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War and Peace in the Space Age

Book Review: By Lieutenant General James M. Gavin:  You were born to be free. You were also born with a responsibility to contribute to our common defense. For as long as a trace of avarice exists in the hearts of men, there will be a need for the defense of men and their established institutions. . . James M. Gavin[1]

* * * * *

The quote above showcases General Gavin’s understanding of human nature: He from the perspective of war; Madison from the view of political theory. Though 170 years separates their writings, the concurrence of thought must be appreciated: That Man will always impress his fellow Man. Hence there will always be war. War is Man’s outstanding locomotive for change. Or as Adolf Hitler once observed, State boundaries are made by man and changed by man. . . [2]

American airborne soldier extraordinaire, General James M. Gavin, author of War and Peace in the Space Age.

Gavin was a practitioner of mobility in war. And as he describes, “Of the many visionaries who had foreseen armored warfare, including Chaffee, Guderian, De Gaulle and J.F.C. Fuller, Fuller was by far and away my favorite. I had read his books avidly. He had described the evolution in warfare that would restore mobility to land battle. And he saw it with all of the attendant problems of communications, command and decision. But more important, he had fitted it into the pattern of history. And this was of the utmost importance, since far more important than ‘what’ was happening was ‘why’ it was happening.”[3]

General Gavin shares with General Roy S. Geiger of the Marine Corps, that distinct appreciation of the game-changing nature of the Atomic Bomb on military thinking after 1945. The latter understood that amphibious warfare would never be the same; that in lieu of assaulting beaches in the standard fashion, light airplanes and helicopters would have to be developed so as to disperse assault forces when storming a hostile shore; then be able to concentrate them when the situation presented itself. This resulted in the Vertical Assault Concept.

Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, USMC, who with the advent of the Atomic Bomb, urged the Corps to use light aircraft and later helicopters to disperse assault troops during amphibious operations. This led to the Vertical Assault Concept.

Gavin, like Geiger, was a practitioner of light aircraft and helicopters for shuttling troops from battlefront to battlefront. He understood that both were superior to gliders and silk. With the former in World War II, wooden gliders were not always reusable, becoming damaged or write offs as a result of battlefront action; in addition, gliders were not self-propelled. Helicopters and light aircraft are self-propelled and are reusable. They are also more accurate in the delivery of troops than the parachute, as evidenced at Normandy with airborne troops dropped all over the French countryside. But Gavin’s main message was “thinking.” Understanding that Man’s science and tools had changed war. That the war of yesterday may not be the war of tomorrow. And his example was France, as he writes:

“Contrary to popular opinion, the Germans did not have greater manpower nor did they have more tanks, nor was the French Army taken by surprise. The French had a military establishment that stopped thinking with the end of World War I, that assumed that the pattern of war would not change and that the great battles of France in the past would be repeated in the future. That the Maginot Line was a monument to this state of mind. I discussed this in Strasbourg in 1953 with a French officer who had just written an article, “Were We Betrayed by the Concrete?” He demonstrated that they were not, and of course they were not. They were betrayed by their own thinking.”[4]

Such was Gavin’s point: The atomic bomb, with its wide aspect of destruction, elicited fresh thinking for the conduct of ground warfare in the future. And for Gavin and Geiger, this required the development of light aircraft and helicopters to foster the mobility of ground troops so as to prosecute a ground war, even in the nuclear era.

Gavin criticized, as well, the post-1945 thinking on the preponderance of airpower of the strategic variety, based on nuclear deterrence. From 1945 to 1949, America held the monopoly until the Soviets blew a bomb in 1949. Yet the persistence of thinking that strategic airpower, mated with atomic ordnance and superior technology had reduced the importance of ground troops, according to some, to outright irrelevance. War on the Korean peninsula, as noted by Gavin, had proved otherwise, as put forth by the author:

“At first it was hoped that our air and naval power would bring the aggression to a halt. Many, in fact, were confident that it would. I was a member of the Weapons Systems Evaluation at the time, and the senior Air Force member, upon learning that General MacArthur had called for the use of ground troops remarked: ‘The old man must be off his rocker. When the Fifth Air Force gets to work on them, there will not be a North Korean left in North Korea.’ A boast as idle as it lacked foundation, as Gavin explains, . . .

“’For the Army, trading lives for time and space it was a bitter and costly experience. Six reinforced North Korean People’s Army divisions came driving across the 38th Parallel toward Seoul. They were spearheaded by one hundred Russian-made T-34 tanks and amply supported by Russian-provided planes . . . Thus the great might of this industrial nation , five years after the defeat of the Axis powers, could do no better than to airlift two rifle companies and a battery of artillery to meet six aggressor divisions.’”[5] This, of course, was the ill-fated Task Force Smith.

Gavin continues his analysis with, “Of the United States’ casualties, in excess of 96 percent were ground troops. Thus the “bigger bang for a buck’ and ‘we will use machines and save manpower’ were brought to a paradoxical conclusion: our casualties were once again most in ground forces who were not expected to have to do much of the fighting. But from a technological point of view, the real tragedy of Korea was that this great nation, with its scientific resources and tremendous industrial capacity, had to accept combat on the terms laid down by a rather primitive Asiatic army. Neither our imagination nor vision in the years since World War II had given us a combat capability that would provide the technical margin of advantage that we needed on land warfare to win decisively and quickly. That we could have gained this margin of advantage is clear now; that we didn’t is the real tragedy of Korea.”[6]

Between pages 150 to 157, Gavin criticized the New Look defense posture with its reliance on strategic defense at the expense of the tactical nature of war. Such a posture favored the Air Force with “Massive Retaliation,” the ability to bomb recalcitrant nations into the Stone Age with the nuclear deterrence via the strategic bomber. But as with Korea and the Revolutionary Nationalists in North Vietnam, the Communists would not attempt a large war as seen in World War II as opposed to engaging, by comparison, brushfire wars or conflicts of the limited variety, which in many instances, does not allow a differentiation between friend and foe. Thereby, negating the nuclear option. In addition to retarding such tactical necessities for ground troops such as VTOL, STOL, tactical missiles and even satellites, not to mention the reduction in ground troops. In other words, Gavin was bringing forth the same mistake made prior to the Korean War.

On page 155, he goes so far as to offer criticism of Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson: “Mr. Wilson tended to deal with his Chiefs of Staff as though they were recalcitrant union bosses. . . . I have known General Ridgway, after weeks of painstaking preparation, to brief Mr. Wilson on a problem with lucidity and thoroughness. At the conclusion Mr. Wilson would gaze out the window and ask a question that had no relevance whatsoever to the subject of the briefing. Among his aides this was known as taking the briefer ‘on a trip around the world.’ It was a studied technique that he used when he had his mind already made up about what you were going to talk about. As I heard another Chief of Staff say, ‘He was the most uninformed man, and the most determined to remain so, that has ever been Secretary.’”[7]

It is important for the reader to be cognizant of when this volume was published, 1958. The struggle of the ground forces to emerge from a position of inferiority in the defense establishment at this stage of the Cold War must be appreciated. And it is from this perspective that Gavin had written this volume . . . in other words, it is a window into a period of American history, in particular from 1945 to 1958, written not only by a participant of the era, but by a booster of an airmobile army. And not merely from the perspective of preserving the Ground Force in the attempt to justify its existence in an ever more technologically dominated world; but, to create that mobile Ground Force able to carry its responsibilities of defending the Nation’s interests, not only on the tactical level, but the strategic as well. But to perform such necessary functions, the Army, as well as the Marine Corps, were of need of the proper tools. And among those proper tools, aerial assets ready at a moment’s notice. And if the Air Force was not ready to perform such a function, then the Army required such assets, under the direct control of the Ground Forces, so as to perform the required functions. For in the end, inter-service rivalries that jeopardize the Nation’s ability to defend itself, have no place.

At this writing, Gavin’s book is more than six decades old. Yet, resonates with a clarity of events that make this volume required reading for Army Aviators; and not solely from the perspective of understanding how their chosen field became a branch of the Army, but also as a gold mine of history. Or as Thomas Jefferson noted, History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of earlier times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men. . . [8]

 Endnotes

  1. See page 2, 1. “The Most Significant Event in Our Time,” War and Peace in the Space Age, by Lieutenant General James M. Gavin. The author’s understanding of human nature is without question. In this he concurs with James Madison, who wrote in The Federalist No. 51: But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. See page 349, Federalist No. 51: “To the People of the State of New York,” February 6, 1788, by James Madison, The Federalist, featuring the political philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
  2. See page 653, Chapter XIV, “Eastern Orientation or Eastern Policy: No Sentimentality in Foreign Policy,” Volume Two: The National Socialist Movement, Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.
  3. See page 40, 2. “As the Twig is Bent,” War and Peace in the Space Age, by Lieutenant General James M. Gavin. General Gavin is correct with his summation of J.F.C. Fuller. For Fuller was intelligent enough to grasp the horizontal aspects of history. Same is a study of history to which this writer subscribes, and believes the appreciation of same is lacking in this Nation today. Lends reality to the notion that history does repeat, not exactly, of course, but it does repeat; as such predictability seems endemic in the human condition. Hence the perpetual nature of war.
  4. See pages 94 and 95, Gavin.
  5. See page 122, Gavin.
  6. See page 123, Gavin.
  7. See page 155, Gavin.
  8. See page 274, “Query XIV,” by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Writings, The Library of America.

Bibliography

  • Cooke, Jacob E., Editor, The Federalist, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Ct., 1961.
  • Gavin, Lieutenant General James M., War and Peace in the Space Age, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY., 1958.
  • Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Mass., 1943. Originally published by Verlag FRZ, EHER NACHF, G.M.B.H., 1925.
  • Thomas Jefferson, Writings, The Library of America, Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, NY., 1984.