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Many books are overtitled; this one merits a stronger send-off. In some 200 crisp pages, U. of Georgia historian Kennett not only reviews aerial bombing from the first Austrian balloon bombs (dropped on Venice, harmlessly, in 1849) to the Enola Gay, he also weighs the crucial effects of anticipation--the hopes, the dread--on political and military policy. Almost the least significant question, then, is the one that has most occupied historians: the impact of strategic bombing in World War II. (""Decisive,"" Kennett affirms--but only as part of the larger effort.) Why did its proponents, early and late, expect so much? It could jump boundaries; it would terrify the populace; it might deliver an early, knockout blow. In reaction, repeated efforts were made to ban or limit aerial bombardment: the 1923 Hague Draft Rules restricted bombing to ""military objectives""; the 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference even considered the scrapping of national air fleets. But meanwhile the vulnerable British were creating the world's most powerful strategic bombing force. In time, Kennett shows, no expectations held up. German bombers lost the daylight Battle of Britain to British fighters; the nighttime Blitz didn't destroy Londoners' morale. (Others too, Kennett is quick to point out, ""would stand the test."") Precision bombing of ""military objectives"" proved impossible, so the British switched to obliterating ""area raids."" In retaliation for the gutting of historic LÃœbeck, the Germans struck Canterbury, Exeter, Bath; escalating further, the RAF wiped out 13 square miles of Hamburg. (But Berlin, more modern and open, was ""a clear defeat."") On US strategic bombing, Kennett is nuanced, as always--noting persistent American antipathy for indiscriminate bombing (attributable, conceivably, to the American marksmanship tradition) and also, in Japan, Curtis LeMay's elevation of city-bombing to ""a science."" He concludes by remarking that the Enola Gay is stored by the Smithsonian outside Washington, ""and there it is likely to stay."" Libraries that have been keeping abreast of the subject--with the brickbats of Max Hastings (Bomber Command) and Elmer Bendiner (The Fall of Fortresses), and the bouquets of Thomas Coffey (Decision Over Schweinfurt, Hap)--will want to have Kennett's thoughtful, succinct, meticulously fair treatment.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 1982
Publisher: Scribners