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Markwriter Military

By Mark Albertson

August 6, 2016



The Atomic Bomb and Total War



August marks that annual effort in soul-searching by Americans over the use of the Atomic Bomb in World War II.  Practically every World War II vet this writer has interviewed praises President Harry Truman for ordering the Bomb's use and ending the war in such a fashion.  A number of Americans today take odds with that assessment.  This is a healthy discussion as post 1945 Americans attempt to understand their nation's role in Man's Greatest Conflict and the aftermath.  But there are other aspects of understanding the game-changing nature of the Bomb.  And that is understanding the Bomb's place in the evolving nature of Total War.  For the Bomb is a stark reminder of Man's use of technology while engaging in his greatest pastime . . . War.  Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance; for no other undertaking seems to galvanize Man's time, talent and treasure compared to War. 



The atomic bomb forever changed warfare.  And a case in point is amphibious warfare.  July 1946, Bikini Island, Operation:  CROSSROADS. The Navy tested a pair of atomic ordnance against 247 warships which were slated for the breakers or the bottom.  Among those on hand was Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, United States Marine Corps.  During the Pacific Campaign, General Geiger--who was also a Marine aviator--had commanded III Amphibious Corps.


Following the tests at Bikini, General Geiger penned a letter to General Alexander Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Geiger warned that the United States would not retain the monopoly on the Bomb.  And since this was so, amphibious efforts such as at Sicily, Normandy and Okinawa were a thing of the past.  That light aircraft, working in conjunction with standard landing craft, would now be required to disperse assault forces in the face of the destructive capacity of the Bomb.  This led to the Marine Corps doctrine known as the Vertical Assault Concept. Together with the Army's burgeoning Airmobility Concept, both changed the method in which the Marines and Army would shuttle troops in the post-1945 world. General Geiger's 1946 letter, followed by Army General James M. Gavin's important 1947 article, "Airborne Armies of the Future," provided a Magna Carta for the helicopter.  The Atomic Bomb, then, helped to foster the reliance on the helicopter as that vehicle for moving troops on the modern battlefield.  For the helicopter proved able to circumvent those obstacles which impede ground transportation, such as rivers, hills and jungles; in addition to those areas where troops are committed to terrain with the most rudimentary of road systems.


Yet, in an intriguing bit of irony, it would not be on the nuclear battlefield that the helicopter would prove itself a desired military asset.  Korean War, 1950-1953.  The helicopter would showcase its potential on a conventional battlefield, and in particular as an air ambulance in the evacuation of wounded troops.  For instance, in World War II, the Army reported that for every hundred wounded GIs who made it to doctor's care, 4.5 died. In Korea, the death rate dropped to 2.5 per hundred, with the helicopter reaping much of the credit for this decline.  Yet it will be Vietnam, where the Army in particular, will use the helicopter on a massive scale to shuttle troops to and from the battlefield in an effort of mobility that will change the tactical nature of warfare.


The Atomic Bomb, despite being a major stimulous towards the helicopter being a decisive battlefield asset for the foot slogger, has altered war in the most remarkable way; as seen through Man's penchant to use his technology to effect a strategic advantage in an effort to wage Total War.  The 19th and 20th centuries saw Man harness the Industrial Revolution to pour forth weapons in tremendous quantities; while at the same time fostering technological innovations that will enable Man to reap ever greater harvests of humanity.  And here the role of airpower readily comes to mind.


An example of the aircraft's role in the meteoric escalation of Total War can be found in a little regarded conflict, the Italian-Turkish War, 1911-1912.  Italy was salivating to become an important member of the privileged clique of White Christian Colonial Powers by absorbing Tripolitania, part of what is known today as Libya.  On November 1, 1911, an Italian aviator in an open-cockpit Taube monoplane, made what is construed as being history's first use of the heavier-than-air-craft or airplane as a bomber.  Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti attacked two Turkish positions, Taguish and Ain Zara.  On his lap was a leather pouch.  Inside the bag were four Cipelli grenades, each weighing 4.5 pounds.  On each pass, Gavotti pulled the pin on a grenade and lobbed it out of the cockpit.  Ottoman troops scattered in terror.  Lieutenant Gavotti established the pattern, death and destruction from the sky.


Note and appreciate Man's remarkable application of technology.  In 1911, a little Italian lieutenant delivered an 18-pound bomb load from a combustable kite slower than today's family sedan.  Yet in just 34 years, a four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress with a crew of twelve men, enclosed in a pressurized cabin and speeding along at 300 miles-per-hour plus towards their appointed rendezvous with destiny on August 6, 1945, will deliver a single 10,000 pound bomb that will generate the explosive equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.  

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