Beneficial Bombing

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Mark Clodfelter. Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945. Univ of Nebraska Pr, 2011. Pp. xii, 347. Cloth $40.00.



1. Genesis in the Great War

2. Progressive Prophecy

3. From Prophecy to Plan

4. Breaching Fortress Europe, 1942-43

5. Bludgeoning with Bombs: Germany, 1944-45

6. Fire from the Sky: Japan, 1944-45

7. Progressive Legacies

Mark Clodfelter attempts to narrowly define the problem defined by Michael Sherry and others in the failure of strategic bombing to live up to its interwar claims of decisiveness. He argues that because air power started to take shape in the shadow of the Progressive era that the discourse became infused with progressive notions of rationality that could not live up to the operational realities of modern warfare. Central to these progressive notions was the idea that by its decisiveness, aerial bombardment could eliminate the horrors of Great War battlefields and rapidly induce the collapse of hostile regimes with minimal damage. Clodfelter argues that wartime contingency placed the speed of results at the apex of operational requirements, which was in direct opposition to the idea of decisiveness. By dilution and distraction, the Army Air Forces in World War II could not decisively locate the vulnerabilities of the enemy state that would have allowed air power to succeed.

Clodfelter’s approach can be described as internalist with acknowledged close family ties to the Air Force and a nearly reverential perspective on the architects of air power doctrine and an independent Air Force. Though he references Sherry on multiple occasions, and does not attempt to revise the larger narrative of a discourse that was unable to accommodate moral and ethical questions at critical moments in the transition to unrestricted area bombing against population centers, Clodfelter argues for a rationale that justifies the loss of agency amongst General Arnold and his subordinates to control targeting. In his estimation, the discourse that resulted in strategic bombing gaining its own exorable momentum was the tension between the prewar progressive ideals and external pressures, principally of a political (timetables for invasion) or a technical (weather interfering with sighting) nature.


Roger D. Connor, Spring, 2012

Clodfelter’s internalist approach to air power is problematic in that his evidence seems instead to argue less for a disconnect between progressive ideals and wartime contingency and more for a dominance of an internal drive for inter-service dominance by the Army Air Forces, which led to an application of airpower regardless of the presence of clear objectives or methodology.

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