Airpower in Literature: Interrogating the Clean War, 1915–2015

  • Published

Airpower in Literature: Interrogating the Clean War, 1915–2015 by Kimberly K. Dougherty. Lexington Books, 2022, 223 pp. 

The idea of airpower in nondoctrinal, nonacademic literature is not a new or unique concept. The dream of manned flight in some shape or form, from the myth of Icarus to the adventures of sci-fi with flying machines across a myriad of worlds, appears in many literary works. The use of manned flight as a weapon of war is common. Yet for all the discussion and usages of airpower, not a lot of literary criticism discusses the use of airpower in literary works, at least until Kimberly K. Dougherty’s Airpower in Literature: Interrogating the Clean War, 1915–2015

Specifically, this work looks at those who flew missions and how their actions appear to other characters and to readers. The practitioners of airpower range from the modern “knights of the air” to futuristic cogs in a nameless mass, delivering death and destruction. In more modern times, with the proliferation of unmanned flight, airpower has grown even more impersonal, with even more chilling results. 

The works selected span multiple genres. Contemporary and historical fiction make up a significant part of the works analyzed. Dougherty also incorporates science fiction, as seen with the analysis of the bombing of Dresden in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969). Contemporary short stories, such as the ones set during the Vietnam era, offer Dougherty the chance to analyze airpower theory via the use of helicopters. Even young adult fiction makes the cut, as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008–2010) trilogy offers a contemporary younger audience the chance to see the impacts of airpower.

Some of the earlier works reflect the notion of romantic chivalry and heroism of the individual air warriors in the sky that later devolved into a more impersonal display of airpower and the people involved. Some, like Joseph Heller's Yossarian in Catch-22 (1961), depict individuals stuck in a relentless bureaucratic machine that destroys its own mechanisms as much as it damages the enemy’s. Others like Slaughterhouse Five show not the heroism of airmen like Billy Pilgrim but the devastating effects of airpower, especially against primarily civilian targets. Even as the bombing raid would, in theory, help Vonnegut’s prisoner of war end his time in captivity by ending the war, the resulting death and destruction in the novel outweigh those thoughts.  

Since airpower’s integration into modern warfare, theories and practitioners have seen it as a way to reduce the suffering and length of conflict. Dougherty incorporates “Clean War” into the title of her literary analysis, thus broaching the concept that airpower can be a faster, more efficient, and less bloody way to fight wars and achieve national objectives. The driving force of interwar airpower theory, especially in America, was the primacy of the strategic bomber. The strategic bombing of key adversary targets would cripple an adversary and bring about victory in the most expedient and decisive manner. 

Even as the reality of World War II dispelled many of those notions, the idea of airpower being the superior way to fight a war never disappeared. With the Gulf War of 1991, the technological advances in air-delivered weaponry highlighted how effective employment of aerial weapons could facilitate a quick and decisive military result. Operation Allied Force, the United States and NATO-led coalition that leaned on airpower as the primary method for defeating Serbian forces, gave further credence to the primacy of airpower to meet military objectives and minimize casualties. The dawn of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) went one step further, as Airmen could deliver desired effects without coming under any direct threat from the adversary. 

Yet as Dougherty's book demonstrates, it is hardly that simple. Considering the UAVs and more modern technology, Dougherty highlights the impacts on both operators and targets in her analysis of the play Grounded. The UAVs employ weapons that kill civilians, which does not paint airpower in a heroic light. Concurrently, the psychological stress on UAV operators, who are sitting in some cases half a world away, is not any less fraught because of a lack of direct danger to themselves. Yet watching people die from the effects of airpower can leave operators emotionally and spiritually scarred.  

Literature can offer insights that doctrine or academic treatises lack. Few will pack Douhet’s Command of the Air, the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys of World War II, or Warden's Five Rings as vacation reading. Yet some implementations of those concepts appear in literary works. Yossarian conveys that aviators, far from being the “knights of the air,” are just a part of the massive, impersonal war machine, instigators of the same slaughter as their ground or naval counterparts. District 12 residents from the Hunger Games can tell you all about the unleashing of aerial bombardment on a civilian population, at least those that survived. 

Dougherty's survey is not all-inclusive, as not every aerial campaign spawned a literary work. Still, the survey of works incorporated, some which many readers of this book will know and some that most may not have heard of, offers enough of a sampling to get her point across about airpower’s usage in literature and how over time the perception of airpower theory and the airpower practitioners evolved. This work seems primarily geared to an Air Force-type audience, or possibly a literary scholar wanting to research something as esoteric as airpower in literature. But for that audience, this work will spur some thought and new perspectives and examples of what airpower can and cannot do in war. If nothing else, it will offer its readers some new suggestions for outside reading, which is never a bad thing. 

Lieutenant Colonel Scott C. Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."