Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, by Stephen Budiansky. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2004. Stephen Budiansky’s Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II is a broad survey of the evolution of air power and how it has changed the way wars are fought. Budiansky, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Code Breaking in World War II, makes clear that this book on air power is not an exhaustive or definitive account. Nonetheless, Budiansky has managed to come up with a tour de force supported by sufficient details based upon both primary and secondary sources. His book covers the history of air power from the Wright brothers to Afghanistan and Gulf War II.
After recounting the early years of aviation, Budiansky notes that airmen in World War I demonstrated the basic functions of military aircraft—reconnaissance, tactical and strategic. The interwar years saw the advance of aircraft technology as well as doctrine. Budiansky portrays Billy Mitchell as a prophet ahead of his time and notes that the Air Corps Act of 1926 “was not the full independence that Mitchell had fallen on his sword in the hopes of attaining, but it offered some consolation that he had not sacrificed himself entirely in vain.”
Although Budiansky notes briefly the establishment of GHQ Air Force, he fails to bring out the importance of Maj. Gen. Frank Andrews’s leadership. Moreover, he misses the enormous impression that Andrews made on General George C. Marshall, with its portent for the future of the Army air arm and its buildup prior to—and during—World War II.
Budiansky gives General Curtis E. LeMay his due, emphasizing that LeMay’s tactics in both Europe and over Japan fueled the success of the strategic bombing offensive. The author also describes LeMay’s decision to drop incendiaries at low level [5000–9000 feet] over Tokyo on March 9–10, 1945, resulting in a conflagration—the most destructive bombing attack of the entire war, even more costly than the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to Budiansky, the Gulf War marked the ascendancy of precision air attack: “having struggled for a century to escape the battlefield in their quest for equal status and independence—having fought so many bitter battles to free themselves from the indignity of providing mere support to ground forces— it was on the battlefield where air power finally achieved not merely equality, but its claim to ascendancy.”
Although short on character development and the evolution of policy, Budiansky’s book is a welcome addition to the air power bookshelf and can be highly recommended to the active force.
Reviewed by Herman S. Wolk, U.S. Air Force Senior Historian (Ret.), Washington, D.C.