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A Crash Before Takeoff : WILD BLUE YONDER Money, Politics, and the B-1 Bomber by Nick Kotz (Pantheon: $19.95; : 313 pp. , illustrated)

April 17, 1988|Harry G. Summers Jr. | Now a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, Summers formerly held the Gen. Douglas MacArthur Chair of Military Research at the Army War College

'Most people in this country support a strong national defense and want their political leaders to do so. The military-industrial complex is not a conspiracy imposed on this country but a community of interests, backgrounds, professions and ideologies. . . . The members of this broad defense network believe they are contributing to a strong national defense. And they all work hard on their contributions." So notes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Kotz, a Marine Corps veteran, now a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at the American University School of Communication, in his remarkable new book, "Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics, and the B-1 Bomber." It is remarkable on two counts. "Wild Blue Yonder" is the first expose--and it is truly an expose in the literal meaning of that word, "a public disclosure of a scandal"--that does not begin by portraying the so-called military-industrial complex as a nefarious conspiracy fostered on innocent Americans by a cabal of evil and scheming monsters and wicked and corrupt villains.

Instead (as David Halberstam did to the conspiracy theorists on the Vietnam War) Kotz portrays them as something far worse and far more frightening. He portrays them as "the best and the brightest." Monsters can have a wooden stake driven through their heart and villains can be hanged, but what do you do with "the best and the brightest"--military officers, aerospace designers, politicians, corporate executives and labor leaders--who in the main are genuinely convinced they are doing the right thing for the benefit of their country, their constituents, and their corporations?

Kotz looks at each of these groups in turn--Air Force bomber advocates like Gen. Curtis LeMay and others who believed passionately that strategic bombers were the answer to America's security needs; aerospace designers who saw the incredibly complex B-1 as a challenge to their skills; politicians who shared the conviction that strategic bombing could substitute for the carnage of ground warfare and could at the same time provide jobs for their constituents; corporate aerospace executives, many of whom had designed and produced the aircraft that led America to victory in World War II, who saw the B-1 as a way to keep their companies alive and at the leading edge of technology; and labor leaders concerned for the welfare of tens of thousands of skilled aerospace workers.

When it came to the 30-year campaign to build the B-1 bomber, how could so many good people go so wrong?

Kotz found the fundamental flaw--and here is the second remarkable aspect of his work--not in human failings (although he found those aplenty) but in the very concept of strategic bombing itself. Throughout the entire B-1 controversy was the fine Italian hand of Gen. Giulio Douhet and his theory (first published in 1921) that air power, and air power alone, could win wars by shattering the civilian will to continue to resist. Douhet was the godfather of Nazi Air Marshal Hermann Goering's blitz of British cities in World War II as well as the Allied strategic bombing campaigns of British Air Marshal Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris and U.S. Army Air Force Gens. Ira Eaker, Carl Spaatz and Curtis LeMay. These bomber advocates were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they actually opposed the D-Day invasion of Europe on the grounds that it would interfere with their "war-winning" bombing campaigns.

As Kotz points out, after World War II (and for almost a generation thereafter), these bomber generals dominated the newly independent U.S. Air Force. And Douhet's theory that air power alone was "strategic" (i.e., war-winning) was incorporated in the Eisenhower Administration's strategy of massive retaliation. Relying almost exclusively on nuclear weapons (ironically, because they were cheaper than conventional forces) for America's defenses, the Strategic Air Command and its manned bombers reigned supreme.

But that supremacy was not to last, as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) called into question the role of the increasingly vulnerable manned "penetration" bomber. Like the horse cavalry before World War I, the strategic bomber advocates saw their battlefield usefulness slipping away in the face of new technology. And like the horse cavalry (which hung on for 30 years and was not abolished until after World War II), they launched a hard-fought campaign to maintain manned-aircraft, and strategic bombers in particular, as the Air Force's heart and soul.

In one sense, Kotz's "Wild Blue Yonder" is a history of that campaign, a campaign that spanned 30 years and seven Presidents. But in a broader sense, it is an indictment of our entire process for the conception, design, production and deployment of those weapons systems upon which our national security and our survival itself depends.

We now have, as Kotz concludes, "a defense system that is spinning madly out of control." But as his analysis makes clear, it was not monsters and villains that brought that about--it was our own political, military and economic self-interests. His solution? "Heal thyself." Think about that the next time they want to cancel an unneeded defense contract, shut down an obsolete assembly line or close an unneeded military base in your own home town. "Heal thyself."

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