Our special Christmas day guest post comes from General Giulio Douhet. Douhet is the father of modern air power, and writes a weekly column for the New York Times. He tweets at @DouhetNYT.
Late this Christmas season I was introduced by the hosts of this fine publication to a short film dubbed “Peace on Earth.” This film depicted an aging rodent and his young rodent family in what appeared to be post-war bliss. The last war, so the story went, had resulted in the complete destruction of the human race, thus leaving the fields, farms, and homes to the surviving animals. Intended no doubt to evoke the horrors of the recent war, the film implied that the likely devastation of future human conflict ought to force the accumulated peoples of the world to make every effort to avoid future war.
Unfortunately, I came away tremendously disappointed.
While the devastating effects of airpower are shown (or at least implied) in the film, the second order effects are not considered. Waves of bombers can destroy cities (dropping as much as a thousand tons of bombs per city, if necessary), an operation which has critical effects on the rest of the war machine. Artillery, machine guns, tanks, and heavily equipped infantrymen fighting to the last after an aerial bombardment? Not likely. The war machine will begin to break down after the first few hundred tons of bombs are dropped, with industry collapsing and intricate mobilization orders coming to naught.
As I wrote in the War of 19–,the next war will be won not by gas mask wearing soldiers, but by proud aviators flying bombers not unlike the Caproni Ca. 5 (capable of flying at 160 kilometers/hour), or even the Gotha G5. In the future, we might be able to conceive of bombers that could carry as much as 3000kg worth of aero-chemical bombs, and strike targets at as far as 1200 kilometers distant. In the first days (perhaps even hours) of the next war, the two sides will commit their full strength to the aerial war, with one side inevitably proving victorious. Formations of bombers, shrugging off insignificant pursuit groups, will deliver bombs and poison gas to the enemy. The Independent Air Force that dominates the sky will methodically destroy the cities, railways, depots, and staging areas of the enemy, reducing its victim to helplessness in less than a week. The defeated will then sue for peace. Trench warfare, as envisioned by the less-than-imaginative military leadership of past conflicts, will be utterly superfluous to the outcome of future battle, thus rendering the depiction of combat in “Peace on Earth” quaint and idiosyncratic.
And this, indeed, is the true peril implied by the film; that our next war shall be fought by unimaginative, unenlightened ground and sea commanders, not to mention civilians with little knowledge of or interest in the most complex aspects of warfare. While humanity itself will not be annihilated in the last war, the society that fails to prepare by creating a strong, Independent Air Force supported by a large scale aviation industry surely will suffer virtually complete destruction. So too those who heed the siren song of “air defence” and “pursuit planes”; such weapons will only marginally slow the destruction wrought by heavy, well protected battle planes. Woe be to the civilization that fails to prepare for Command of the Air, and to the nation that lacks the courage and fortitude to drop poison gas on the cities of its enemies. Let me be clear; the only way in which “Peace on Earth” will come to pass is if men are too cowardly to drop poison gas on the families of their foes.
I should also note that the post-war situation described in Peace on Earth similarly fails to satisfy. An owl sagely read to the squirrel, when in reality the owl would take advantage of its Command of the Air to quickly kill, eviscerate, and devour the juvenile rodent. Simple logic dictates that the birds would quickly come to dominate any post-human landscape, with the largest, most powerful birds at the top. Much like the flocks of Caproni Ca.1s that would have darkened the skies over Vienna if the fools in Rome had listened to me instead of throwing me in prison, these birds will have dominion over the earth.
Skip “Peace on Earth.” However, I highly recommend “Donald Duck Snowball War,” a technically accurate and deeply moving film about the tragedy of siege warfare.