LOA: You note in your introduction that “One of the first practical purposes mankind found for the airplane was killing people.” Into the Blue effectively documents how dramatically the use of planes for warfare has changed over the past century: from World War I dogfights to what flight crews in Afghanistan call “the Kabul-ki Dance.” How would you characterize this progression?
Corn: Yes, the use of airplanes to kill people—purposefully, not just accidentally—emerged early. In a 1914 selection published just after the start of World War I and before any Americans flew in the conflict, aviator Glenn L. Martin offered a prophesy as to how “veritable flying death,” as he called it, would change the face of warfare.
He correctly divined the role that aircraft would play in reconnaissance, plane-to-plane combat, and bombing, although in the latter he strangely seems to have imagined that a major form of bombing would be suicide missions. “One man, driving an aeroplane laden with high explosives,” he wrote, would “dive like a plummet upon the bows of a great warship and destroy it. He gives one life, the enemy gives many.” Such sacrifices never became part of American tactics, but reconnaissance, dogfights, and dropping high explosives on enemies became staples of air warfare.
By World War II military fliers added a number of new missions to this basic trio. Close support of ground troops became more important, as is seen in Samuel Hynes’s account of flying in Okinawa in 1945, dropping food, fuel, and other supplies to ground forces in parts of the island where just miles away the Japanese were still resisting. Air support of ground troops changed again in Vietnam, as Esquire reporter Michael Herr reports from his experience there from 1967–68. Armed as gunships, helicopters moved men and supplies and worked intimately with the infantry.
Different still is the mission implicit in Sherman Baldwin’s gripping account of a night landing on a moving carrier deck during the Gulf War. His heavy EA-6B Prowler aircraft, with a crew of four, existed not to attack or bomb but solely to monitor and jam enemy communications; in part this was reconnaissance updated for the electronic age, but in using electronics as a weapon, it was also new. A similar but more high-tech chapter of ground support is presently visible in the skies over Afghanistan, as journalist Mark Bowden reports in the selection, “The Kabul-ki Dance.” The Air Force F-15s loitering over Kabul serve like taxis, awaiting communications from the ground on where to deliver the next lethal air-to-ground strike.
In short, the missions our military has flown over nearly a century demonstrate continuity as well as change, defined and shaped in large part by the growing power of computerized communications technologies.Read the entire interview (PDF)
Also of interest:
- “Twelve Strangers in the Night” by Elizabeth M. Bisgood, an excerpt from Into the Blue and a previous Story of the Week
- “The Flying Fool” by Waverly Root, about Charles A. Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, a previous Story of the Week
- A Reader’s Almanac post about William Faulkner and his barnstorming pilot brother, Dean