In praise of “In praise of Aerial Bombing”

Scholar, strategist and pirate hunter extraordinaire Edward Luttwak has a new article on Foreign Policy on the utility of air power in modern warfare. Though it has attracted a few harsh comments already (and my own comment on which this post is based), this is by far one of the least controversial and provocative articles by Luttwak in ages, and one that deserves serious consideration.

His contention is that, although strategic bombing has its limitations – and may not be the panacea that some claimed it to be periodically ever since Douhet’s “The Command of the Air” – it is not wholly useless and may be, in certain situations, preferable (more cost-effective) to ground operations and nation building. He does away with the fantastic notion that aerial bombing can be “surgical” and concedes that it is a dirty business, with real human and political costs. And the idea that aerial bombing works best when targets are out in the open and have no way of fighting back is especially straightforward and uncontroversial, and it also restricts the utility of bombing to situations where it is easier (though sometimes still difficult) to single out concentrations of armed personnel from the rest of the population. Seems pretty fair and balanced to me.

The problems is that here operates a false dichotomy, as people now seem to think that the alternatives are somehow necessarily less murderous. Well, they’re not. Ground assaults also kill lots of civilians (as recent developments in Marjah demonstrate); occupation forces murder, rape and plunder. War is hell, by air, land or sea. The fact that these alternatives also don’t seem to work, prolonging the conflict and its financial and human costs to both sides, should also be factored in.

If successful nation building is unlikely, and arguably unnecessary as far as US security interests are concerned – this, I believe, is prof. Luttwak’s unspoken assumption, and, if explicit, would be the only truly controversial claim in his article, but one with which many reasonable analysts agree –, then limited, sporadic, targeted punishment by the air designed to make the Taleban’s life impractical is probably better than the current strategy.

That said, I am not as sure as Luttwak that Obama (or the next POTUS) will get there eventually. Realists have been pushing for a remaking of US foreign policy based on “selective engagement“, “offshore balancing” (see also here and here), and, in more general terms, for more pragmatic and restrictive definitions of the national interest, since the dawn of time (Realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz were among the most staunch opponents of the Vietnam War, for example). And yet forecasts of the death of interventionism and the adoption of more limited strategies have been proven precipitated time and again, motivated mainly by wishful thinking. I hope to be proven wrong, of course, and that, though neither Obama nor his Republican opponents are not even remotely Realists, they will be forced by exhaustion to change course. But I’m not counting on it. States tend to believe foolish ideas and are slow learners; as Luttwak notices in his own article, the lessons of history are not always learned, and can even be “overlearned”. While there are only a few ways to get things right, there are plenty of ways to get things wrong. Betting on people getting things right is betting against the odds.