Published: 10 December 01
Aerospace Power Journal - Winter 2001
Right Backed by Might: The International Air Force Concept by Roger Beaumont. Praeger Publishers (http://www.greenwood.com/imprints/index. asp?ImprintID=I8), 88 Post Road West, Westport, Connecticut 06881-5007, 2001, 216 pages, $64.00.
This is a challenging book both to read and to understand. Part of the problem is the inherent difficulty in attempting to write the history of a nonevent—an international air force has never existed. Writing the history of an idea has special problems and requires a deft hand. The author does not help matters by employing convoluted and leaden prose, continually mixing the chronology, and writing vaguely about precisely what he is examining.
Widespread attempts to abolish war have occurred for more than a century. A variety of peace groups and pacifists, as well as sober statesmen who understand the cost of war, has sprung up in various times and places, advancing schemes to promote world peace—usually through some sort of international government. Paradoxically, many of the people who promote such ideas have been willing to use force to keep the peace. Airpower would play a key role in that enforcement. Roger Beaumont, a military historian with several books to his credit, attempts to tell this complex story, emphasizing the role of airpower and the ways it would be used.
Regrettably, Beaumont quickly descends into a semantic morass from which he never emerges. Terms such as disarmament, isolation, collective security, pacifism, internationalism, and appeasement, although related to some degree, are not the same thing. But Beaumont too often treats them as if they were. People who advocated these concepts generally had varying goals, methods, and levels of support. An “America firster” like Charles Lindbergh, for example, was unquestionably both a strong believer in airpower and a staunch isolationist. He was not, however, an advocate of disarmament—much less pacifism.
The author’s failure to define clearly these terms and movements makes for a confusing melange that never comes into focus. Thus, he tends to combine the idea of a notional international police force (IPF), which would encompass land, sea, and air forces, with that of an international air force (IAF), which constitutes only one component of that police force. Because an IAF has never existed, however, he resorts to concentrating on the numerous, though still mostly unsuccessful, attempts to form an IPF. In addition, he spends much time covering the League of Nations, collective security arrangements, and various disarmament initiatives during the interwar period, but this tends only to confuse the issue. In fact, there were more attempts to abolish airpower between the wars than there were to turn it into a coercive instrument of world peace.
His coverage of World War II and the five decades since is similarly unfocused and meandering. Ironically, as the new century dawns, some people see a movement towards an IPF composed largely of a powerful IAF. Conflicts in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans were marked by broad international support and were dominated by airpower. Yet, the real story of the past decade has been the greatly expanded role of the United Nations in peacekeeping (as opposed to peacemaking) operations around the world. However, peacekeeping forces tend to be composed largely of ground troops, not always armed, who are relegated to police and humanitarian functions. These operations have principally used airpower’s airlift and intelligence-gathering capabilities—subjects barely touched upon in this book.
The numerous factual errors throughout this work are surprising, given the credentials of the author and publisher. Some of them are relatively minor (though still inexcusable), such as giving erroneous dates for the Casablanca Conference and the duration of the Rolling Thunder air campaign, and promoting Carl Spaatz to five-star rank. Others are a bit more serious—placing Dienbienphu [sic] in Laos rather than Vietnam and basing USAF B-52s in the Philippines. Still other mistakes, however, call into question the author’s credibility and basic knowledge of the subject: he misses the date when the Air Force began receiving the largest share of the US defense budget by nearly a decade; President Eisenhower threatened China, not North Korea, with nuclear weapons in 1953; and air operations over Serbia in 1999 were not more intense than those in Operation Desert Storm—they were far less intense (an average of around 300 combat sorties per day versus over 1,700). Indeed, the profusion of errors dealing with easily verifiable facts makes one wonder about the accuracy of his major premises.
Right Backed by Might does have utility, however. Beaumont has done an enormous amount of research on the diverse topics he discusses. His footnotes (there is no bibliography), therefore, contain a wealth of contemporary sources that should prove a useful starting point for other researchers.
Col Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF, Retired
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.