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What Victory in Yugoslavia May Mean for Future Wars

by Daniel Szechi on Jun 16, 1999

Daniel Szechi

For eighty years a heated argument has been raging within the U.S. military. The war in Yugoslavia may finally have resolved it, and the consequences may touch us all.

The debate started with General Billy Mitchell in the 1920s. He argued that most of the U.S. military was obsolete. The United States needed only a powerful air force and a few token troops and ships to defend itself and exert its will overseas.

By directly attacking the enemy’s homeland with airpower, Mitchell maintained, the enemies of the United States would be swiftly brought to their knees. No modern society could withstand the loss of its vital services. The panicked and desperate enemy population would force its own rulers to surrender.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell soon made himself deeply unpopular with the Army and Navy. His claims for what American airpower could do were far beyond its technical capabilities. And after he made a public attack on official air policies, he was court-martialed in 1925 and resigned shortly afterward.

But his ideas lived on. Mitchell’s disciples in the Army Air Force moved into key positions that enabled them quietly to continue spreading his doctrine of the supremacy of airpower. In World War II they tried to vindicate their teacher. The Army and Navy wanted aircraft primarily to support their own operations, but Army Air Force commanders tried instead to amass all the planes they could for the bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan.

But they were still unable to deliver Mitchell’s promise. Despite heavy attacks on German cities, costing thousands of aircraft and crewmen, in the end Germany was brought to surrender only by Allied ground forces capturing the German heartland.

In Japan the advocates of airpower believed they came closer to proving Mitchell right. But even there, postwar surveys revealed that the Navy’s blockade of the Japanese home islands did more damage, and brought the Japanese closer to surrender, than anything else the Army Air Force did before it dropped the atomic bomb.

Since World War II the debate about the utility and impact of airpower has continued to smolder. Barring nuclear war, could airpower deliver victory on its own? The experience of Korea and Vietnam firmly indicated that the answer was no. Despite intensive bombing by U.S. aircraft, North Korea and North Vietnam refused to surrender.

Then came the Gulf War of 1991. A new generation of air-power prophets, led by Col. John Warden, had risen to influential positions in the Air Force. They ran the air campaign that disrupted and demoralized Iraq. Yet, once again, airpower alone failed to force Iraq to give in. It took a major ground offensive to do that.

So has the success of the NATO bombing offensive against Yugoslavia finally proved that airpower is the supreme military weapon? The Air Force success there will certainly be taken that way by the advocates of airpower. And the Air Force will equally certainly leverage its achievement to gain a bigger share of the military budget.

What this will mean in the future is that what we have seen in Yugoslavia is likely to become the pattern for future U.S. interventions.

But there is a serious hidden problem with Mitchell’s theories on airpower. For the survival of the vast majority of the Yugoslav military — despite 79 days of heavy bombing – tells us something very important: What forced Yugoslavia to give in was the impact of NATO air attacks on the everyday lives of the civilian population. Attacking the Yugoslav military would have exposed United States and allied pilots to modern, effective anti-aircraft defenses. That would inevitably have led to casualties among NATO pilots. Rather than risk this (and the political heat U.S. casualties would have generated at home), the bulk of NATO’s air attacks were directed at “infrastructure.”

In practice this means bombing bridges, train lines, power stations, and factories. The military certainly uses these resources. But civilians use them much more. And when bombs go astray (as they are bound to do sometimes) they are certain to cause civilian casualties. The pain and disruption to civilian life is the key to the success of this strategy.

If the United States allows the Air Force to become the premier arm for asserting the nation’s will in future conflicts, we will be committing ourselves to a way of war that ultimately targets civilians rather than their military defenders. It may be argued that the distinction between “military” and “civilian” is meaningless in modern warfare. But will we feel the same way when — following our lead — some future enemy chooses to attack U.S. civilians, rather than soldiers, with bombs or missiles? If civilians once again become a normal, legitimate target for military operations, as they were up until the 17th century, we will have taken a giant step backwards towards inhumanity in war.

Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.