TAC and TRADOC was about who would decide how airpower was to be used. But underlying this question was a more fundamental unresolved issue: what is the proper objective of military action? You would think this a rather important question, and the debate about it should be high-minded and serious, but at the most senior levels, the issue was often simply not joined, there being no wish on either side to dissolve the comity of the relationship. Where the debate did occur, in the engine room, it usually spiraled into a shouting match about which form of military power was the more important.1

If, with Clausewitz, you believed the proper target is the enemy army and submission of the opposing ground force is the only outcome of armed conflict that can be regarded as successful, then the Army had a fair—though only a fair—argument for primacy.2 Accepting this premise and building on it, the Army saw air forces as a powerful auxiliary, a deliverer of critical support. They relied on Air Force transport to get to the fight. They wanted air reconnaissance to increase their understanding of the battlefield situation. They had a considerable liking for close air support (CAS), which they saw as a kind of flying artillery. The Army seemed to want a relationship much like the one the Marines had created, an air-land team in which the Air Force acts as the Army’s air arm.Thus, while they argued it could not be decisive, they regarded air support as of such importance they did not want decisions about how to use it left to the Air Force.

Unhappily, the early airpower enthusiasts—the Italian Giulio Douhet, our own Billy Mitchell, others—turned this entire chain of thought on its head, arguing that land armies were more-or-less irrelevant because they could be flown around and over, bypassed in making direct, conclusive strikes at the enemy’s heartland. In my opinion, these gentlemen overstated the case, and because they did there has been, since the mid-1920s, an ongoing, sometimes quite nasty, always unproductive argument about whether, in fact, airpower is decisive in this way. To say the least, soldiers have been skeptical. As evidence for their view, they cite the report of the Strategic Bombing Survey of World War II, which established that bombing had much less impact on Germany’s economy than we supposed and, further, the inconclusive results obtained by airpower in both Korea and Vietnam.3

The idea that, on its own, airpower can never be decisive has seeped into the groundwater of Army thought, a belief so persistent it has become a kind of physical constant, like the mass of the proton. The Army view is quite understandable. If “boots on the battlefield” constitutes not only the definitive measure of victory but also the indispensable precondition for achieving it, then we need to fund the Army first and best, which is what most countries do.

Dialogue is a waste of time unless we agree on definitions, so we should start with the matter of what victory actually means. Army officers have tended to think in absolutist terms. Grant defined victory as the enemy’s “unconditional surrender,” though he allowed healing conditions at Appomattox and elsewhere. MacArthur claimed, “In war there is no substitute for victory,” the sort of cheerleading that moves the crowd but not the football. Clearly, our fascination with unqualified, total victory was not helpful in the termination phases of the Second World War. Roosevelt’s stated goal of “unconditional surrender,” in which Churchill reluctantly acquiesced, stiffened German resistance and reduced the likelihood of effective internal opposition to Hitler. In the Pacific, we in the end acceded to Japan’s holdout condition, that the Emperor remain as a symbol of sovereignty. There is much evidence that, had we been willing to show this flexibility earlier, we might have avoided the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, “victory,” like the “national interest,” is an increasingly mushy concept. Armed conflict seldom ends in an unmixed, binary result. Generally, the needle comes to rest somewhere in a spectrum of outcomes yielding greater or lesser advantage to one of the sides. It may be better to think that all military forces, ground, sea, and air, exist for the purpose of achieving, in combination with the other instruments of national power, specific policy objectives stated by the political leadership. The side that more or less achieves its objectives can claim victory.

Moreover, even if victory’s sole meaning is the destruction of hostile ground forces, airpower, acting independently, is quite competent to the task. Of course, armies can be defeated by riflemen firing at close range, and also by being battered, by being cold, by being hungry, by losing hope. It’s obvious that all these effects can be achieved from the air.

In judging this matter, we should be careful not to be blinded by atmospherics. Soldiers usually figure prominently in peace ceremonies. It may be a sword or sidearm that is handed across the table. Thus, victory is decorated with the symbols of land warfare, an agreeable tradition and perhaps even important in the process of normalizing relations between the contending parties. But we should not confuse victory’s essence with its trappings.

  1 This attitude is seldom seen on the battlefield, where every kind of help is welcome. It’s in the rarefied air of the Pentagon, or at other large, tranquil headquarters that this question arises, because how you answer it has a direct impact on budgets and end-strength.

2 Many in the Army went further, defining victory as closure with and defeat of the enemy’s ground force. Any other outcome, even one favoring our country, was by definition something other than victory. Such claims stand in interesting contrast with, for instance, Sun Tzu’s view of the army as an instrument for delivering the coup de grâce to an enemy previously made vulnerable.

3 The atomic attacks that ended Japanese resistance and avoided a costly invasion of the Home Islands are regarded as the exception that proves the rule. Concerning the forms of conflict that remain plausible, nuclear weaponry seems for the moment essentially unusable.