How long does it take us to learn the lessons of past wars? A century ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War I ended with the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany. In hindsight, it seems almost laughable that at the time some considered it “the war to end all wars.”
The Great War spurred the development of aviation technology and witnessed many aerial innovations, including the first bombardment of a capital city from an airplane. The hand-dropped explosives did little damage to Paris, but demonstrated the powerful psychological effect of terror bombing. The United States, late to the Allied party, found itself behind the technological curve, and scrambled to develop suitable airplanes for this new kind of war. Less than 15 years after the Wright brothers achieved the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flights, the U.S. was compelled to rely on the talents of British expats to develop the first indigenous American scout plane.
Once more late to the party in World War II amid “America First” isolationism, the U.S. again found itself lagging in aviation technology. Although American aircraft companies quickly ramped up development and production of new warplanes, Britain, Germany and Japan all fielded better aircraft early in the war. The Germans, in particular, pushed technological boundaries, sometimes with significant breakthroughs, as with the introduction of the first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262 flown by Adolf Galland, and other times with unqualified failures, such as their attempt to develop U-boat–carried aircraft. The Japanese fielded Mitsubishi’s vaunted A6M Zero fighter and long-range G4M Betty bomber, but both suffered from a lack of protection for fuel and aircrews.
On the Korean peninsula, five years after the end of the war in Europe, the U.S. once again went to war unprepared (detect a pattern here?). Soldiers and airmen sent to South Korea in June 1950 to stop the North Korean invasion lacked adequate equipment and supplies. The nascent Republic of Korea air force consisted of a handful of novice pilots flying training aircraft. Sent to organize and train the ROK pilots, “Flying Parson” Dean Hess found success by leading from the front.
Which brings us to the Vietnam War, a military and political quagmire of the first order. Of the many lessons unlearned in that war, the restrictive rules of engagement foisted on military leaders by politicians were perhaps the most onerous. These led to countless aerial fiascos in which Americans put their lives on the line while following questionable tactics for dubious strategic gains. In one early-war example, U.S. fighter-bombers targeted two surface-to-air missile sites that turned out to harbor no SAMs.
In today’s volatile world climate, we would do well to heed the lessons of past wars—the dangers of isolationism, blind nationalism, appeasement, lack of preparedness and politicians who fancy themselves military strategists. If the next world conflict starts with the push of a button, it could well be the real war to end all wars.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here.