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Pierre Sprey and Marilyn Young
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January 30, 2009

Once armies began using hot air balloons for surveillance in warfare, it quickly occurred to them to drop "grenades and other harmful objects" on the enemy, observes Yuki Tanaka in her introduction to BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY HISTORY, co-edited with Marilyn Young. Tanaka continues, "The use of airplanes in the early twentieth century led to a drastic change in war strategy: the wide expansion of war zones to include indiscriminate attacks on civilians."

In 1921, Italian tactician Giulio Douhet advanced a theory of air power that remains influential to this day: air power can win a war without ground forces by bombing an enemy's heartland. By bringing the war to civilians behind the frontlines, reasoned Douhet, they will cease to support the war effort, both materially and mentally. Without the support of the heartland, their army will be forced to surrender. Bombing civilians may be distasteful, proponents allow, but it saves more lives in the long run by shortening wars. Since then, nations have employed so-called "strategic bombing" in all the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Operating under this paradigm, historians and defense experts portray U.S. Presidents as having to make the tough decision to allow civilian casualties in pursuit of peace — from the fire bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Barack Obama's recent decision to launch Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. But the problem, as Pierre Sprey and Marilyn Young tell Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, is that the paradigm is fundamentally flawed. Sprey, a long-time defense industry consultant, recently co-wrote a paper arguing that strategic bombing is an unsound airpower tactic. Sprey argues on the JOURNAL that not only has strategic bombing never hastened the end of a war, it often costs more in lives and money. And, in the case of Afghanistan, Sprey believes bombing helps Taliban interests. Noting that missiles fired by Predator drones are accurate to within thirty feet, Sprey says:

Does it kill the person it's intended to kill? Not often. And when it does, it usually kills a bunch of other people around. And that, of course, raises the problem that the Predator and the missiles become a recruiting tool for the opposition and — beyond a shadow of a doubt — recruit more opposition than we get rid of by killing the one person at the table that we wanted to kill.

Historian Marilyn Young concurs, and argues that bombing, even when successful, does not win hearts and minds, "I will not be grateful to you for harming someone I don't like in the course of which you kill my kid."

Pierre Sprey
Pierre Sprey photo by Robin Holland Pierre Sprey consulted for Grumman Aircraft's research department from 1958 to 1965, then joined Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's "Whiz Kids" in the Pentagon. There, in 1967, he met the Air Force's brilliant and original tactician, Col. John Boyd and quickly became a disciple and collaborator of Boyd's. Together with another innovative fighter pilot, Col. Everest Riccioni (U.S. Air Force), they started and carried out the concept design of the F-16 air-to-air fighter and went on to bring the project to fruition.

Sprey also headed up the technical side of the Air Force's concept design team for the A-10 close support fighter. Then, against opposition, he helped implement the A-10's innovative live-fire, prototype fly-off competition and subsequent production. Sprey left the Pentagon in 1971 but continued to consult actively on the F-16, the A-10, tanks and anti-tank weapons, and realistic operational/live-fire testing of major weapons. At the same time, he became a principal in two consulting firms; the first doing environmental research and analysis, the second consulting on international defense planning and weapons analysis.

During this period, Sprey continued the work of Col. Richard Hallock (U.S. Army/Airborne) in founding the field of combat history/combat data-based cost effectiveness analysis for air and ground weapons. During the late 1970s, Colonel Boyd and Sprey, together with a small, dedicated group of Pentagon and congressional insiders, started the military reform movement. Attracting considerable attention from young officers, journalists and congressmen, the movement led to establishment of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus and to passage of several military reform bills in the early 1980s. Sprey continues to work with reform-minded foundations and journalists. Numerous articles, books and theses have described the work of Colonel Boyd and Sprey on the F-16, A-10 and military reform. These include Robert Coram's BOYD: THE FIGHTER PILOT WHO CHANGED THE ART OF WAR and James Fallows' NATIONAL DEFENSE.

Marilyn Young
Marilyn B. Young received her Ph.D from Harvard University in 1963. She taught at the University of Michigan before coming to NYU in 1980 where she is a full professor in the Department of History. Professor Young teaches courses on the history of U.S. foreign policy, the politics and culture of post-war U.S., as well as courses on the history of modern China, and the history and culture of Vietnam.

Marilyn Young photo by Robin HollandHer publications include RHETORIC OF EMPIRE: AMERICAN CHINA POLICY, 1895-1901; TRANSFORMING RUSSIA AND CHINA: REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLE IN THE 20TH CENTURY (with William Rosenberg) and THE VIETNAM WARS, 1945-1990. She has also edited and co-edited several anthologies: WOMEN IN CHINA: ESSAYS ON SOCIAL CHANGE AND FEMINISM; PROMISSORY NOTES: WOMEN AND THE TRANSITION TO SOCIALISM (with Rayna Rapp and Sonia Kruks); VIETNAM AND AMERICA: A DOCUMENTED HISTORY (with Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin and Bruce Franklin), HUMAN RIGHTS AND REVOLUTION (with Lynn Hunt and Jeffrey Wasserstrom), THE VIETNAM WAR: A HISTORY IN DOCUMENTS (with John J. Fitzgerald and A. Tom Grunfeld)

Professor Young has twice been awarded a Golden Dozen Teaching Award and, from 1993-1996, served as Chair of the Department of History at NYU. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Council of Learned Society Fellowship in 2000-2001. From 2001-2004 she directed the NYU International Center for Advanced Studies Project on the Cold War as Global Conflict. In the spring of 2005, she was a Visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Center in Bologna, Italy and she is currently co-director of the Tamiment Library Center for the Study of the U.S. and the Cold War.


Copyright 2009 by Marilyn B. Young. This excerpt originally appeared in BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY HISTORY edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young. Published by The New Press.

Published January 30, 2009.

Guest photos by Robin Holland.

Related Media:
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Sarah Chayes, author and former journalist who has been helping rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime, with a look at the front lines of America's war there. (April 4, 2008)

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What will President-elect Obama's promises of change mean for the Middle East? JOURNAL guest host Deborah Amos sits down with Elizabeth Rubin, the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Slate magazine columnist Fred Kaplan. (November 14, 2008)

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Just back from being under fire in Sadr City, award-winning journalist Leila Fadel, Baghdad Bureau Chief for McClatchy, gives viewers on-the-ground analysis of the latest events and close-up look at the state of the war. (April 18, 2008)

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References and Reading:

"Firebombing and Atom Bombing"
By Yuki Tanaka, COUNTERPUNCH, May 26, 2005.

"Mr. Shock and Awe"
By Timothy Noah, SLATE.COM, April 1, 2003.

"Whatever happened to...Pierre Sprey?"
By Thomas E. Ricks, WASHINGTON POST, May 16, 2006.

"The F-22 Raptor is said to be invisible...until it isn't"
NIEMAN WATCHDOG.ORG, April 19, 2006.

"Raptor Critic Lashes Out"
By David Axe, WIRED: DANGER ROOM, January 29, 2008.


"Update: Afghanistan"
BILL MOYERS JOURNAL Web Site update on Afghanistan.

"Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan"
By Helene Cooper, NEW YORK TIMES, January 24, 2009.

"Taliban Fill NATO's Big Gaps in Afghan South"
By Dexter Filkins, NEW YORK TIMES, January 21, 2009.

"Strikes in Pakistan Underscore Obama's Options "
Richard A. Oppel Jr., NEW YORK TIMES, January 23, 2009.

Published January 30, 2009.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers sits down with historian Marilyn Young, author of the forthcoming BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH CENTURY HISTORY and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey, who developed military planes and helped found the military reform movement.


>Read Pierre Sprey and Col. Robert Dilger's chapter in AMERICA'S DEFENSE MELTDOWN.

The JOURNAL takes a closer look at the history of strategic bombing and America's current policy on bombing, exploring the ethics behind these assaults when civilians become the victims and asks: Does bombing work?

Bill Moyers talks with former New York Public Library and Brown University president, Vartan Gregorian, about the perilous state of higher education in America.


Both colleges and college students are facing touch economic times. Find out how much will a degree cost...and how much it is worth in the workplace.

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