Giulio Douhet

Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) is regarded as one of the first military strategists to recognize the predominant role aerial warfare would play in twentieth-century battle. Known as the father of airpower, Douhet's theories are still popular among modern military aviators.

Douhet's service in the Italian Army before and during World War I provided him with the experiences he would use to develop his theories of the function of aerial combat in subsequent warfare. Among the revolutionary ideas put forth by Douhet in his most famous work, Il domino dell'aria (The Command of the Air), was the necessity of a warring nation to possess first-strike capabilities via aircraft. Douhet argued that these capabilities should be used before an official declaration of war to ensure a swift, decisive, and demoralizing victory that would shorten any potentially drawn-out naval or land campaign. Believing the airplane to be "the offensive weapon par excellence," he also established the air warfare strategy of the bombing of an opponent's industrial centers and metropolitan infrastructures, reasoning that, even if the attacked nation had advance warning of imminent air strikes, they could never be certain of the specific targets.

Douhet predicted that the future of war would abandon distinctions between civilian and military personnel and justify the bombing of civilian targets by declaring total war in the modern world as an uncivilized pursuit unbound by previous notions of civilized warfare conduct. To support his theory that wars are won by eliminating the will of an opposing country to fight back, which occurs most effectively by attacking the enemy's cities, Douhet wrote: "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." Ultimately, Douhet believed that such a strategy would shorten any war effort significantly, thus resulting in a minimum of casualties because the enemy would be forced to surrender more quickly. He further argued that governments should establish air forces separate from other military branches and appropriate the majority of defense budgets to the development of fighter planes. Douhet also believed that, because most land and naval combat were primarily defensive in nature, they were prone to stalemates. He predicted incorrectly that neither would possess significant value in future warfare.

Despite his forecasts for the inherent primacy of aerial warfare and the shortcomings of his forecasts for aerial technology, Douhet's theories and strategies were employed extensively by both Allied and Axis forces during World War II—most notably against Dresden, Germany, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the Allies; and against London, England, by the Axis Luftwaffe. His theories continued to be employed in such campaigns as Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, the Balkans in the 1990s, and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.

Pioneered Aerial Combat

Born in Capreta, Italy, in 1869, Douhet belonged to a family with a long history of military service to the House of Savoy. While dabbling in writing poetry and dramatic pieces, Douhet was also found to be adept in military matters. He expressed his views on the increasing mechanization of warfare in several works prior to World War I, including a journal article in which he wrote: "It must seem that the sky, too, is to become another battlefield no less important than the battlefields on land and at sea. For if there are nations that exist untouched by the sea, there are none that exist without the breath of air." He concluded that, "[t]he army and the navy must recognize in the air force the birth of a third brother—younger, but nonetheless important—in the great military family."

Douhet, who had never flown an aircraft, became involved with the aerial unit of the Italian Army in 1909. By 1911, he was commanding a contingent of nine airplanes in Italy's campaign against the Turkish Empire on the Libyan front. The conflict marked many firsts in aerial combat reconnaissance. It marked the first aerial photo reconnaissance, the first aerial bombing mission, and the first aircraft shot down. Douhet's successes led his superiors to appoint him commander of the entire Italian Army aviation battalion. However, he became frustrated with military protocol and bureaucracy and proceeded to commission the building of a three-engine military aircraft with a combined horsepower of 300. He also sent very impatient and caustic memos to his military superiors. These memos became public and resulted in his being court-martialed and imprisoned for more than a year. Upon his release near the end of World War I, Douhet resumed his responsibilities and was promoted to brigadier general in 1921. That same year, he published the first edition of Il domino dell'aria, which he revised for its definitive version in 1927. In 1922, he was named Commissioner of Aviation, serving under Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini. He resigned later that year to dedicate his time to writing.

If the beliefs espoused by Douhet during World War I served to anger his superiors, they were to prove prophetic following the publication of Il domino dell'aria. Expressing the need for a more updated model of modern warfare, he argued for the creation of an independent air force. Air warfare, he predicted, would become the decisive factor in future wars. Douhet advocated the use of incendiary bombs, chemicals, gasoline, and high explosives on population centers, reasoning that the "time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war." He recommended that initial attacks employ explosives to frighten the population on the ground; incendiaries to set massive and wide-spread fires; and chemical weapons to deter fire fighters. At first, these theories shocked military strategists who remembered the long-term debilitating effects of the use of mustard gas in the World War I trenches, but Douhet argued that war is already amoral, and that any method used to shorten a war is therefore justifiable. He also defended the establishment of an air force that was completely separate from all other military divisions. He discounted notions that an army or navy might require their own fleet of aircraft that could, at the very least, defend the air force's bombers, believing that an aerial bomber would be able to defend itself from ground and air retaliation.

Following the nineteenth-century theories of military strategists Albert Thayer Mahan and Henri Jomini, Douhet also believed that military targets were of secondary importance, asserting that industrial centers and supply lines were the more decisive targets. He wrote that the country that possessed the strongest air power would achieve military primacy and that total command of the air would render land and sea forces comparatively insignificant because they could not achieve such swift, economical, or effective results as an aerial bombing. Douhet wrote that since the advent of aerial warfare capabilities, the entire history of warfare had been rendered irrelevant, including the concept of differentiating between civilian and military populations. Since World War I, Douhet reasoned, all wars in the future would be total wars between entire nations that involve every man, woman, and child. Knowing that all of a nation's population was subject to casualties would serve to abbreviate prolonged hostilities.


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