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 1996/1997 Journal of Legal Studies 

The Development of US Strategic

Bombing Doctrine in the Interwar Years:

Moral and Legal?

Lt Col Peter R. Faber


In 1927, G. F. Bridge asked a rhetorical question–what should we teach about war? His answer reflected the bias of an overwhelming number of American airmen who served before and during the Second World War. In war, Bridge opined, reverence for human life could be carried to "immoral idolatry."1 The true evils of war were not human suffering or death but wrongful behavior and injustice. Since most faculty members of the U.S. Army’s Air Corp Tactical School (ACTS) during the interwar years agreed with Bridge’s premise, they tried to minimize the "frictions" of improper or illegal behavior by developing a unique way of strategic air warfare–unescorted high altitude precision daylight bombardment (HAPDB) against the key nodes of a nation’s economic-industrial heartland. Further, members of the ACTS "Bomber Mafia"2 indoctrinated countless students with their vision. Of the 1,091 graduates of the ACTS from 1921-1940, 65 percent of them attended the school from 1936-1940, and therefore were exposed to a mature form of what critics described as "Bombus Fervidus."3

The 261 students of ACTS who then became Air Force generals in World War II (including among them the leaders of the War Plans Division of the War Department), spread this "disease" further.4 Yet, regardless of HAPDB doctrine’s elevation to doctrinal orthodoxy, it is appropriate to ask if unescorted HAPDB was both moral and legal. This article will attempt to show that the American way of strategic air war in World War II, as first codified by the interwar Tactical School, was moral and legal, provided one applies the standards that applied at the time. To support this basic theme, this article will first describe the development of US strategic bombing doctrine by the ACTS in the interwar years and then explain why it was morally and legally sufficient at the time.

The ACTS Doctrine of Strategic Air Warfare

In his 1931 History of the Air Corps Tactical School, Captain J. D. Barker made a now familiar claim–World War I transformed aviation from a "plaything of sportsmen" into a powerful instrument of war.5 Each belligerent, Barker argued, ultimately realized that air power was "a force within itself," and that its "power of destruction would perhaps be the decisive factor in the outcome of future wars."6 In the case of the United States, however, Captain Barker was wrong. Postwar military traditionalists did not agree with Army airmen on the potential decisiveness of air power.

To early airmen like Edgar Gorrell, Thomas Milling, William "Billy" Mitchell, and William Sherman, the airplane was a revolutionary instrument of war. It offered an alternative to the carnage and futility experienced in World War I. Henceforth, long-range bombers would leap over an opponent’s ground-based defenses and either terrorize whole populations into submission, as Giulio Douhet suggested, or paralyze an enemy nation’s industrial capacity to wage war, as later advocated by faculty members of the US Army’s Air Corps Tactical School. The bomber, in short, was an apocalyptic instrument of war that was qualitatively different from any weapon that had come before. Rather than slowly defeating an enemy nation from the outside in, as armies had done for centuries, the bomber could now quickly destroy that nation from the inside out.

In contrast, interwar Army and Navy traditionalists did not believe the modern bomber was a revolutionary, war-winning weapon. Its technology, they argued, was too primitive to match the promises made on its behalf. Further, bombers could not unilaterally defeat an enemy nation without the active cooperation of ground and naval forces, nor could they defeat an opponent quickly (i.e., humanely), as also promised. As a result, Army and Navy leaders argued steadfastly that land-based air power was only an auxiliary tool of war. General John J. Pershing, for example, expressed the view of the "old guard" when he observed:

An Air Force acting independently can of its own account neither win a war at the present time, nor, so far as we can tell, at any time in the future. . . . [If] success is to be expected, the military Air Force must be controlled in the same way, understand the same discipline, and act in accordance with the Army commander under precisely the same conditions as the other combat arms.7

Navy spokesmen, in turn, informed the Howell Commission (1934) that the primary role of the Air Corps was to operate as an arm of the mobile Army, and only afterwards to conduct "Air operations in support of or in lieu of naval forces."8

Although the above disagreement over the nature and role of air power survived well into World War II, it can be deceptive. It wrongly implies that Army airmen already had a well-reasoned set of principles about air combat in the early 1920s. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. After the Armistice, the US Army Air Service not only lacked a coherent, working set of propositions on how to use military aviation properly, it also lacked a specific doctrine upon which airmen could base the organization and training of aviation units.9 In other words, the Army Air Service had yet to codify itself, either organizationally, educationally, or doctrinally. It still awaited the types of reforms Secretary of War Elihu Root had introduced to the "Old Army" at the turn of the century.10 As a result, early zealots like Gorrell, Milling, Mitchell, and Sherman sought to define the future direction of the Air Service and later the Air Corps. In particular, they and their successors adopted a three-part strategy to institutionalize Army aviation, to include developing a unique air doctrine at the just-opened Air Service Field Officers’ School (ASFOS) (1920-1921), which the War Department later rechristened the Air Service Tactical School (ASTS)(1922-1926), and then the Air Corps Tactical School (1926-1940). (From 1920 to 1930, the location of the ASFOS/ASTS/ACTS was Langley Field, Virginia. From 1931-1940, the location of the ACTS was at Maxwell Field, Alabama.)

Unfortunately, right after World War I the United States "found itself with an Air Service which through necessity had been hurriedly gotten together and consequently poorly trained and inadequately organized."11 What the Army Air Service needed now was a progressive, well-articulated school system designed to do three things: 1) train officers to become competent commanders and staff officers of air units up to and including an air brigade and army air service; 2) teach these same officers air tactics; and 3) originate sound tactical doctrine for the Air Service as a whole.12 In order to accomplish these goals, on 25 February 1920, the War Department authorized the creation of 11 special service schools for the Air Service, including what soon became the Air Service Field Officers’ School. Air leaders then ordered Major Thomas Milling, a protégé and former Chief of Staff of Billy Mitchell in Europe, to organize the ASFOS, begin teaching principles of leadership and tactics, and develop Air Service doctrine. In order to accomplish these goals, he recruited Major William Sherman as his assistant. (Sherman had also worked for General Mitchell in the AEF and in the postwar Air Service Training and Operations Group. Like Milling, he was a disciple of Mitchell.) With Sherman as his assistant, Milling hoped to develop the ASFOS into the clearing house for air tactics and doctrine in the Army. Unfortunately, nothing but the most meager data was available on air doctrine at the time.13 As a result, the ASFOS/ASTS had to first rely on a smorgasbord of diffused and uncoordinated texts that competed, in Darwinian fashion, for the hearts and minds of students and operators alike.

However, although the ASFOS/ASTS used texts developed by a variety of sources, the majority of the materials were Army-centered, including the Bombardment text of 1924-1925, which argued that bomber aircraft were nothing more than large caliber guns that could out-range and out-strike other types of guns, and thus harass infantry columns and interfere with the concentration of troops.14

The Bombardment text was highly representative of the rough-hewn ASFOS/ASTS curriculum, and it did not stray from Army orthodoxy. It agreed that principles of strategic air power were still few and far between, and that pursuit aviation, since it had to achieve the necessary first step of air supremacy, remained the arm of the Air Service. And yet, from the beginning, key members of the Tactical School (like Thomas Milling and William Sherman) focused not just on bombardment’s current (and limited) capabilities, but on its future potential.

As already mentioned, Milling and Sherman had directly worked for Billy Mitchell in World War I and in the postwar Air Service Training and Operations Group. In both cases, they stimulated each other’s thinking and began to develop the foundations of future Air Force doctrine.15 They also took their pro-Mitchell ideas to the ASFOS/ASTS, where Milling served from 1920-1925 as the School’s commandant and Sherman worked twice as his chief of training, from 1920-1923 and intermittently from 1923-1925. Although Milling, Sherman, and their colleagues did not develop a full theory of air power, they did do one truly critical thing. They established the Combined Air Force Course (later known as just the Air Force Course) as the core offering at the Tactical School. The course did not kowtow to Army directives and it was the one place where heretical airmen could present radical ideas about the future possibilities of air power, both over land and sea. Significantly, the first filigrees of a new doctrine appeared in the 1925-1926 Combined Air Force Course and its text, Employment of Combined Air Force.

Whoever wrote the 1925-1926 text remains a mystery, but the fingerprints of Milling and Sherman are all over it. The text provides a series of working propositions that establish an intellectual foundation for the follow-on work of the ACTS Bomber Mafia from roughly 1928-1935. In particular, the Combined Air Force text codified five crucial propositions of air warfare for Army airmen. 1) The goal of an air attack is "to undermine the enemy’s morale, [or] his will to resist."16 2) Airmen can best destroy morale, however, by attacking the interior of an opponent’s territory. Attacks against vital points or centers will not only terrorize populations into submission, they will also save lives. (In the future, for example, the Army will not have to gradually wear down and overcome enemy forces interposed between itself and an opponent’s territory.) 3) Air power is an inherently offensive weapon that is impossible, in absolute terms, to stop. 4) Since air power is the only military tool that can hit centers of concentration and sources of supply, and since it is the only tool that can undermine national morale with minimum effort and materiel, combatants should use it extensively in strategic operations. Strategic targets, after all, are typically more important than tactical ones. 5) Last, "In any scheme of strategical operations the object is to cause complete destruction or permanent and irreparable damage to the enemy which will have a decisive effect."17

The above points confirm that from 1920 through 1926 the ASFOS/ASTS did not develop a specific doctrine for the Army Air Service. What it did do, however, was formalize a series of principles or working propositions that provided a foundation for the second great contribution of the school–the development of a specific and unique air doctrine—from 1928 to 1935. The doctrine was the brainchild of a core group of instructors, including Robert Olds, Ken Walker, Harold Lee George, Don Wilson, Robert Webster, Laurence Kuter, Haywood Hansell, and Muir Fairchild. The doctrine, better known as the "industrial web theory," advocated unescorted high altitude precision daylight bombardment against the industrial infrastructure of a hostile nation. That infrastructure, in turn, contained stress points that, if disrupted or destroyed by incremental assaults, would lead to the collapse of an entire economy. In fact, the better a society organized its industry for peacetime efficiency, the more vulnerable it was to wartime collapse. All an attacker had to do, metaphorically speaking, was cut one or more of a society’s "essential arteries;"18 or break a needed spring or gear (as in an intricate watch), which would then inevitably stop working;19 or pull a critical playing card from an economic house of cards, which would then tumble to the ground; or pluck away a needed strand of a spider’s web, which would then lose its structural integrity and collapse upon itself. In all these metaphorical cases, the goal was always the same–to use long range bombers only against vital material targets located deep within hostile territory, and never to conduct harassing operations for the Army.20 The challenge was to identify which targets preserved the structural integrity of an opponent’s industrial or economic web, and to destroy or sufficiently weaken them.

The Bomber Mafia built upon the working propositions developed by Mitchell, Milling, Sherman, and other early airmen, but abandoned their earlier "morale-centered" approach to strategic bombing. The morale-centered approach stressed the psychological dimensions of war, undermining the enemy’s resolve and morale, and thus emphasized war’s irrational elements. The ACTS theory, in contrast, postulated a predictable, cause-and-effect world where your opponent’s industrial loss was by definition your military gain. Strategic bombing, therefore, was a rational activity with one huge problem–how to decide, in advance, what target set would trigger the mechanism leading to a predetermined political and military end.

But why did the Bomber Mafia turn away from a morale-centered approach? Bomber enthusiast Muir Fairchild provided an answer when he observed that the ACTS’s early Douhetian emphasis on possibly attacking civilian populations was "most repugnant" to the humanitarian and principled American people and was a way of war they "would adopt only with great reluctance and regret."21 According to Fairchild, the preferred option in a society shaped by the Enlightenment (and later defined by Progressivism, political messianism, technological fanaticism, moral exceptionalism, a frontier respect for marksmanship, and a desire to get the most "bang for the buck,") was not to directly undermine a people’s will or morale, but rather, was to assault those key links (electricity, oil, transportation, etc.) that interconnect and sustain an opponent’s economy.22 If the indirect consequences of this assault were lost morale, public pressure on the opposing government to revise its policies, or a policy shift or withdrawal by enemy governmental elites, so much the better. To advocates of aerial precision, however, a psychology-oriented theory of strategic bombardment was not efficient enough nor scientific (i.e., predictable or measurable) enough, nor moral enough to function as a direct method of war.

Was ACTS Strategic Bombing Theory Ethical and Legal?

Critics looking back now at the American strategic bombardment doctrine employed in WWII might acknowledge that the shift from population centers themselves as targets (to destroy enemy morale and erode their will to resist) and toward industrial nodes as targets was laudable, but nevertheless was an immoral and/or illegal means of waging war. In hindsight, it might appear that the tremendous loss of civilian life sustained, even under this web-centered philosophy, was not justified in terms of the military advantage gained. In other words, that we violated the legal and ethical obligation of "proportionality" required by the laws of war.

My position, on the other hand, is that by the moral-legal standards of the time, as defined by just-war criteria and the laws of war, attacking a nation’s economic infrastructure was neither immoral nor illegal, provided it complied with military necessity and proportionality. To support this conclusion, it is appropriate to ask two further questions: did the just-war tradition and international law provide explicit guidance on issues like noncombatant immunity, and did a "demoralization" of air warfare, in moral-legal terms, lead to the alleged excesses of the strategic air campaigns of World War II?

In the case of guidance, scholars generally agree that the just-war tradition continues to influence interstate violence in positive ways. It imposes constraints where none might exist; it generates debate where none might happen; it promotes doubts and unease about the use (and abuse) of force, without lapsing into utopian fantasies about the perfectibility of human beings; it directs action and judgment in "a world of limits, estrangements, and partial justice;" and it reminds decision-makers of the provisionality of all political arrangements.23 However, although there is general agreement about the benefits of the just-war tradition, there is disagreement over its constancy.

On the one hand, scholars like Michael Waltzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain tentatively acknowledge that the tradition is not consistent or unified, and that it is an ambiguous, "complex intellectual structure" shaped by many forces.24 On the other hand, scholars such as Ronald Musto and those associated with La Civilità Cattolica assert that modern just-war principles, such as the growing presumption against the use of force under any circumstances, are part of a peace tradition that hearkens back to the early church fathers.25 That the latter assertion is true is arguable, since the eschatological, other-worldly bent of the early church remains under dispute. Nevertheless, the emphasis on a direct intellectual tradition reinforces the idea, more wittingly than not, that there is an often-listed, age-old just-war canon that has its roots in the early church, especially when dealing with modern principles such as proportionality, noncombatant immunity, and (as already suggested) a growing presumption against war.26 Unfortunately, scholars who make this inference empty the just-war tradition of its true complexity and do not sufficiently acknowledge an uncomfortable truth–there is no single, coherent just-war position, neither now nor in the past (including the interwar years).27 Rather, there are (and were) clusters of ideas that have waxed and waned through time (in terms of their importance). These ideas, in turn, never evolved into a transhistorical system of simple moral rules embraced by all Christian theologians and moralists. That this basic truth is not sufficiently acknowledged by an entire school of just-war thinkers becomes immediately clear in their scholarly treatment of St. Augustine.

Moralists who focus on St. Augustine’s attempts to reconcile Biblical prohibitions against violence with a justification of war do not always note just how alien his thinking can be from contemporary standards of morality, especially when it comes to the concept of noncombatant immunity. As Paul Ramsey observes, immunity is a moot point in St. Augustine’s punitive conception of war.28 Augustine does not particularly stress individual rights, the evils of physical destruction, and the necessary creation of rules for right conduct. He minimizes these issues because in his mind death or physical harm are not preeminent evils of war, as they are for many contemporary moralists. For the children of Adam, death in particular is a mere physical rather than a moral evil. Given such a belief, the Bishop of Hippo’s vision of war is inherently dualistic. He basically focuses on internal dispositions and attitudes rather than on external conduct.

Disordered passions, to include revengeful cruelty and lust for power, riches, or glory, are what wars should correct. As dispassionately as possible, and with a restraint based on the duty to love even evildoers, the soldier tries to punish his opponent, reestablish right order, and prevent further wrongs. War, because it destroys disordered passions, thus becomes a generalized act of charity. It is an act of mercy, however, which assumes that individual and social morality are virtually the same. As a result, Ramsey notes that there is in Augustine a kind of "agnosticism" about what people do and suffer in war, and there is an expanded notion of war guilt that can potentially include whole populations.29 That this vision of warfare is alien to modern concepts of noncombatant immunity is obvious, since it 1) assumes a damaged soul is more important than a torn limb, and 2) rejects the current Western belief that you can wage war against an enemy state but not its people. (That the latter distinction makes enemy populations perpetual victims of either their own governments or an opponent’s errant bombs currently goes unappreciated, as does its propaganda value in supporting a presumption against war.) Saint Augustine’s vision of warfare thus illustrates Johnson and Elshtain’s point that just-war thinking is fractured and even contradictory, now and in the past. By wrongly stressing Augustine’s role in a continuum, opposing scholars do not properly acknowledge that the ideas of bodily suffering and collective guilt, for example, lurk in one major strain of "the" just-war tradition, and that this strain eventually shaped the thinking of American airmen in the interwar years, including the ACTS Bomber Mafia.

As in the case of St. Augustine, late medieval thinking on noncombatant immunity is more complicated than it first appears, and thus confirms the divided nature of just-war thinking even further. Thomas Aquinas, for example, does invoke Exodus 23:7 to prohibit the killing of innocents. He does not, however, specifically apply this dictum to war, nor does he make it completely clear that an innocent person is by definition a noncombatant. There is a rough approximation between the two at best. Aquinas further believes that the good of the state is preeminent among human goods. As a result, it is proper to kill dispassionately for the common good (to avenge wrongs and restore what has been seized unjustly, for example); it is appropriate to hold individuals culpable for voluntary types of ignorance; it is permissible to enslave POWs; and it is acceptable to deprive non-Christians of jus in bello protections in war. (Jus in bello matters involve how force can be used versus jus ad bellum issues which deal with when force can be used.) Such Thomist principles did not upend the nascent concept of noncombatant immunity, as promoted by the Peace of God and Truce of God movements, but they certainly complicated matters.30

Further, with the rise of the nation-state system, the logical weaknesses of just-war thinking became increasingly obvious, especially in the jus ad bellum prerequisites for armed conflict (a just cause, competent authority, and right intention).31 Ultimately, the solution to the problem was to transform what had begun as a moral system (and obligation) into a secular guise, i.e., international law. However, advocates of "the" just-war tradition fail to properly stress that what Francisco de Vitoria and the Salamanca School began, the Reformation finished: systematic just-war thinking, particularly when dealing with jus ad bellum principles, declined seriously as a thriving moral and theological activity. (Determining what constituted a rightly ordered community; whether a cause was always just; and if it was possible to actually prevent, punish, or rectify injustice became increasingly difficult among states that recognized no higher power than themselves, particularly when it came to their own rights and interests.)

Jurists like Hugo Grotius, Emeric Crucé, and Emmerich de Vattel subsequently absorbed just-war thinking into a new tradition centered on international law, but Michael Howard is uncharacteristically imprecise when he describes the period from 1648 to the first Hague Conference as the golden age of the jus in bello.32 Yes, due to the transition accelerated by the Salamanca School, the period focused on the rules of war rather than its justification, but strictly speaking jus in bello precepts remained a collection of moral guidelines nurtured and sustained in an overarching religious framework. As a result, the limitations on war based on legal rights and natural/moral law did not subsequently become one-in-the-same.

While it is wrong to assume that what is legal in war is also what is moral, it is equally dangerous to ignore the intimate relationship that law and morality developed in the post-Napoleonic era, especially as these concepts specifically relate to air warfare. To the action-oriented airmen of the 1920s and 1930s, what was legal was frequently assumed to be synonymous to what was moral (even though law commands compliance, while morality allows choice; law is "general and abstract," while morality is "concrete and personal;" laws are valid in a particular place, while moral rules are boundless; and "law is concerned with external conduct, whereas morality is a matter of internal motive.")33 If there was any ambiguity in the law, some airmen concluded, it inevitably appeared in the moral sphere as well. This commingling of law and morality was a critical development, because during the interwar years there were (at least) four broad factors that made the legal-moral rules governing American strategic bombing doctrine woefully imprecise, if not outright chaotic.34

First, if we are to believe legal pragmatists at the time, including M. W. Royse, James Spaight, Frank Quindry, and Elbridge Colby, there was no formal or informal body of air law to which a potential belligerent could refer. As Captain Colby observed in 1925, "There is no vast body of aerial law to which we can resort for guiding rules, precedents, and principles. There is not even any consistent body of usage. . . to which we can turn, at least no body of usage covering any considerable period of time or any wide range and variety of instances."35 Consequently, some jurists tried to establish air law by analogy, but likening aerial bombardment to sea-based attacks or ground-based artillery yielded another problem, as M. W. Royse observed:

To apply the set of customs or usages which have grown up around one group of weapons. . . to another group of weapons and another type of war, is to raise a question as to the very force of such customs or usages since they bear an inherent and inseparable relationship to the particular kind of warfare which they regulate. Thus, to attempt to regulate aerial bombardment by the customary practices which have grown out of land or naval warfare is to lay down a set of artificial regulations which will hardly stand the strain of war. . . . The same rules. . . applied to a new type of warfare, may come into direct conflict with the effective use of the new weapons, and inevitably be ignored.36

In short, to legal pragmatists, air warfare was different from traditional conflict. It needed a different set of rules, as jurist James W. Garner argued; the rules required time to develop; and in order to be credible, they had to "harmonize" with the ability to conduct effective military operations.37 In other words, the rules were mere guidelines, not "prophetic regulations." In order to avoid becoming quickly outdated, they had to adapt to the realities of air warfare, not the other way around. They needed to be few in number, flexible, and broad. (According to Frank Quindry, for example, such rules were only possible if jurists specifically accounted for the philosophies of war, notions of national defense, physical dimensions, geographical locations, industrial development, colonization policies, foreign trade policies, and offensive attitudes of neighboring states.)38

Second, there were those who questioned the viability of air law on technological grounds. They doubted that air forces possessed the necessary accuracy to spare civilians, private property, and "public institutions of a private character" from indiscriminate destruction. In aerial warfare, Garner representatively argued, "no regulations which can be agreed upon, even if they are scrupulously observed by the belligerents, are likely to be entirely effective in safeguarding the rights of non-combatants and private property in all cases."39 International law would arguably demand a level of accuracy from strategic bombers that was impossible based upon the technology of the era, or if the law did tolerate such inaccuracy, it would be immoral to merely abide by the law (because of needless exposure of non-combatants to danger) if the law failed to evolve as technology changed to improve precision. In either case, air law would fail to adapt, which Colby also agreed was vital: "We should recognize as international law only whatever is in real life practicable and applicable and useful and reasonable, . . . else the man in uniform will declare. . . that the regulations and restrictions may be in print, but do not correspond with facts and conditions."40

Third, legal pragmatists pointed out that no air-minded nation was willing to entangle a promising weapon system like the strategic bomber in the shackles of international law, and thus forego the political and military advantages conferred by a new (and revolutionary) technology.41 Each nation would first employ the air weapon to its utmost advantage and only later seek to regulate it, as illustrated by the one attempt to develop a significant body of air law in the interwar period–the Hague draft convention of 1922-23. Not only did the rules drafted for air warfare go unratified, they were also riddled with loop-holes. As Colby observed,

the new rules permit bombardment practically without restriction in what military men call the "theater of operations," and set up criterion of the military objective in what military men call the "zone of the interior." It will further be noted that the draft articles do not say that the bombs must fall exclusively on military objectives, only that they must be directed exclusively at such. They do not say that the bombardment of the civilian population is prohibited, merely that the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians is prohibited. Nor do they define the difference between a combatant and a non-combatant in accordance with modern terms . . . . Furthermore, the old excuse of aiming at a military objective and hitting some-thing else through sheer inaccuracy can still be advanced.42

Given the willful obstructionism of those who wanted to maximize the utility of a new weapon of war (including airmen in the United States and Great Britain), it should come as no surprise that on the eve of World War II an exasperated Sir Herschel Lauterpacht would state, "If international law is the weakest point of all law, then the law of war is virtually its vanishing point."43 (In the United States, a foreign "policy of drift" that began with Calvin Coolidge and ended only with the growing activism of President Roosevelt in the mid- to late-1930s helps explain American apathy toward a unified international legal norm.)

Fourth, because many "respectable" Americans saw the Catholic Church as an immigrant-dominated sect, the church was not as influential in promoting among its members its moral-theological views on how to define and conduct just wars. Instead, church members sought to demonstrate their "Americanness and ultra-loyalty" at every turn.44 The results were predictable enough: only four out of 3,989 conscientious objectors in World War I were Catholic; local church leaders taught that America had a unique responsibility to "restore peace and order" in the world; the influential Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP) supported preparedness in anticipation of another world war; and the traditional Catholic belief that peacemaking was an expression of individual conscience increasingly yielded to the idea that it was the result of international agreements secured by government elites.45 These examples (and more) illustrate that what mattered to American Catholics was assimilation, not the acceptance of the just-war tradition.

Because of the above general factors, advocates of strategic bombardment believed there were no specific substantive legal or moral principles that applied to air warfare in the interwar years. For instance, when it came to developing the concept of HAPDB against industrial targets, the ACTS Bomber Mafia had to conform to the 1914 and updated 1917 editions of US Army Field Manual 27-10, "Rules of Land Warfare." Yet, considering that FM 27-10 provided only very limited and outdated guidance on aerial warfare, bomber enthusiasts were forced to look elsewhere. This did not mean, however, that airmen had carte blanche to operate as they wished. There were general and customary rules of war they had to follow. However, the problematic nature of extending these norms to aerial combat (as previously discussed) allowed some philosophical flexibility for the airmen of the time.

The bomber advocates eventually aligned upon M. W. Royse’s Aerial Bombardment and the International Regulation of Wars (1928), which Oscar Westover, chief of the Air Corps, characterized as "a wonderful book."46 Royse was a legal pragmatist whose views appeared repeatedly in the Tactical School law text, International Aerial Regulations. In the 1933-34 version, for example, Royse argued that there were no rules that formally applied to air warfare, that informal rules existed only as a matter of form, and that the latter did not specifically apply to the issue of noncombatant immunity.47 Royse felt further, as did the equally influential J. M. Spaight (Air Power and War Rights, 2nd ed. 1933), that current assumptions on total warfare, military necessity, and brevity in battle specifically obscured the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants in air war. Both men were right–these assumptions certainly shaped the thinking of ACTS faculty members, who saw themselves in an era of legal-moral flux.

In the case of total war, airpower critic Louis Manzo claims that Giulio Douhet introduced a new moral sensibility that other airmen, including those at the ACTS, subsequently adopted.48 Since modern war required the resources of an entire nation, Douhet argued, it was absurd to distinguish those citizens who contributed to the war effort from those who did not. Everyone was a combatant and thus was culpable. While it may be true that there is a cruel and heartless pragmatism at the center of Douhet’s thinking, one should not overstate just how unique or influential his legal-ethical assumptions were. There was certainly nothing new in Douhet’s emphasis on total war. Airmen did advocate circumventing an opponent’s armies and directly assaulting his vital centers, but the idea that whole nations fought modern wars was common currency. In the case of Great Britain and the United States, it was traceable back to Anglo-Saxon law, which defined the subjects of mutually hostile states as belligerents. Given this legacy, Quindry and other American airmen argued that governments were agents of their people and that the people provided their government with industrial and military support (through conscription, for example).49

However, although Hal George, Haywood Hansell, Laurence Kuter, Muir Fairchild and other ACTS faculty members also thought modern war was total, they did not accept Douhet’s prescription for air warfare (the terrorizing of civilians into open revolt against their own government). To members of the Bomber Mafia, the totalization of war was not a passport to legal-moral nihilism. The general and customary barriers between killing troops and innocent civilians, as they understood it at the time, did not collapse. However, given that there was no consensus over applicable laws of air warfare and the jus in bello precepts embedded within them, the Bomber Mafia complicated the issue of non-combatant immunity by entangling it with the concept of military necessity. Nations had a right to self-preservation, they argued. There were unavoidable instances where military necessity required "private wishes, private property, [and] private safety [to] bow before the stern requirements of war."50 Within this context, however, airmen could claim that military necessity applied only to those things directly tied to military operations, or–in order to maximize their options–that "all national resources, even those remotely connected with . . . military operations, are military objectives."51 The bomber advocates fell between both options, although they gravitated towards the first. As Maj Conger Pratt observed to Army War College students, for example, "if a manufacturing center is adjacent to a city and is considered essential for the success of the operation that it be bombed, I believe any commander would be justified in sending his aircraft to attack that objective."52 In other words, military necessity overrode any incidental harm to civilians and damage to property. Of course, what constituted a military necessity remained an open question, especially during World War II. (Was its definition so broad, for example, that it robbed the term of its true meaning?)

Finally, bomber advocates not only assumed that war was total and dictated by military necessity, they also felt that in war brevity equaled mercy. According to Douhet, short and total wars were less brutal in the long run than traditional conflicts, i.e., they shortened agony and saved lives. To their credit, critics of Douhet (such as Michael Sherry) acknowledge that his defense of this notion was "somewhat in line" with traditional "consequentialist" attitudes, but they fail to acknowledge just how widespread the idea actually was. Article 29 of the Lieber Code, for example, argued that humanity would suffer less in short, vigorous wars, and that the promise of large-scale suffering might actually act as a deterrent to future aggression. In turn, Helmuth von Moltke claimed in 1880 that the greatest kindness in war was to bring it to a quick end.53 Admiral Jackie Fisher spoke for many Edwardian soldiers when he argued that moderation lengthened wars, and thus promoted greater violence. Thomas Milling, the first commandant of the ASFOS/ASTS, subsequently agreed. As an active supporter of military preparedness, he stressed the need to organize and strengthen a peacetime air force that would ensure the winning of future wars in minimum time and with minimum bloodshed.54 (The emphasis on preparedness in the United States originated in World War I and complemented not only Milling’s emphasis on brevity, but also his fellow airmen’s drive for organizational autonomy and an independent mission–HAPDB.)

Lt Gen Ira Eaker, a distinguished ACTS alumnus and future commander of Eighth Air Force, in a January 11, 1979 letter to Professor Ronald Schaffer, justified the moral character of American strategic bombing in World War II as follows: 1) it preserved and protected the just against the criminal (note the Augustinian emphasis here), 2) the civilians supporting their national leadership were equally responsible for the decisions made by that leadership, and 3) the vigorous prosecution of the war prevented an even greater loss of human life.55

Yet, even though the above concepts appear to illustrate the actual moral values of an unsettled era, they still do not do the era justice. Rather than illustrate a profound shift in values, for example, even paragraph 186 of the German Luftwaffe’s important service directive L.Dv. 16 (Die Luftkriegfuhrung, 1936), forbade "attacks on cities for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population."56 Second, to suggest that the US Army’s Air Corps Tactical School faculty discarded the concept of non-combatant immunity is too simple. Doctrinal sentiment was hardly monolithic among such disparate and argumentative men. The coterie that did shape America’s future strategic air doctrine–Robert Olds, Harold Lee George, Donald Wilson, Robert Webster, Ken Walker, Haywood Hansell, Laurence Kuter, and Muir Fairchild–genuinely believed that they had developed a doctrine designed to destroy carefully selected materials, and not civilians. That there existed a chasm between such a doctrine and the technology to realize it is undeniable, but what is objectionable here–a mid-Victorian faith in technology or an absence of moral standards vis-à-vis noncombatant immunity? Frankly, Tactical School faculty member Haywood Hansell’s targeting of industrial grids seems less representative of a profound legal-moral shift than as a pseudo-scientific attempt to rationalize war.

Ultimately, opponents of strategic air warfare need to overstate their moral-legal case in order to cast doubts on the ACTS doctrine of high altitude, precision, daylight bombardment and its legacy in World War II. In the case of the war, the argument typically goes as follows: "compromised by the cruel realities of war, US Army Air Force leaders disingenuously cloaked their pragmatic attempts to destroy urban targets in moralistic clothing." There is, however, a fundamental problem with this approach. According to Professor Schaffer, American air leaders prevented themselves from examining the moral-legal implications of strategic bombardment, as it related to noncombatant immunity, by adopting a group psychology that ignored the problem. The critics of strategic bombardment have repeated this argument, connected it to an alleged legal-moral shift that occurred in the interwar years, and suggested that jus in bello and legal precepts were ready alternatives to what later transpired in the Second World War. However, as the above discussion has tried to suggest, there is an alternative explanation: American airmen did not think that what they were doing was immoral or illegal, as they understood it at the time. As a result, there was no need, in Professor Schaffer’s words, for a "collective pattern of psychological defense through avoidance."57 Instead of a moral departure, there was an imprecise continuity that reflected the substantial moral and legal uncertainties of the time.



1. G. F. Bridge, "What Should We Teach About War?", in The Study of War 201 (Sir George Aston ed., Kennikat Press, 1927).

 2. Members of this group [and their dates of assignment to the school] included Robert Olds [1928-1931], Kenneth Walker [1929-1933], Donald Wilson [1929-1934, 1936-1940], Harold Lee George [1932-1936], Odas Moon [1933-1936], Robert Webster [1934-1937], Haywood Hansell [1935-1938], Laurence Kuter [1935-1939], and Muir Fairchild [1937-1940]. Except for Moon, who died prematurely, the other bomber enthusiasts subsequently became influential generals in World War II and after. Brig Gen Robert Olds, for example, became Commander of Ferrying Command. Brig Gen Ken Walker headed 5th Bomber Command in the Pacific Theater. On 5 January 1943, he died while leading a daylight bombing attack against Japanese shipping at Rabaul, New Britain. (For his "conspicuous leadership" during the raid, Walker posthumously received the Medal of Honor.) Lt Gen Harold Lee George guided Air Transport Command, which became Military Airlift Command during the "Cold War." Maj Gen Haywood Hansell Commanded 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific until he ran afoul of General Arnold. Laurence Kuter, who became a four-star general and Commander of North American Defense Command (NORAD) in the cold war, served as deputy chief of the Air Staff for plans. Muir Fairchild, another future four-star general, was the intellectual father of the Strategic Bombing Survey and a member of the Joint Strategic Survey Committee, which was "one of the most influential planning agencies in the wartime armed services." Ultimately, the ACTS Bomber Mafia was an inordinately talented "collective brain" with a unique vision, and the resolve to bring it to life. As Kuter later observed, "Nothing could stop us; I mean this was a zealous crowd." See Kenneth Schaffel, "Muir S. Fairchild: Philosopher of Air Power," Aerospace Historian 33 (September 1986): 168; and General Laurence S. Kuter, transcript of oral history interview by Tom Sturm and Hugh Ahmann, 30 September-3 October 1974, 165, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, Ala., file K239.0512-810.

 3. The officers who attended the ACTS during its heyday took 40 separate courses, of which 53 percent centered on air subjects. The five most ambitious courses were Air Force, Combined Arms, Bombardment, Attack Aviation, and Air Logistics. The ACTS legacy, as we know it, took shape primarily in the Air Force, Combined Arms, and Bombardment courses, which comprised roughly 10 percent of the curriculum and employed roughly 15-25 percent of the faculty. Within each course, the faculty relied on a variety of teaching methods, including lectures, discussions, quizzes, and illustrative/map problems. (The latter were pen-and-pencil war games conducted every Friday for four hours.) Students aided their own education by giving short, supplementary talks; participating in lecture discussions (actual lectures used only half of a 50-minute period); and conducting individual student research. In terms of the students themselves, the average officer was 39 years old, had 17 years of service, and had uniformly received nothing less than "Excellent" ratings in previous efficiency reports. Ninety percent of the students were airmen while the remaining 10 percent came from the other services or branches of the Army. Captains comprised the majority of the attendees (55 percent), while 29 percent were majors. For the above statistics, see C. A. McMahan, John Folger, and Stephen W. Fotis, Graduates of the Air Corps Tactical School, 1921-1940, April 1953, 3, 5, AFHRA file K243.041-2.

 4. Id. The number represents 80 percent of the Army Air Forces’s senior leadership, including 11 of its 13 three-star generals and all three of the four-star generals in service.

 5. Captain J. D. Barker, History of the Air Corps Tactical School, 1931, 1, AFHRA file 245.01B.

 6. Id.

 7. Comments by General John Pershing, n.d., 11, AFHRA file 248.211-16F.

 8. Navy Department inputs for the Howell Commission. See "I. General Organization," n.d., 9, AFHRA file 145.93-97. The Howell Commission was yet another board of inquiry that grappled with the proper status of the Air Corps in the interwar years. It decided, despite the opinion of Navy spokesmen, "that the Air Service had now passed beyond its former position as a useful auxiliary [to the Army] and should in the future be considered an important means of exerting directly the will of the Commander-in-Chief." As a result, the commission called for a highly mobile General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force that would operate as an "independent striking unit" and not merely as a strategic reserve. The Army, in the mistaken hope that the Air Corps would divide itself into pro- and anti-GHQ factions, finally agreed to the idea. See Major Guido Perera, A Legislative History of Aviation in the United States and Abroad, March 1941, 61, AFHRA file 167.401-28.

 9. Barker, supra note 5.

 10. Thomas D. Milling, The Air Service Tactical School[:] Its Function and Operation, 1924, 1, AFHRA file 245.01-3.

 11. Id.

 12. Id.

 13. Id.

 14. Air Service Tactical School, Bombardment, 1924-1925, 66, 83, AFHRA file 248.101-9.

 15. See Robert F. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force 1907-1960, 31 (Air University Press 1989).

16. Air Service Tactical School, Employment of Combined Air Force, 1925-1926, 3, AFHRA file 248.101-7A.

 17. Id. For points two through four, see 3-4, 12, 29. For point five, see 12.

 18. Donald Wilson, Long-Range Airplane Development, November 1938, 6, AFHRA file 248.211-17.

19. See "Address by Major General Frank Andrews Before the National Aeronautic Association," 16 January 1939, 8, AFHRA file 248.211-20.

 20. Kenneth Walker, Memo to Assistant Commandant, ACTS, 24 September 1932, 3, AFHRA file 248.211-13.

21. Muir S. Fairchild, National Economic Structure, ACTS lecture, 5 April 1938, 3-5, AFHRA file 248.2019A-10. Italian air enthusiasts (Giulio Douhet, Gianni Caproni, and Nino Salvaneschi) naturally saw things differently. They felt, in Salvaneschi’s words, that "One must not. . . doubt in the name of sentiment or in remembrance of pity. Sentiment was nailed to the Belgian cathedrals by William’s drunken soldiers, and pity was swallowed up with the broken fragments of the navy hospitals while the sailors of the U.[-boats] sneered." See Nino Salvaneschi, Let Us Kill the War: Let Us Strike at the Heart of the Enemy, 1917, 47, AFHRA file 168.661-129.

 22. The emphasis on technological fanaticism appears in Michael Sherry’s The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (Yale University Press 1987). The suggestion that we, as a pioneer nation, learned to value marksmanship appears in Haywood S. Hansell, The Air Plan that Defeated Hitler (Higgins-McArthur/ Logino and Porter 1972).

 23. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War as Politics: What the Gulf War Told Us About Contemporary American Life, But Was It Just? 54 (David D. DeCosse, ed. Doubleday 1992).

24. Id. at 43-60; See also, Michael Waltzer, Just and Unjust Wars (Basic Books 1977).

 25. See La Civilità Cattolica’s, Modern War and the Christian Conscience, in But Was It Just? 107-125; and Ronald G. Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Orbis Books 1986). The editorial writers of La Civilità Cattolica see the modern just-war canon as a departure from the past. It represents "an advance in Christian conscience" since it supposedly rejects the belief that "wars are waged for noble motives, to inaugurate a universal order of justice and peace[,] or simply to repair injustice." (See pp. 121, 123.) Musto, on the other hand, supports the idea of a long-standing peace tradition within the Catholic Church, regardless of how feeble it was at times.

26. For a clear statement of the presumption against war, see Modern War and the Christian Conscience, supra note 25. Although La Civilità Cattolica is a Jesuit publication that is neither an official or semi-official voice of the Vatican, it does work in "syntony" with the Holy See. Its presumption against war as a policy option centers on the continuing problems of non-combatant immunity and proportionality. Modern land and air warfare, the editorial writers observe, "makes all talks of ‘surgical strikes’ illusory. Both military targets and purely civilian targets are destroyed (because even when there is no desire to strike civilian populations, there is always the intent to demoralize the enemy)." The pretense of growing precision in war, therefore, is a sham. Instead of protecting human values, modern war actually annihilates them.

27. For a discussion of the "intellectual deterioration" and "self-marginalization" of current just-war thinking, due largely to its presumption against war, see James Turner Johnson, The Broken Tradition, National Interest 47 (Fall 1996), 27-36. As a leading pragmatist among just-war scholars, Johnson argues that the presumption against war is a modern and unjustified addition to the canon. More specifically, he argues that the concept inverts the logic of just-war thinking by putting jus in bello prescriptions (i.e., "lesser, prudential considerations" on what is proper behavior in war) ahead of more fundamental jus ad bellum determinations (i.e., when is it morally permissible to fight). The inversion began, in Johnson’s opinion, with the First Vatican Council’s Postulatum (1870), which shifted the central focus of just-war thinking away from opposing injustice to opposing violence. The assumption underlying the shift was that the political motives of modern states were inherently venal. Therefore, the first use of force could not possibly be just. See pp. 27, 30, 33-34.

 28. See Paul Ramsey, The Just War According to St. Augustine, in Just War Theory, 8-22 (Jean Bethke Elshtain ed., New York University Press 1992).

29. Id.

 30. The Peace of God movement had its origins in the Council of Le Puy (975) and sought to protect certain classes of people from the ravages of war, including eventually clergymen, monks, pilgrims, and nonbelligerent peasants. In contrast, the Truce of God movement, as articulated by the Council of Toulouges (1027), sought to restrict armed violence on certain days of the week (from Saturday evening until Monday morning, for example) and during certain times of the year (Christmas and Lent, for example). The ideas promoted by both movements eventually found their way into canon law and thus laid the foundations for the concept of noncombatant immunity. See James Turner Johnson, The Quest for Peace 78-91 (Princeton University Press 1987) and H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Peace and Truce of God in the Eleventh Century, Past and Present 46 (February 1970), 49-56.

 31. These weaknesses were due to the increasingly doubtful assumptions underlying just-war thinking. They included the following: 1) Catholic norms of just and unjust behavior were universal, 2) one could usually tell who was the victimizer and the victim in war, 3) moral appeals and arguments were central to the conduct of armed conflict, and 4) those who conducted just-wars had a "morally formed civic character." Was it not possible, doubters rebutted, to use just-war principles as a moral pretext for political hegemony, or as a salve for a bad conscience? See Elshtain, supra note 23 at 44-46; and A. J. Bacevich, Morality and High Technology, National Interest 47 (Autumn 1996), 45.

32. See Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford University Press 1976).

 33. Samuel E. Stumpf, The Moral Order and the Legal Order, in The Concept of Order, 388-389, 392-393. (Paul G. Kuntz ed., University of Washington Press 1968). For a contemporary argument that laws are particular and different, see Maj Hugh N. Herrick, Air Intelligence, ACTS student thesis, May 1937, 3-4, AFHRA file 248.501-90.

 34. Other factors historically may have also contributed to the confusion, such as the growth of US isolationism and global totalitarianism; the demise of the League of Nations; growing political antagonisms throughout the world; and, the push by a large segment of American society for preparedness and the creation of a standing military force. James M. Spaight, The Chaotic State of the International Law Governing Bombardment, The Royal Air Force Quarterly 11 (January 1938), 24-32.

35. Captain Elbridge Colby, USA, Aerial Law and War Targets, 19 Am J. Int’l l. 702 (October 1925). See also Morton W. Royse, Aerial Bombardment and the International Regulation of Bombardment 237-238, 241; (Harold Vinal 1928) James M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities 16 (Longmans, Green, 1930); Spaight, supra note 34 at 25; and the US Army Infantry School, Organization and Missions of the Air Corps, 1926-1927, 2, AFHRA file 248.211-61B.

 36. Royse, supra note 35 at 238.

37. See James W. Garner, International Regulation of Air Warfare, 3 Air L. Rev. 115 (1932); See also Royse supra note 35.

 38. See Frank E. Quindry, Aerial Bombardment of Civilian and Military Objectives, 2 J. Air L. 474-475 (1931). Quindry was a member of the Michigan Bar, a former pilot with the First Pursuit Group (Selfridge Field, Michigan), and a first lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve.

39. Garner, supra note 37, at 114.

 40. Colby, supra note 35, at 712.

 41. Spaight, supra, note 34.

42. Colby, supra note 35, at 714.

43. The Law of War, Proceedings of the Naval Institute 108 (May 1982), 98.

44. Musto, supra note 35, at 240.

45. Id., 240-241.

46. See Maj Gen Oscar Westover, "Military Aviation," a speech given to the Aero Club of America, Buffalo, NY, 17 December 1932, AFHRA file 168.7103-26. As previously discussed, part of Royse’s appeal to Westover and other airmen was his claim that "no nation . . . ever voluntarily relinquished an offensive weapon of warfare." See p. 2-3.

 47. Air Corps Tactical School, International Aerial Regulations, 1933-1934, 24, AFHRA file 248.101-16.

 48. See Louis A. Manzo, Morality in War Fighting and Strategic Bombing in World War II, Air Power History 39 (Fall 1992), 42.

49. Quindry, supra note 38, at 491.

 50. Colby, supra note 35, at 706.

51. Quindry, supra note 38, at 478.

52. Maj H. C. Pratt, "Organization and Employment of GHQ Army Air Forces," Army War College lecture, 1 November 1927, 15, AFHRA file 248.211-62A. Pratt would become commandant of the ACTS in the late 1930s.

 53. See Thomas E. Holland, Letters to "The Times" Upon War and Neutrality (1881-1909) 25 (Longmans, Green 1909).

 54. Thomas Milling, Air Power in National Defense, n.d., 12, AFHRA file number 248.211-122.

55. Correspondence in author’s possession.

 56. Quoted in Horst Boog, The Luftwaffe and Indiscriminate Bombing up to 1942, in The Conduct of the Air War in the SecondWorld War 378 (Horst Boog ed. Berg 1992).

 57. Ronald Schaffer, Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II 185 (Oxford University Press 1985).