At the dawn of what can fairly be called the age of modern aviation, and indeed the modern age of warfare that coincided with it, there emerged what many people in retrospect now call “The Prophets of Aviation” meaning that the theories and practices of these early individuals shaped the future direction of aviation, and more specifically the use of it in warfare, for decades to come, and to some extent even today (Advocates of Strategic Bombing).
Two of the most prominent Prophets from the viewpoints of history and impact are James Molony Spaight and Giulio Douhet. Both made immeasurable contributions in the fields of aviation and warfare. In this paper, the theories and contributions of these men will be presented and compared with the ultimate goal of attempting to determine, in retrospect, which man had the best ideas. Douhet and Spaight in Historical Context
In order to adequately analyze and compare these two men, it is important to first understand the historical context within which these men lived. For well over four years, World War I raged on throughout Europe, but beyond the borders of that continent, the effects were widely felt. By and large, World War I was fought through trench warfare, by which men hid below ground in crudely dug trenches and tried to advance and gain advantage over their enemy.
In this type of fighting, however, a great deal of life and limb was commonly lost for the gain of a few inches of territory, if any. Clearly, this bloody, ineffective and crude method of warfare is something that humanity would avoid in the future if possible in any way. However, the reality of human relations is that war is a constant possibility. Therefore, following World War I, military experts sought ways of waging war that, ironically enough, would produce a decisive victory without quite so much blood, time and resources squandered.
Also during this time, aviation had made great advances, having been in existence several decades after the original invention of the airplane by Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright. Therefore, the time was right for military planners to explore the possibility of the use of the airplane as an effective military weapon. During this time, the “air power prophets”, chief among them Englishman James Molony Spaight and Italian Giulio Douhet, came into prominence. The Innovations and Ideas of Douhet
Italian General Giulio Douhet, as was previously stated, was one of the prominent military leaders of the early 1900s as well as one of the early innovators who put forth ideas concerning the use of air power as a military weapon. The overriding philosophy that drove Douhet’s avocation of new ways to fight militarily was to completely abandon the previous ways that war was fought, and to embrace the latest technology to win battles, and ultimately wars, before the enemy has time to engage in an effective defense, or worse yet, win the war itself.
To quote Douhet himself, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur” (Estes). At that time, the cutting edge technology that was available to change the character of war, as Douhet put it, was the airplane. Although many years have passed since Douhet uttered these words, they still hold true today in retrospect. Douhet’s mindset toward the use of the airplane was formed as a result of a horribly gained first hand set of experiences.
As a major Italian military leader during World War I, Douhet saw the tremendous damage to the mind, body and land that archaic strategy and tactics can do when combined with outdated weapons. In 1912, Douhet was tapped to lead the first aviation battalion in Italian history (Shiner), carving a niche in history for him from the outset, and admittedly placing a huge amount of pressure and responsibility on his shoulders, as the future of his country and her people was riding in the balance.
When Douhet started to seriously analyze the nature of warfare as it existed at that time, he came to the conclusion that the use of trench warfare, clumsy machine guns, and poisonous gas was a complete waste of effort and human life, not to mention money and other resources. Closely studying the major battles of World War I, in combination with his own experience, Douhet also decided that the usual ground warfare was better suited to defense rather than offense, and ultimately, victory. An example of this that Douhet presented was the scenario of a solider in a trench being able to fire one round per minute, typical for that time period.
If an attacker took one minute to reach his enemy, Douhet reasoned, these two fighters would in essence cancel each other out, with no gain by either side, and at best, everything remains the same in terms of the two armies fighting one another. However, if there existed a way for the single solider to cover large amounts of territory and have mobility as well as the ability to defend ones self, a huge advantage could be gained by that army overall. At the time, the best way to be able to do this was to harness the technology of the airplane to accomplish this.
The airplane was a sort of fortress that was agile and mobile, could be easily defended and staffed by one person, and inflict a huge amount of damage to the enemy due to the fact that the airplane could be rigged for example with machine guns that fire hundreds or even thousands of bullets in the same amount of time that the conventional ground soldier only is able to fire a single round. Because of the ability of the airplane to easily move such huge weapons, it represented an important advance over what the foot solider was faced with in the horrific trenches of World War I.
To expand on his theories, Douhet recommended that countries maintain very basic conventional armies and navies, and instead devote their time, talent and treasure to the development of air forces, with particular emphasis on the bomber plane, which had the unique ability to move, and deploy, huge bombs in opposition to an enemy (Harvey). The mindset behind this was that the opposing armies, as well as civilians, would be so devastated by the tremendous damage of heavy bombing that they would quickly lose the desire to engage in battle, thereby producing faster victories with less squandering of every conceivable resource.
Today, this sentiment is echoed in the modern tactics and mindset of “shock and awe”. The investments required for such a move would be compensated for by the private sector gains that would result from the need to manufacture airplanes, bombs and related equipment. When Douhet came out to publicly support the manufacturing of airplanes and related materials, allegations were made that Douhet was in the back pocket of the major Italian aviation manufacturers, but eventually, this rumor was surpassed by his integrity and devotion to duty (Shiner).
Ironically, from the standpoint of defense, Douhet held the position that within a setting of warfare dominated by air power, devoting extensive, and expensive resources to defense was a waste of time and money. This was based on his assertion that from the air, too many targets existed to be able to defend even a fraction of them with any effectiveness. The “no defense” sentiment of Douhet also fits in with his assertion that air warfare was offensive, rather than defensive, in nature. In hindsight, Douhet was truly ahead of his time and many of his theories hold true even today.
The Philosophy and Theory of Spaight Like Douhet, James Molony Spaight experienced first hand the terrible price in human blood and scorched earth that World War I has exacted because of the primitive weapons and methods that were in use up to that time. Additionally, in a similar school of thought as Douhet, Spaight advocated the use of an organized air force as an effective method of warfare (Meilinger). Beyond this basic agreement on the use of airpower, Spaight’s theories on the actual deployment of air power differed from that of his “fellow prophet”, Douhet.
If Douhet is considered the father of air power, it could be fairly said that Spaight was a mentor of air power. Where Douhet advocated a more widespread form of bombing from the air, in an effort to totally decimate the enemy from a wide variety of viewpoints, literally blasting them into submission, Spaight was more in favor of what came to be known strategic bombing. In strategic bombing, targets are carefully selected and attacked due to their importance in supporting the needs of the people of that particular nation or region.
For example, a strategic bombing mission may target electrical power plants, water reservoirs and other facilities that put the opposition at huge disadvantage when they are destroyed. By doing this type of bombing in a more focused and planned way, the enemy, having been cut off from many vital needs, would soon be forced into a surrender mode, achieving what the ancient trench warfare could never achieve and the same net result that Douchet’s more scattered type of blanket bombing also achieved but in a vastly different way.
The mindset of Spaight’s idea of saturating cities with huge bombing dumps actually had some logic to the plan. In Spaight’s mind, by delivering such a crushing blow to major cities and major infrastructure, there is a result of huge devastation and death within those areas, but in the larger picture, this achieves decisive victory in war with less casualties in general than the other war methods that were used up to that time (Gardam, et al). In an ironic twist, the practices that Spaight so strongly believed in and promoted with such vigor became a source of regret for him as the years went by.
Due to the proliferation of strategic bombing in wars following World War I, it is arguable that Spaight, for all of the advantages of this type of bombing as a means of reducing casualties in the larger scope of necessary armed conflict, he felt some sense of responsibility for creating something that led to the destruction of so many lives, despite the other deaths that it avoided. Perhaps Spaight himself said it best when he was quoted as saying “make machines and not mankind the mark of your attack” (Ford). This signified a turn of sorts in Spaight’s mindset about the use of air bombing in modern warfare.
While he still believed that the use of airpower and strategic bombing was important and useful, he now focused more sharply on the destruction of the vehicles, weapons and aircraft of the enemy, thereby taking away the weapons of the enemy and making victory over that enemy possible without all of the death that even the earlier versions of strategic bombing caused to happen. Worthy of note was also the contribution that Spaight’s theory of strategic bombing did to advance the cause of the modern air force, a contribution that is still being felt today.
Basically, strategic bombing proved the value of air power in winning battles and wars with less bloodshed, cost and use of resources. Because of this, many nations embraced the concept of the air force as its own branch of the military, and provided the funding and other elements that the air forces would need to grow and thrive independently. Because of Spaight and the other pioneers of air warfare, many of the modern military advances in place today were born. Who Had the Best Idea?
Clearly, both Douhet and Spaight were innovators whose ideas changed the face of warfare forever, and incredibly enough, did a great deal to save lives as an improvement over the brutal warfare methods in place before these men emerged as air pioneers. Ultimately, however, the question remains as to who had the best idea- Douhet with his total offense method of mass bombing from the air, or Spaight with his plans of carefully aimed strategic bombing of select targets for fewer, more effective, strikes?
For a variety of reasons, a valid argument can be made that Spaight had the better ideas of the two. First, the practicality of Spaight’s methods is superior to Douhet- the careful planning of hard hits on vital targets is the best use of equipment, resources, manpower and money. Beyond the practical considerations, the preservation of life needs to be considered, and while Spaight’s ideas did cost human lives, the cost was far less than Douhet’s plans would entail and of course are a world away from the warfare that was previously practiced.
Finally, in hindsight, Spaight’s ideas added huge value to modern air powered warfare. In closing, let it be understood that past, present and future, the plans and theories of James Molony Spaight revolutionized the use of the aircraft in warfare in his time, and continue to do so in the present. While no form of warfare is desirable, Spaight was able to lessen its deadly effects and take some of the sting out of the tragedy of battle. Works Cited Advocates of Strategic Bombing. 2005.
World of Aviation Website. 3 Aug. 2006 <http://http://www. century-of-flight. freeola. com/Aviation%20history/coming%20of%20age/Advocates%20of%20Strategic%20Bombing. htm>. Shiner, John F. “Reflections on Douchet. ” Air University Journal Jan-Feb (1986): . 3 Aug. 2006 <http://http://www. airpower. maxwell. af. mil/airchronicles/aureview/1986/jan-feb/shiner. html>. Dr. Meilinger, Phillip S. “Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945.
” Parameters 32. 4 (2002): 159+. Questia. 3 Aug. 2006 <http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=5002508209>. Ford, John C. S. J. “10 The Morality of Obliteration Bombing. ” War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics. Ed. Richard B. Miller. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1992. 138-169. Gardam, Judith Gail, and Walzer. “Proportionality and Force in International Law. ” American Journal of International Law 87. 3 (1993): 391-413.