- Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1941–1945
Tami Davis Biddle and Princeton University Press have made an impressive book. It embodies a timely topic, rigorous research, and compelling conclusions. Upon first glance at its title, prospective readers might be inclined to observe that her meticulous historical research beginning well before World [End Page 164] War I and continuing up through World War II hardly has relevance now at the onset of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Americans still war. And in the public mind as well as the thinking and planning of some martial commanders and perhaps more of their presidential commanders-in-chief, an assumption persists: wars can be won decisively because of aerial supremacy and the resultant capability of one nation to use strategic, precision bombing to overcome an enemy nation—very quickly, with relatively little drain upon resources, and minimal loss of human lives, be they those of enemy peoples or of the Americans who wage that war.
A remarkable visual image endures from the first American war against Iraq, led then by President George Herbert Walker Bush: a laser-guided "smart" bomb delivered with unerring accuracy down the air duct of an underground, fortified Iraqi command post. That initial war in the Persian Gulf was won swiftly, with Iraq easily ousted from Kuwait. As we now know, however, for all of the "shock and awe" of the opening air war against Iraq during the second Gulf War and thereafter, now led by President George W. Bush, the painful conclusion is that what was won on the fields of battle did not yield peace in the streets of Iraqi towns and cities—long after he landed (clad in naval flight gear) by jet on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that proclaimed "mission accomplished."
Davis offers a prodigiously comprehensive account of how faith in the role of precision bombing of strategic targets developed initially and persisted—despite evidence that this mode of aerial warfare did not actually achieve goals conducive to decisive victory. Her meticulous research draws upon a wide array of archival, primary source materials about aerial warfare: dire predictions about its capability for utter devastation in the years prior to World War I, accounts of what bombing did—and did not achieve—during that conflict from 1914 to 1918, advocacy of precision bombing against purely industrial targets during the 1920s and 1930s (as if to preclude in a future war the enormous slaughter of prolonged trench warfare), and the role of strategic bombing in World War II, during which air raids against factories and other war-making capabilities ultimately gave way to simply destroying enemy cities and their populations either by massive fire storms started by incendiary bombs or—ultimately—atomic bombs.
As is often the wont of scholars unfamiliar with precepts and principles of rhetorical theory, Davis seemingly reserves the term "rhetoric" only for those words predicting grandiose achievements from precision bombing whereas "reality" designates objective discourse such as the post-World War II Records of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey that detailed its lack of ultimate effectiveness. But all of that discourse constitutes rhetoric, whether pro or con, about a significant mode of warfare. Davis nevertheless is rhetorically minded, [End Page 165] however. At the outset of the book, her notion of "a vast array" of messages causing people to "assimilate incoming information to fit existing beliefs and expectations" (pp. 4–5) virtually paraphrases Samuel L. Becker's notion of a "vast communication mosaic" of an "immense number of fragments or bits of information" that people must "organize . . . and close the gaps between them in order to arrive at a coherent picture of the world to which [they] can respond" (in The Prospect of Rhetoric, ed. Lloyd F. Bitzer and Edwin Black, 1971, 33).
Unfailingly, Davis keeps her focus on the discourse advocating presumably successful results of strategic bombing or debunking the myth thereof. She...