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A Strategy Based on Faith: The Enduring Appeal of Progressive American Airpower

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Journal article

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For the past eight decades, many progressive-minded airmen have argued that bombers offer a way to win wars more quickly and more cheaply than a reliance on surface forces. Vastly improved technology has reinforced the notion that bombing can achieve almost antiseptic results, and the idea of a near-bloodless victory has had a special appeal to Presidents as well as to Air Force pilots. That is not to say that progressive ideals have always dictated how America has used airpower. In some cases during the previous 80 years, progressive notions have remained dormant or been transformed in others, they have been loudly articulated. Still, as the al-Zarqawi raid shows, they have never completely disappeared from the way American political and military leaders think about bombing. Thus, the progressive assumptions that have helped to shape the American approach to airpower merit close scrutiny. Airpower is a term that includes both lethal and nonlethal uses of military force above the Earths surface, but in this article, the term denotes bombing, the lethal application that has triggered the greatest amount of debate regarding its utility. The articles purpose is threefold first, to examine the progressive roots of American airpower and how they have helped mold bombing concepts during the past eight decades second, to explore why and how wartime Presidents have periodically embraced progressive tenets and married them with their war aims and third, to show that the central premise of progressive airpower -- that bombing is a rational, just military instrument because it makes war cheaper, quicker, and less painful for all sides than surface combat -- is a flawed notion that frequently undercuts American political objectives and helps to achieve the antithesis of the desired results.

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  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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