Published Aerospace Power Journal - Fall  2001

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

Jointly Published with the Royal Air Force Air Power Review

Airpower and Restraint in Small Wars

Marine Corps Aviation in the Second Nicaraguan
Campaign, 1927–33

Dr. Wray R. Johnson

Editorial Abstract: Air control, as exhibited by the Royal Air Force during the British occupation of Iraq, is often cited as the consummate example of the successful and effective use of airpower. However, the US military need look no further than its own Marine Corps for an equally compelling example. As Dr. Johnson argues, unlike their European counterparts, Marine air leaders understood the need for restraint in using airpower for air control in Nicaragua during the first half of the twentieth century.

IT IS ONE of the peculiarities of airpower history that proponents have often claimed airpower to be a more humane instrument of war, whereas many critics have claimed that bombs dropped from the air are somehow more immoral than an artillery barrage or economic sanctions—even if the latter results in a greater number of civilian deaths.1 Yet, it is rare to find historical examples of airmen accused of war crimes, much less tried for the same. This has created a paradox of sorts. For example, following revelations that US troops deliberately fired upon civilian refugees at No Gun Ri during the Korean War, James Webb, a Marine Corps combat veteran and former secretary of the Navy, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Perhaps the greatest anomaly of recent times is that death delivered by a bomb earns one an air medal, while when it comes at the end of a gun it earns one a trip to jail."2 If we were to take this line of reasoning to its logical extreme, the tragedy at My Lai would have been regarded differently in history had a pair of F-4 fighter-bombers napalmed the village. Of course, the distinction appears to be that Lt William Calley and his soldiers killed Vietnamese women and children face-to-face whereas the F-4 pilots would have been, to use popular jargon, simply "servicing a target."

According to Col Phil Meilinger, former dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama, "Whether women and children are blown to bits by artillery, starved to death as a result of blockade, or killed in a bombing attack is a distinction the victims would not trouble themselves to make."3 But airpower theorists and airmen themselves have over the years invariably pointed to the distinct psychological impact of airpower as being potentially far greater than the actual physical destruction wrought. If that is true, then civilians do in fact make a distinction between death by artillery fire and death by bombs. Giulio Douhet certainly believed in the efficacy of aerial terror to weaken, if not wholly undermine, the will of civilian populations, and as recently as 1997 the director of Defence Studies at the Royal Air Force Staff College averred that "airpower when used properly can be a devastatingly effective psychological weapon."4

A basic premise of classical airpower theory, then, has always been that people targeted from the air—whether combatants or noncombatants—react with much greater fear to aerial bombardment than to surface attack.5 Apparently, this is equally true among guerrillas and other irregulars. In his book Viet Cong Memoir, Truong Nhu Tang described B-52 strikes as "undiluted psychological terror." Despite having been hunted by South Vietnamese and American ground forces and having endured all of the privations and hardships associated with the life of a guerrilla, Truong Tang noted that "nothing the guerrillas had to endure compared with the stark terrorization of the B-52 bombardments."6 Thus, since the advent of the airplane, airpower enthusiasts have noted the psychological dimension of airpower and sought to exploit it. In that light, the use of the airplane by Great Britain to police its empire in the early part of the twentieth century serves as a case in point.

As Dr. Jim Corum has noted in his article "The Myth of Air Control," the British long relied upon terror in the form of punitive expeditions to bring rebellious native populations to heel.7 Indeed, Col C. E. Callwell, in his seminal work Small Wars, first published in 1896, considered what we today would think of as wanton acts of destruction perpetrated against civilians to be a sound military principle:

It is so often the case that the power which undertakes a small war desires to acquire the friendship of the people which its armies are chastising, that the system of what is called "military execution" is ill-adapted to the end in view. The most satisfactory way of bringing such foes to reason is by the rifle and the sword, for they understand this mode of warfare and respect it. Sometimes, however, the circumstances do not admit of it, and then their villages must be demolished and granaries destroyed.8

Although Colonel Callwell acknowledged "a limit to the amount of license in destruction" in small wars, he nevertheless acceded to a certain expediency in such "havoc" and noted that, despite the fact that burning crops and killing civilians was something "the laws of regular warfare do not sanction," it was oftentimes a necessary, albeit unfortunate, characteristic of small wars.9

The Royal Air Force (RAF) advanced air control as a substitute for the traditional punitive expedition on the ground. In short, such expeditions by air were relatively cheap, could inflict serious casualties upon recalcitrant natives without exposing English soldiers to any harm, and capitalized on the fact that primitive people were quite often terrified by airplanes. Thus, when combined with surface operations conducted by native levies or other non-English imperial troops, these operations were quite successful, and the RAF exploited the results to its own political ends. But in keeping with the nature of punitive expeditions in general, these aerial operations also tended to be quite brutal. For example, at the time, Wing Comdr J. A. Chamier of the RAF insisted that airplanes were to be used relentlessly, carrying out attacks "on houses, inhabitants, crops, and cattle."10 Although repugnant to modern sensibilities, such an attitude was wholly in keeping with an imperial policy intended to crush native resistance to British authority as quickly and effectively as possible. Moreover, Great Britain was not alone in this matter, as the French displayed an equal disregard for the lives and property of native peoples.

French imperial policy was similar to that of the British, and the French use of airpower to police their own colonial possessions was no less brutal—perhaps greater. The French air force played a significant role in the colonial fighting in Morocco and Tunisia prior to, during, and after World War I. Aerial bombardment of civilians by the air force in policing the French Empire was the norm. In fact, at Nalhout, Tunisia, in the fall of 1916, the French used chemical weapons against civilian targets, including mosques. Apparently, the French made no distinction between combatants and noncombatants in punitive operations; therefore, the use of gas was not regarded as particularly unethical or immoral—or even counterproductive. French use of aircraft in colonial warfare increased during the 1920s, with 21 squadrons operating in Morocco alone. According to Dr. Bill Dean, a professor on the faculty at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, "As had been the case a decade before, the French had no qualms about bombing villages that were strictly civilian targets."11 They even used American mercenary aviators at one point.12

Ironically, the British public was not especially outraged by their own soldiers or other soldiers in the employ of the empire torching villages in Iraq or Yemen, but they were moved to protest the use of airplanes for the same purpose. Early RAF reports on air-control operations stressed effectiveness and lethality, but later statements emphasized the use of airplanes in a more humane and less lethal manner. The proximate cause of this shift in emphasis was the rising chorus of protest in the British press and in Parliament. It would appear, however, that no such compunction developed about matters on the ground because punitive expeditions continued as before, and British troops repeatedly shelled villages without warning. But the restraint claimed by the RAF was probably mostly fiction, especially in the more isolated outposts of the British Empire. Contrast this state of affairs with the operations of United States Marine Corps aviation elements in Nicaragua during roughly the same time frame.

In Quijote on a Burro, a privately published classic on American intervention in Nicaragua between 1912 and 1934, Lejeune Cummins wrote in 1958 that "perhaps the only subject regarding the American intervention . . . upon which all authorities are able to agree is the efficacy with which the marines employed the air power at their disposal."13 Indeed, Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur reported in 1929 that Marine Corps aviation was "of inestimable value" in Nicaragua.14 Cummins was thus moved to observe that "it is probably not an exaggeration to say that the marine occupation . . . could not have been accomplished" without Marine Corps aviation.15

Beginning in 1919, the Marine Corps had employed airplanes against the cacos in Haiti and "bandits" in the Dominican Republic, but the accompanying air units were added to these expeditions mostly as an afterthought and, therefore, generally operated without a clear idea of their role in each undertaking.16 Six Curtiss JN-4B "Jennies" of the 1st Air Squadron, commanded by Capt Walter McCaughtry, deployed in February 1919 to San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican Republic, while another six Jennies and six Curtiss HS-2L flying boats of the 4th Squadron under Capt Harvey Mims began operations at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 31 March.17 Although some of these aircraft took part in active combat operations—experimenting with improvised bombing tactics against the indigenous irregular forces—it was not until improved radios became available in 1921 that air-to-ground cooperation proved at all practicable. Consequently, in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Marine Corps aviation proved its worth mostly in combat-support operations such as scouting, communications, mapping, transportation, and medical assistance. Nevertheless, as one Marine Corps aviator concluded afterwards, "We were there and they used us, and they used us to their advantage, and consequently we became a useful and integral part of the Marine Corps."18 In fact, not unlike the British and the French, the corps became increasingly aware of the facility of close air-ground counterguerrilla operations. And in Nicaragua, the Marine Corps began to perfect these techniques in a manner that ultimately laid the foundation for the highly effective system of close air support still in use by that service today.

United States interests in Nicaragua did not arise suddenly with the emergence of the revolutionary disturbances of the 1920s; this small country had been of strategic importance to the US government since the war with Mexico, when, along with the Isthmus of Panama, Nicaragua became vital to transcontinental communications. Suffice it to say that as a result of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the United States took on the role of hemispheric gendarme in order to protect American commercial interests throughout Latin America. President William Howard Taft subsequently made "dollar diplomacy" the paramount strategic consideration in Latin America, and when American capital investment was threatened in Nicaragua in 1926, the United States sent in the Marines.19

In February 1927, Marine Observation Squadron 1, commanded by Maj Ross "Rusty" Rowell, landed at Corinto, Nicaragua, with eight officers, 81 enlisted men, and six DeHavilland DH-4B aircraft. In May, Marine Observation Squadron 4, with seven officers, 78 enlisted marines, and six Boeing 02B-1s (a metal-fuselaged derivative of the venerable DH-4B) also arrived and were placed under Major Rowell’s command. Combined, the two units were designated Aircraft Squadrons, 2d Brigade.20 Major Rowell, an experienced pilot who had received instruction in dive-bombing during exercises conducted by US Army fliers at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, was quick to appreciate the value of dive-bombing: "[It] seemed to me that it would be an excellent form of tactics for use in guerrilla warfare."21 Thus, when he took command of the 1st Squadron in San Diego in 1924, Rowell had US Army A-3 bomb racks installed on the squadron’s DH-4Bs and set about training his pilots in the technique.

Dive-bombing—more accurately, what we would today describe as glide bombing—had earlier been employed in Haiti. During the intervention there in 1919, Lt Lawson Sanderson of the 4th Squadron realized that the usual practice of horizontal release of bombs by the rear observer was inaccurate, to say the least. By trial and error, Lieutenant Sanderson settled upon the technique of dropping the nose of his aircraft in what was then considered a steep dive of 45 degrees. Flying directly at the target, Sanderson then released the bomb himself at an altitude of roughly 250 feet. The tactic proved considerably more accurate than horizontal bombing, and the other pilots in the squadron soon abandoned the old method in favor of the new one. Such accuracy would prove its worth to the Marine Corps in Nicaragua.22

Although much has been written about Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua during what officially became known as the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, none of it is considered definitive. Gen Vernon McGee, a Marine Corps aviator, wrote one of the better essays on the topic in 1965. A veteran of the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, General McGee helped author his service’s Small Wars Manual, perhaps the finest doctrine ever written regarding counterrevolutionary warfare. The general was convinced that concepts learned in Nicaragua were applicable to the ongoing counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam. His essay emphasized the technological aspect—specifically, the characteristics of airplanes useful in a counterguerrilla campaign—but his larger idea of looking to the Nicaraguan experience as a model for airpower in small wars bears consideration, particularly in contrast to the British air-control example.

Perhaps there is no better starting point than to examine what Major Rowell had to say regarding the lessons of Nicaragua. In an article published in the Marine Corps Gazette in September 1929, he acknowledged the examples set by the British and French (as well as the Italians and Spanish) with respect to the use of aircraft in "bush, or guerrilla warfare" but went on to assert that "no broader experience has been gained, or greater success achieved through the employment of aircraft in minor warfare, than that which attended the operations of [the] Marines during the Nicaraguan campaign of 1927 and 1928."23 Major Rowell spent the bulk of his article detailing organization, tactics, and so forth, but, particularly, his remarks regarding the unique character of the conflict warrant our attention in the context of airpower and restraint.

The Marine Corps had been dispatched to Nicaragua to aid the Conservative government of Adolfo Diaz and to protect Americans and their property from Liberal opposition forces led by Dr. Juan Sacasa. The Liberal army had disintegrated as a unified force but was replaced by small bands of guerrillas, the most prominent of which was led by Augusto C. Sandino. Although in rebellion against the government, Sandino also set about to rid the country of the American presence that had dominated it since the Taft administration. Waging a ruthless guerrilla war, Sandino presented the Marine Corps with an unprecedented challenge. Whereas in earlier conflicts in Central America and the Caribbean, the corps had faced nominally guerrilla formations ranging from organized criminals to politicized, disgruntled elements of society, in Nicaragua it faced a different kind of guerrilla opponent—one schooled and educated by Mexican Marxists and enjoying international support. The Marine Corps, therefore, was among the first regular forces in the twentieth century to face the "revolutionary guerrilla." Whereas in Haiti and the Dominican Republic the corps functioned as an occupation force, invoking martial law and having a free hand in the conduct of military operations in the field, in Nicaragua it supported the extant government and was thus constrained by political limitations that its predecessors in the Caribbean as well as British and French counterparts would have regarded as unthinkable.

Major Rowell in particular was sensitive to the limitations imposed on his operations, not the least of which was the impact of public opinion back home in the United States: "Public opinion, always to be respected, is sensitive to bloodshed and the newspapers are prone to publish rumors of scandals or abuses. . . . The practical effects . . . are numerous. For example: we may not bomb towns because it would not be consistent with a policy advocated at some international convention. . . . The safety of noncombatants becomes a matter of prime importance."24

It is important to note that Major Rowell’s comments were offered in the context of a complaint: "We are required to conform to all of the rules of civilized warfare, while the enemy will torture prisoners, murder the wounded and mutilate the dead." Nevertheless, Major Rowell was bound by the restraints imposed upon him and at least grudgingly conceded to their political necessity. In a subsequent essay, he recounted how, in the earliest stages of the Marine Corps intervention, "the American mission was to stop the war—not to become involved in it."25 This necessarily led to certain operational constraints. Major Rowell, therefore, "appealed to all pilots to avoid hostilities and to return fire only when necessary to save their own lives."26

But neutrality soon gave way to active combat operations as Sandino deliberately attacked Marine Corps patrols and garrisons as well as other Americans and their property. As the American role in Nicaragua became wider and deeper, operational constraints on the corps were loosened but never approximated the freedom its aviators enjoyed in the Caribbean—and certainly bore no similarity to the freedom of European air arms in their air-policing roles. For example, despite the fact that Major Rowell and other Marine Corps authors argued for the use of nonlethal chemicals such as tear gas (in contrast to the French use of lethal chemicals), US policy forbade such usage.27

It became clear to diplomats and Marine Corps commanders in Nicaragua that direct and even indirect infliction of casualties on the civilian population was not only contrary to policy, but also carried negative value. Whereas British and French aviators routinely bombed villages and strafed collections of suspicious men—as well as women, children, and animals—the corps clearly understood that this was counterproductive and modified its tactics. Major Rowell, therefore, encouraged the service’s pilots to use their best judgment when attempting to tell guerrillas from civilians on the ground: "It is sometimes rather difficult to distinguish between the hostile groups and the noncombatants. No fixed rules can be laid down in such cases. The aviators must have an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of and habits of each group. . . . [However,] pilots will always bear in mind that innocent people will sometimes flee upon the approach of airplanes."28 Contrast this statement with that of an RAF pilot who stated that nine unidentifiable people in a group constituted an illegal assembly, so he dropped bombs on them.29

All of the above is not to say that innocent civilians did not die in Nicaragua as a result of air action. In his classic account of the Marine Corps fight with Sandino, Neill Macaulay described the service’s tactics as "aerial terrorism."30 Citing a particular mission led by Major Rowell, Macaulay noted that after observing several horses around a large house, Rowell and the pilot of another aircraft dropped bombs on the house and in the yard. Unknown persons were seen darting from the house into a nearby grove. Major Rowell strafed the grove but apparently to no effect. Macaulay, however, fails to mention the indicators that the Marine Corps recognized as pointing to probable guerrilla activity and the often extraordinary lengths to which its aviators would go to ensure that suspicious persons were indeed guerrillas.

Major Rowell instructed his pilots to fly no higher than 2,000 feet and generally 1,500 feet or lower—well within small-arms range—in order to distinguish between men and women, horses and cattle, and so forth.31 He also stressed that pilots and their observers should become expert in the "organization, equipment, and habits of the enemy" through careful study. "Basically," he wrote, "reconnaissance consists of distinguishing between the normal and the abnormal."32 When something on the ground seemed out of the ordinary, Marine pilots would swoop down to investigate. Towns that appeared to be abandoned were especially regarded as suspicious: "If the enemy is hiding there, some member of the party will probably decide to find a better place and make a dash for it. This may be induced by the patrol making a feint to attack. Under some circumstances, it will be possible to develop the situation by use of a few bursts from the front or rear guns. Occasionally a bomb may be expended for the same purpose."33

Several points of this statement are noteworthy. Major Rowell insisted that his pilots be able to distinguish between guerrillas and civilians in order to avoid harming the latter. In circumstances in which all indications pointed to guerrilla activity, attempts to flush them out were graduated (feint, then use guns, then maybe a bomb or two) and employed when civilians were unlikely to be in the way.34 If the town were abandoned by the civilian populace, the expenditure of bombs was certainly less problematic than if the area were bustling with activity. Such restraint certainly appears to refute any accusation of aerial terrorism and seems almost magnanimous compared to the British propensity to bomb any suspicious activity.

As alluded to earlier, the Marine Corps went to improbable lengths to determine the nature of suspicious activity in order to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. In his annual report dated 20 June 1928, Major Rowell recounted how Marine aircraft would approach suspicious locales "from behind hills or mountains, the planes gliding in with throttled engines," whereupon the pilots would fly low enough to the ground that the observer in the rear of the aircraft could "look into windows and doors." As a counter to this extraordinary tactic, the guerrillas often included women and children among their parties, "secure in the knowledge that the women [would] not be attacked."35 This is not surprising, given that Major Rowell and his pilots were often (although not always) under standing orders not to attack towns and villages at all, even if the presence of guerrillas was indisputable. In February 1928, for example, Rowell discovered Sandino and his main column in the town of Rafael del Norte. His fully armed patrol flew within a few feet of the building in which Sandino was being interviewed by an American journalist, at a level "where the pilots and observers looked into the muzzles of the enemy rifles." But Major Rowell did not attack. He later wrote that "this rare opportunity was passed by because it was the policy of the Commanding General to avoid the possibility of injury to the lives and property of innocent persons by refraining from attacks on towns."36

Unquestionably, Sandino and his guerrillas respected and feared the Marine Corps lanzabombas, as they were called by the Sandi-nistas.37 Not only were Marine aircraft useful and lethal weapons in counterguerrilla warfare, but also they facilitated the political process crucial to counterrevolutionary warfare. To that end, these aircraft supported the national elections in 1928 at the height of the guerrilla war, especially in remote areas of the country:

It was necessary to ferry by plane most of the American personnel to outlying districts, to supply them there, to maintain communication with them, to patrol the towns and mesas on registration and election days, and, finally, to bring to Managua the ballots. In order to accomplish this work, flying time generally reached its peak during the weeks immediately before and after the election periods. . . . [In 1928] on election day 237 cantons were visited by airplanes.38

As the war wound down, leading to eventual withdrawal of the Marine Corps in 1933, aviation continued to play a significant role in the political process. Because of an earlier agreement with the government and the insurgents, the United States agreed to oversee national elections again in 1932. The assistance provided by Marine aviators was invaluable, constituting the most extensive use of aviation in a political-support role during the intervention in Nicaragua.39

With the close of this chapter in Marine Corps history, much of what the corps had learned in Nicaragua was synthesized and eventually codified in the Small Wars Manual, first published in 1935 and revised in 1940.40 As noted earlier, General McGee and other Marine Corps aviators participated in this effort, and an entire chapter of the manual was devoted to aviation.41 Although the chapter was limited mostly to the composition of the aviation element, organization, types of missions, and so forth, the Small Wars Manual as a whole represented a major departure in the history of American military doctrine for small wars.

The 1935 edition was written by Maj Harold Utley, who had commanded marines in Eastern Nicaragua, as well as other marines experienced in small wars. The work was informed by the research of US Army officers and foreign experts in colonial warfare—including Colonel Callwell of the British army.42 The 1940 edition was an encyclopedic work with over 400 pages of text comprising detailed treatments regarding organization, tactics, intelligence, propaganda, and a host of other topics, including the care and feeding of pack animals. But its treatment of revolutionary guerrilla warfare was groundbreaking and remarkably prescient regarding the nature of emerging revolutionary warfare: "After a study has been made of the people who will oppose the intervention, the strategical plan is evolved. . . . Strategy should attempt to gain psychological ascendancy over the outlaw or insurgent element prior to hostilities. [The] political mission . . . dictates the military strategy of small wars."43 This statement is quite remarkable in that this was the first time that US military doctrine placed the political mission ahead of military requirements. It also illustrates the extent to which the Marine Corps recognized the "new" guerrilla threat, including the realization that "the motive in small wars is not material destruction; [it] is usually a project dealing with the social, economic, and political development of the people."44

The authors of the Small Wars Manual gave special consideration to the underlying socioeconomic and political grievances that gave rise to insurgency and thus defined the theory of victory in such situations as relying upon an accurate assessment of the root causes of internal rebellion. For example, "the application of purely military measures may not, by itself restore peace and orderly government because the fundamental causes of the condition of unrest may be economic, political, or social." Consequently, "the solution of such problems being basically a political adjustment, the military measures to be applied must be of secondary importance and should be applied only to such an extent as to permit the continuation of peaceful corrective measures."45 Given the primacy of the nonmilitary dimension, it is not surprising that the Marine Corps would acquiesce to the need for restraint—including the application of airpower. If the operational objective is to detach popular support from the guerrillas and reattach it to the central government, deliberately bombing civilians from the air is counterproductive.

In contrast to the service’s recognition of the political dimension of small wars, the British, French, and other European powers of the same period continued to regard small wars as exclusively a military problem. Indigenous peoples were regarded as "inferior races" who understood only the sword and fire.46 Resistance was to be smashed. European officers failed to discern and appreciate the manner in which ideologies borne out of Marxism, nationalism, Islam, and so forth, served to focus discontent and unify native peoples in a social, political, and military organization capable of resisting the regular armies of Europe. One must remember that the period encompassing the Marine Corps experience in Nicaragua (1910–33) and the British air-control experience between the world wars gave rise to such revolutionary figures as Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, and Emiliano Zapata, among others. The corps appears to have understood the emergent political nature of small wars in the twentieth century, including the need for restraint in the application of airpower, better than their European counterparts.

But as Dr. Corum pointed out in his article, the United States Air Force retains a certain fascination with the British concept of air control. It goes without saying that Air Force officers pay less attention to the airpower experience of the Marine Corps in Nicaragua in the 1920s. This is unfortunate because in the context of the emerging challenge of small wars in the twenty-first century, the model provided by the corps in the Second Nicaraguan Campaign is probably more appropriate. One must wonder, then, why the British concept is often stressed in the US Air Force and the Marine experience is largely ignored.

One answer, perhaps the best one, is that Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua does not serve the interests of autonomous operations and institutional independence held sacrosanct by the US Air Force. The RAF was one of the first major air forces to attain institutional independence, and air control served to solidify that independence as well as advance the timeless idea of achieving victory through airpower alone. Using the British example appears to validate theoretical and doctrinal propositions that the US Air Force has long held dear. Marine Corps aviation, on the other hand, has always been subordinate, and the Nicaragua experience in fact laid the foundation for this relationship between the air element and the ground commander. As General McGee wrote, "Undeterred by any necessity for counterair operations, and untempted by any ‘wild blue yonder’ schemes of semi-independent strategical forays, the Marines buckled down to their primary mission of supporting Marine ground forces."47 The fact of the matter, however, is that airpower in a counterinsurgency environment is probably best suited to a supporting role, but this flies in the face of the airman’s conviction that airpower is decisive.

Ironically, during the post–World War II counterinsurgency era, the RAF generally found itself subordinate to a ground-force commander—a fact often overlooked by people who promote the idea of air control. For example, during the 10-year war against communist Dhofari guerrillas in Oman, the air element "defied a time-honoured Royal Air Force principle in that it came under the command of [an] Army brigadier." But as the British commander of the Dhofar Brigade pointed out, "all its work was in close support of the Army . . . and few disapproved of the arrangement."48

Compare this disposition with that of the Marine air element in Nicaragua. Based upon that experience, Major Rowell recommended the following:

The senior air officer should have the same dual staff and command status that is given the artillery commander in the infantry division. In other words, the senior air officer should actively command the air organization and at the same time serve as the advisor to the [overall] commander on air matters. . . . The air squadrons will operate in support of ground organizations and also independently. In certain special situations, planes may be attached temporarily to ground units. As a general rule this practice should be discouraged. Better support can be given in most cases if the control is centralized.49

The similarity between this ordering of control and authority to the relationship between the joint force air component commander and the joint force commander today is so obvious as to require no further elaboration. In short, Major Rowell was advocating a structure not unlike what stands as current joint doctrine.50 Nevertheless, the RAF concept of air control is generally held up as a model for "air constabulary" missions, and the Marine Corps example in Nicaragua is ignored.51

In closing, Air Force officers over the years have advanced various schemes by seeking to capitalize on the British air-control example, but much of the analysis regarding air control tended to ignore certain inconvenient facts—such as the presence of British ground forces and the apparent brutality of punitive expeditions conducted by British airmen. One must also note that these latter-day American studies tended to eschew any analysis of the political dimension—something also ignored by the British during the heyday of air control and something the US military has struggled with since the end of World War II. A primary weakness of C. E. Callwell’s book as a useful guide for today has always been its emphasis on military operational solutions to political and social problems. In that sense, the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual is better doctrine. By the same token, the Marine airpower experience in Nicaragua is a better model for airpower in small wars. 


1. For an excellent discussion of ethics, morality, and aerial bombardment, see Louis Manzo, "Morality in War Fighting and Strategic Bombing in World War Two," Air Power History, Fall 1992, 35–50. For a contrasting view, see Phillip Meilinger, "Winged Defense: Airwar, the Law and Morality," Armed Forces and Society, Fall 1993, 103–23. Another excellent discussion of the law of war and airpower can be found in W. Parks, "Air War and the Law of War," Air Force Law Review 32, no. 1 (1990): 1–55.

2. James Webb, "Making Sense of No Gun Ri," Wall Street Journal, 6 October 1999.

3. Col Phillip S. Meilinger, letter to the editor, Air Power History, Winter 1992, 58.

4. Group Capt Andrew P. N. Lambert, "Shattering Impact: The Psychology of Air Attack," in Air Power Confronts an Unstable World, ed. Richard Hallion (London: Brassey’s, 1997), 105.

5. In fact Group Captain Lambert asserts, "The evidence suggests that the psychological responses of a civilian population to bombing mirror almost exactly the reactions of soldiers to enemy fire." Ibid., 94.

6. Truong Nhu Tang, Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai (New York: Vintage Books, April 1986), 167. The B-52 was equally feared by Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War. Consequently, one of the most successful psychological-operations (PSYOP) leaflets of the war displayed a photo of a B-52 unloading its deadly cargo, accompanied by text warning of continued B-52 strikes. Regrettably, many observers concluded that the "B-52 leaflet" was a universally applicable leaflet in PSYOP, forgetting that, although the Vietcong were terrified by B-52 strikes, they rarely surrendered as a result.

7. Dr. James S. Corum, "The Myth of Air Control: Reassessing the History," Aerospace Power Journal 14, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 61–77.

8. Col C. E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3d ed. (London: Printed for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office by Harrison and Sons, 1906), 41.

9. Ibid., 41–42.

10. Wing Comdr J. A. Chamier, "The Use of Air Power for Replacing Military Garrisons," Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, February–November 1921, 210.

11.  William Dean, "The Colonial Armies of the French Third Republic: Overseas Formation and Continental Deployment, 1871–1920" (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1999), 315–24.

12. The Escadrille Cherifienne flew 470 missions—often attacking towns that had already submitted to French authority—before being disbanded. Ibid., 324.

13. Lejeune Cummins, Quijote on a Burro: Sandino and the Marines, A Study in the Formulation of Foreign Policy (Mexico City: Distrito Federal: La Impresora Azteca, 1958), 54.

14. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, Fiscal Year 1928 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1929), 50, cited in ibid.

15. Ibid., 55.

16. By 1910, revolutions in Haiti followed a well-established pattern. A military strongman would form a caco army, consisting mostly of military adventurers and conscripts. The caco army would seize the capital city of Port-au-Prince, surround the legislature, and oversee the election of the insurgent leader as the new president. When the Marine Corps landed in July 1915, a number of caco armies supporting Rosalvo Bobo resisted. Suppressing these irregular forces became the primary military objective of the Marine Corps in Haiti. Likewise, when the United States intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1916, armed clashes between marines and various irregulars erupted almost immediately. Generally lumped together as "bandits," these irregular forces actually comprised professional highwaymen known as gavilleros, ordinary criminals, discontented politicians who used banditry to advance their own ambitions, unemployed laborers, and peasants, the latter generally impressed into service.

17. Lt Col Edward Johnson, Marine Corps Aviation: The Early Years, 1912–1940 (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters US Marine Corps, 1977), 49–51.

18. Maj Gen Ford O. Rogers, USMC, retired, transcript of oral history interview, Oral History Collection (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters US Marine Corps, 3 December 1970), 25, cited in ibid., 49.

19. For a full treatment, see Ivan Musicant, The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama (New York: Macmillan, 1990).

20. Johnson, 55–56.

21. Ibid., 53.

22. The use of aircraft to support marines on the ground is an important yet much overlooked aspect of airpower history. It is beyond the scope of this article to address the topic in the detail it deserves, but every student of airpower history should spend time examining the tactics, techniques, and procedures developed by the Marine Corps in Nicaragua, as it laid the groundwork for our concept of close air support today.

23. Maj Ross Rowell, "Aircraft in Bush Warfare," Marine Corps Gazette, September 1929, 180.

24. Ibid., 181.

25. Maj Ross Rowell, "The Air Service in Minor Warfare," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1929, 872.

26. Ibid.

27. Rowell, "Aircraft in Bush Warfare," 195. See also Capt H. Denny Campbell, "Aviation in Guerilla Warfare," Marine Corps Gazette, pt. 3 (November 1931): 33. In both articles, the authors advocated the use of nonlethal chemicals ("a sneezing gas, a lachrymatory gas, a laughing gas, a cholic-producing gas or even a simple and harmless anaesthetic") over lethal compounds. According to Captain Campbell, such use "humanizes bullet warfare" (33).

28. Rowell, "Aircraft in Bush Warfare," 193–94.

29. Robin Cross, The Bombers: The Illustrated Story of Offensive Strategy and Tactics in the Twentieth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 70.

30. Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985), 116.

31. As a result, Marine aircraft were struck by ground fire on virtually every mission.

32. Rowell, "Aircraft in Bush Warfare," 191–92.

33. Ibid., 193.

34. Macaulay recounts one incident, however, in which Major Rowell machine-gunned purported guerrillas in a house in a town where women and children were present. Sarcastically, Macaulay wrote, "The women and children were presumably not endangered by the machine-gun fire." But one can argue persuasively that at such low altitude and speed and with the superior marksmanship prevalent among the Marine aviators at the time, Rowell took the women and children into account when he made his decision to open fire. Given the absence of reported civilian casualties associated with this incident, Major Rowell apparently took a calculated risk and succeeded. See Macaulay, 116.

35. Maj Ross Rowell, "Annual Report of Aircraft Squadrons, Second Brigade, U.S. Marine Corps, July 1, 1927, to June 20, 1928," Marine Corps Gazette, December 1928, 250–51.

36. Ibid., 254.

37. Cummins, 54.

38. Capt Francis Mulcahy, "Marine Corps Aviation in the Second Nicaraguan Campaign," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1933, 1131.

39. Cummins, 45.

40. In addition to Major Rowell, who left Nicaragua in August 1928, three other Marine aviators commanded the air element in Nicaragua: Maj Louis Bourne (August 1928 to December 1929), Maj Ralph Mitchell (December 1929 to July 1931), and Capt Francis Mulcahy (July 1931 to January 1933). As a colonel, Rowell rose to become director of Marine Corps Aviation from 1 April 1936 to 10 March 1939 and as a major general was at one point the senior Marine Corps aviator in the Pacific during World War II. But following a disagreement with the commandant of the Marine Corps and Adm Chester Nimitz regarding the use of Marine aircraft on escort carriers (as opposed to supporting marines on the ground), he was relieved and sent to Lima, Peru, as chief of the Naval Air Mission. It was a sorry end to the career of an otherwise illustrious and dedicated Marine Corps aviator. See Mulcahy, 1122; Marine Corps Aircraft, 1913–1965, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters US Marine Corps, 1967), 49; and Peter Mersky, U.S. Marine Corps Aviation: 1912 to the Present, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1997), 98.

41. See Small Wars Manual (1940; reprint, Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1987), 9-1-1 to 9-36-24.

42. Much of what the US Army had learned in terms of "pacification" came from its own experience in the Philippines at the turn of the century. During the guerrilla phase of that war, the official US policy under President William McKinley was one of "benevolent assimilation," emphasizing conciliation over military solutions. See Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899–1902 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 30.

43. Small Wars Manual, 1-8-13.

44. Ibid., 1-10-18.

45. Ibid., 1-9-15, 1-9-16.

46. In truth, the marines of the time were no less racist than the British or French. In his article on the use of aircraft in small wars, Capt H. Denny Campbell regarded the use of propaganda to be an "effective weapon . . . against races of uneducated, uncivilized, indolent and superstitious peoples." The distinction, however, is that marines recognized that mistreatment and brutality—even directed at what they considered to be inferior peoples—made success in counterrevolutionary war all the more difficult and perhaps impossible. (For the specific reference cited, see Campbell, pt. 3 [note 26], 33.)

47. Gen Vernon McGee, "The Evolution of Marine Aviation," Marine Corps Gazette, pt.1 (August 1965): 24.

48. John Akehurst, We Won a War: The Campaign in Oman, 1965–1975 (Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England: Michael Russell [Publishing], 1982), 38.

49. Rowell, "Aircraft in Bush Warfare," 203.

50. According to Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001, "the joint force air component commander derives authority from the joint force commander who has the authority to exercise operational control, assign missions, direct coordination among subordinate commanders, redirect and organize forces to ensure unity of effort in the accomplishment of the overall mission" (222). Centralized control in support of the overall commander’s objectives is at the heart of the joint force air component commander concept and was the principal concern of Major Rowell and the Aircraft Squadrons, 2d Brigade.

51. See, for example, Carl H. Builder, "Doctrinal Frontiers," Airpower Journal 9, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 6–13.


Dr. Wray R. Johnson (BA, Southwest Texas State University; MS, Troy State University; PhD, Florida State University) retired from the US Air force in July 2001 after 22 years of active service. He is currently professor of strategic studies at the US Marine Corps Staff College, Quantico Marine Corps Base, Virginia. His last active duty posting was as professor of military history at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies (SAAS), Maxwell AFB, Alabama, where he taught strategic decision making, airpower theory, and airpower in small wars. During his tenure at SAAS, Dr. Johnson wrote the article concerning Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua that appears in this issue. While on active duty, Dr. Johnson also served as senior defense adviser to the director of the US Information Agency in Washington, D.C., and as chief of foreign internal defense for Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command, where he was instrumental in the creation of the 6th Special Operations Squadron—the only Air Force squadron dedicated to the foreign internal defense mission. Other assignments included service with the Air Force Office of Antiterrorism at the Pentagon, the Air Force Special Operations School, and the largest combat-arms training and maintenance unit in the Air Force. Dr. Johnson lectures widely on revolutionary warfare, counterinsurgency, psychological operations, and intercultural issues in limited and unconventional warfare. His book Vietnam and American Doctrine for Small Wars was published by White Lotus in December 2000. He is currently completing a book on airpower in counterinsurgency for the University Press of Kansas.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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