"Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes of the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur."
One of the 20th century's earliest advocates of air power (and quite possibly the most vociferous), General Giulio Douhet's staunch support of strategic bombing would take the doctrine of total war in a terrifyingly modern direction: establishing air superiority over enemy territory and mercilessly bombing their industrial centers, thereby forcing the enemy to sue for peace. This notion that controlling the air could win a war regardless of land or sea power, was attractive to a world that had just endured the horrors of a static, brutal form of combat.
Giulio Douhet was born just outside Florence on May 30, 1869. His family had a long tradition of military service to the House of Savoy. He attended the Genoa Military Academy and was commissioned into the artillery upon his graduation; he would later study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Turin. By the turn of the century he had lectured and published extensively on the subject of military mechanization.
"The Army and the Navy must recognize in the Air Force the birth of a third brother-- younger, but none the less important, in the great military family."
Douhet's career with the Italian Air Force began in 1909. Until then he had only seen three flying machines in his life, and had never flown before; but he quickly recognized the military potential of dirigibles, and especially the new fixed-wing aircraft; he also saw the danger of allowing traditional ground commanders to head an air force and became an early advocate for a separate, autonomous air arm. His blunt, outspoken manner would later land him in trouble.
In 1911 Italy went to war against the crumbling Ottoman Empire for control of Libya. Among the forces deployed was the Italian Army's entire contingent of 9 aircraft under Douhet's command. The conflict saw a number of "firsts" in military aviation: the first artillery spotting mission, the first bombing run, the first aerial photography reconnaissance, as well as the first aircraft lost to enemy fire (shot down by Turkish rifle fire).
The powers that be were quite pleased with Douhet's results, and the army formed a full-fledged aviation battalion under his leadership-- but his tenure was brief. Headstrong and impatient with the bureaucratic foot-dragging of his superiors, he ordered the construction of a three-engine, 300hp prototype bomber that is now widely regarded to be years ahead of its time. His impertinence lost him his command and he was relegated to exile in the infantry.
After the start of World War I Douhet continued to make a nuisance of himself, calling for a military buildup and proposing a group of 500 bombers capable of dropping 125 tons of ordnance a day. Once Italy entered the war in 1915, he became increasingly vocal in his criticisms of the army's incompetence and unpreparedness. Douhet regularly castigated his superiors and government officials over the conduct of the war and repeatedly endorsed air power solutions. He was eventually arrested and court-martialed on charges of spreading false news and agitation, and was sentenced to a year's confinement in military jail.
Incarceration didn't shut Giulio Douhet up, and he continued to write from his cell. He was released shortly after Italy's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in 1917 and returned to duty in his new capacity as central director of aviation at the General Air Commissariat, where he continued his work to better the Italian Air Force.
In June 1918 Douhet became so disgusted with his superiors that he resigned his commission and left the army. After the war's end his conviction was overturned and he was promoted to General. Despite his promotion he declined to return to active duty and devoted his time to writing. In 1921 he published his most notable work, The Command of the Air.
"To conquer the command of the air means victory; to be beaten in the air means defeat and acceptance of whatever terms the enemy may be pleased to impose."
Douhet argued that ground forces would be rendered nearly obsolete by effective air power: warfare would become almost exclusively air-based, as the only way to effectively combat an air force is with another air force. Also central to his theories was the striking idea that bombers would be the primary weapon: higher- and faster-flying than any fighter craft, foreshadowing in many ways our modern super-bombers. His book expanded upon the idea of total war and applied it to the skies. In Douhet's mind, no population center would be safe from the devastating preemptive strikes that would characterize the wars of tomorrow. As always, his ideas were lightning rods for controversy. His colleagues in the army and navy were understandably perturbed with his thinking. Reception outside of Italy was mixed: he was regarded as a bit of a curiosity by the RAF, but he was widely read and discussed in France, Germany, and the United States.
"I have a mathematical certainty that the future will confirm my assertion that aerial warfare will be the most important element in future wars, and that in consequence not only will the importance of the Independent Air Force rapidly increase, but the importance of the army and navy will decrease in proportion."
Though radical to say the least, the General's theories were still very much a product of the Great War-- and ironically they shared many of the failings of the time's strategic conventional wisdom. Just like the trenches' brutal arithmetic of lives lost per yard of territory gained, so are Douhet's calculations overly scientific and precise to a fault. There are no allowances for the vagaries of wind and weather or the human variables inherent to combat: stultifying boredom, abject terror, and sheer, stupid self-destructiveness.
It wasn't until World War II that Douhet's theories were put to the test, and the results were often not what he had predicted. The Battle of Britain disproved his idea that an air force was a strictly offensive instrument and emphasized the importance of fighter aircraft; The Blitz showed that a civilian populace could maintain its resolve in the face of horrendous bombings. In other respects he has been spot-on: Douhet's visions of accurate, long-range bombers capable of defending themselves were manifested in such craft as the B-17 and B-24; and his ideal of an independent air force would finally be recognized in the years following the war. The nuclear age's effect upon these theories is still uncertain; some consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be the ultimate manifestation of Douhet's principles.
"When my brother and I built the first man-carrying flying machine we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible."
-Orville Wright, 1917.
In 1922 Giulio Douhet once again returned to public service as commissioner of aviation, appointed by Benito Mussolini when the Fascists came to power. He soon left the bureaucracy and returned once more to writing, which he continued to do until his death from a heart attack in 1930. His legacy, disputed as ever, has been exercised to some extent in every conflict since-- with varying degrees of success. Yet despite the undeniable utility of air power, and resounding successes like operations in Kosovo there still exists the need for a ground force: an airplane cannot take and hold ground, and the war in Iraq has demonstrated the necessity of ground-pounders. But as far as shock and awe is concerned, the "father of airpower" would certainly approve.