical air power.

Posted by: Dan on June 22, 2008 5:39 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?