The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.
Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.
Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.
Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):
The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.
Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.
Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.
Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.
Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.
Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Melvin Deaile of the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In this episode we discuss Deaile’s recent book Always at War. We discuss the early days of USAF’s Strategic Air Command and its culture, as well as the controversies surrounding General Curtis LeMay.
Dr Melvin Deaile is Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. His book, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 was published by Naval Institute Press in 2018. Deaile is a retired USAF Colonel, with a PhD in American History from UNC-Chapel Hill, who flew the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit. He has flown combat operations as part of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, including a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission. Deaile is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and is a distinguished graduate of the USAF Weapon School.
Header Image: Boeing B-47 Stratojet bombers of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, c. the 1950s. The B-47 was the world’s first swept-wing bomber. The B-47 normally carried a crew of three; pilot, copilot (who operated the tail turret by remote control), and an observer who also served as navigator, bombardier and radar operator. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.
The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war. Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.
As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters. The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:
[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’
In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’ The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation. This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.
Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements
Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.
The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.
This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’ Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.
These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’ In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.
The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’ Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’ ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto. AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO. Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof. The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’ Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.
General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’ Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:
It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.
That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.
Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare
Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’ The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.
The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’ Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three. Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees. Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.
It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.
Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’ The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.
Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:
The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.
Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.
Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.
Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)
Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).
 James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.
 Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.
 Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.
 Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
 Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) has used various ‘wings’ brevets as identifying symbols for aircrew since its formation, with hotly-contested political debates within the service over their symbolic value dating back to the time of their introduction by the Royal Flying Corps. However, it was during the Second World War that – thanks to the RAF’s actions and resulting fame – the recognition of the insignia was catapulted beyond military circles into the wider public. Much of this recognition is either evidenced in the products, or due to the efforts, of Britain’s propagandists, who frequently included the ‘wings’ brevets in their material. Although an intrinsic component of RAF aviators’ uniforms, ‘wings’ brevets were frequently depicted independently from their associated clothing sets. Indeed, their recognition often transcended the uniforms to which they were irrevocably attached in reality — virtually every piece of uniform, insignia, and flying equipment featured in aviators’ propaganda representations. However, the ‘wings’ brevets were foremost among these symbols, coming to represent not just individual aviators, but the service as a whole.
Following the traditions of the RFC, the RAF recognised individual aircrew roles through brevet patches worn on the service dress and war service dress jackets’ left breast. These took the form of either two outstretched bird’s wings for a pilot or a single wing denoting non-pilot roles in multi-person aircraft. Both forms of brevet were embroidered in white silk for the wings, and bronze silk for the laurels from which they emanated. Contained within these laurels were white letters indicating the wearer’s service in the case of pilots or their role in acronym form for non-pilots. Named for their shape, ‘wings’ brevets received a modicum of public recognition before the Second World War, evidenced by their appearances in popular culture, including Thomas Somerfield likening them to RAF officers’ moustaches in Punch, August 1918. Depicting two aviators, one with a full handlebar moustache and the other with similar facial hair on only the left half of his top lip, Somerfield quipped that:
The growth of decorations, badges and honorific chevrons makes it advisable that fresh space should be found for them. Mr. Punch recommends the above method of distinguishing between an observer and a pilot.
Although this reference to the brevet’s form indicated public knowledge of the insignia, it was during the Second World War that the brevet became truly famous within the British public consciousness.
During the Second World War, a wider variety of ‘wings’ brevets specific to aircrew roles were produced, and their symbolic value increased exponentially, thanks in part to their promotion by the Air Ministry. With the increasing size of bombers, the typical aircrew was no longer simply a pilot and his observer. The new heavy four-engined bombers required a large and diverse range of crewmembers, each with their specially trained skillset and therefore deserving of recognition through their unique brevet. The new ‘wings’, modelled on the earlier observer’s brevet, were individually introduced throughout the war, beginning with the Air Gunner’s in December 1939 and ending with Meteorological Officer, signified by an ‘M’, in April 1945. In many cases, their introduction was announced to the public in newspaper articles, with The Times publishing an article on the Air Gunner brevet’s introduction, complete with information on the wearers’ qualifications, the brevet’s construction, and accompanying photograph.
The ‘wings’ brevets’ promotion was highly effective, leading to them gaining widespread public recognition. Roald Dahl, at this time an RAF fighter pilot, recalled two incidents in his memoir Going Solo in which the ‘wings’ on his jacket acted as ‘a great passport’ in London during 1941, both occurring during the same night. The first instance was impressing a hotel owner into using her telephone; the second was deterring a group of ‘drunken soldiers […] searching for an officer to beat up.’ Dahl attributed this recognition to the publicising of fighter and bomber pilots’ activities, and the brevity of his short explanation implies that the brevet’s significance was indeed common knowledge in wartime Britain. By contrast, Flying Officer James Storrar, a Hawker Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain, wrote to his mother about the amusement he felt at the reactions he received from non-RAF personnel while on leave in London. Upon his appearance at the Euston Hotel, Storrar wrote that ‘Army Captains look upon my dirty tunic & hat […] with disgust and two waiters titter about something in my dress.’ However, it was ‘honestly amusing to meet people and be introduced as a fighter pilot, the different reactions are amazing.’ Accordingly, the appearance of RAF aviators’ uniforms and the visibility of their ‘wings’ brevet significantly influenced their reception by the British public. While smartly dressed pilots with visible ‘wings’ brevets, such as Dahl, received positive reactions from the public, those whose dress was too untidy for identification as pilots received derision and scorn.
Popular recognition of the pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet is reflected in a variety of propaganda media. These include one of the Air Ministry’s ‘Fly with the RAF’ advertisements published in February 1941, in which it is claimed that ‘you [the reader] know’ RAF pilots ‘by “The Wings” on their tunics.’ Further evidence can be found in two posters from the Ministry of Information’s series ‘Keep Mum, She’s Not so dumb!’ In one, an RAF Sergeant is plied for information by his female companion, with the ‘AG’ on his half-brevet delicately legible despite the rough brushstrokes used throughout the remainder of the artwork. In the second poster, officers of the three services crowd around an elegant woman, the only feature distinguishing the RAF officer from his compatriots being his uniform’s colour and ‘wings’. In both of these instances, great care was taken by the artists to ensure that the ‘wings’ brevets were included in their work, clearly indicating the insignia’s symbolic value, both to Britain’s propagandists and within popular culture.
The ‘wings’ brevet also appeared frequently in commercial advertisements. Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee included the brevet in their poster featuring a smiling RAF pilot wearing service dress with visible ‘wings’ brevet. By associating the brand with the heroic defenders of the realm, whose ambassador is identified only by his insignia, the audience is assured of the product’s quality. A similar use of the brevet for ‘authenticating’ a product can be found in newspaper advertisements for Fighter Pilot, Paul Richey’s anonymous Battle of France memoir. First editions of Richey’s book also sported the fêted insignia on its otherwise-image-deprived cover. Other book covers utilising the brevet include Leslie Kark’s novels The Fire Was Bright and Red Rain, both of which used the ‘wings’ as a method of clearly identifying their topics to potential readers. Similarly, the Ministry of Information’s internationally-distributed children’s picture book Britain’s Royal Air Force began beneath a large colour illustration of a pilot’s brevet.
Cinema, however, presented the most prominent recognition of the ‘wings’ brevet’s symbolic power. Although aviation films produced in the war’s formative years merely included the brevet as a part of their actors’ costumes, later films came to place great emphasis on the brevet as a symbol of the characters’ occupation. Exemplifying this is Jack Watling’s character Buster, the RAF fighter pilot briefly included in Carol Reed’s 1944 film The Way Ahead as a token emblem of his service. In every shot depicting the character, his ‘wings’ are clearly visible, continually reminding the audience of his coveted role within his already-glorified service. This careful inclusion is echoed in a brief shot from the Sergeant’s Mess scene in Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 Oscar-nominated One of Our Aircraft is Missing wherein the ‘wings’ of the Sergeant pilot leaning against the radio is clearly, but unnecessarily, visible at the bottom of the image. Joseph Lee also utilised this careful framing in his cartoon ‘Smiling Through: Point of View’, published in the Evening News in July 1942. Although the central character’s left arm is raised casually, it is angled just low enough for the artist to include his ‘wings’ in the image. In each of these examples, the characters’ ‘wings’ brevets need not have been included, and their presence; therefore, merely proves their symbolic value to both creators and audience.
A similar reverence is placed upon the ‘wings’ brevet in Anthony Asquith’s 1945 work The Way to the Stars, with the film’s characters wordlessly acknowledging their symbolic value. When encountering John Mills’ character, RAF bomber pilot-turned-controller Peter Penrose, American bomber crewmember Joe Friselli, played by Bonar Colleano, initially took him for a non-flying officer. This assumption is based on Penrose not wearing his War Service Dress jacket and his introducing himself as a controller and “not a flier.” Friselli proceeded to loudly elucidate on his untested expertise in bombing and the qualities of his aircraft. Penrose, meanwhile, took his coat down from the hook on which it was hanging, and Friselli stopped short as he noticed the ‘wings’ brevet just visible to the audience on the jacket’s left breast. Friselli’s tone changed immediately to one of apologetic respect, and humble, yet faintly-dumbfoundedly enquired into Penrose’s experience as a pilot. The brief interaction between Friselli and Penrose was aimed to bring a form of Schadenfreude to the British public, playing on their widespread irritation with the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ American servicemen based in their country. However, the scene also proves the brevet’s power as a symbol independent of the RAF’s uniform, for unlike Buster’s The Way Ahead, Penrose’s ‘wings’ remain either out-of-focus or partially obscured throughout the scene. Regardless, instant audience recognition is expected of Friselli’s wordless indication to the brevet’s location, just as the brevet’s significance goes unexplained yet remains pivotal to the dialogue.
While incidental inclusions such as these in both film and print were common, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit went one step further. Under the direction of John Boulting, the Unit’s 1945 film Journey Together dug into the perceived elitism of pilots and dedicated the entire film to promoting the value of non-pilot aircrew, with particular emphasis on the role of navigator. The film tells the story of two fictional RAF trainees, David Wilton and John Ayneswoth played by Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling respectively, both hoping to become pilots. Wilton failed in his endeavour and instead became a navigator, while Ayneswoth achieved his goal, much to the envy of Wilton, until both came to cooperate and accept the equal importance of navigator and pilot. Wilton’s initial envy is communicated most effectively in a mostly non-verbal scene in a Canadian hotel bar, where Aynesorth took off his greatcoat to expose the new ‘wings’ on his service dress. After a moment of tense silence, Wilton showed his support for Aynesworth’s achievement by offering to brush his wings to reduce their dazzle. Throughout this brief but tense scene, the brevet dominated as the object of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, with great emphasis placed on its coveted status and symbolism.
From their repeated use in multiple media formats to identify and promote aviators, the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevets held significant symbolic value within British Second World War society. Be it through intimation of their elite status in cinema, or their inclusion as a service-identifying emblem in printed material, brevets were repeatedly used without accompanying explanation of their meaning, with audiences expected to both recognise them and appreciate the qualifications and accompanying heroic traits they represented. There is limited evidence to support any claim that the insignia was indeed widely-recognised by the British public, and any claim that recognition of ‘wings’ brevets was universal would be almost impossible to prove. However, the material examined in this article indicates that the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information believed public recognition of ‘wings’ brevets to be sufficient to make explanation unnecessary. If their assumptions were correct, which could be argued based on these agencies’ access to public opinion polling, this would indicate that the brevets’ fame was deeply embedded in the British public consciousness, well beyond its earlier and later boundaries within the service. This fame, founded in the propagandised efforts of the RAF, merely exacerbated the ministries’ ability to use them as a propaganda tool to further promote the service. Therefore, RAF ‘wings’ brevets exemplified not only the power of the symbols in wartime propaganda but the reciprocal interaction between propaganda and public opinion, each of which influences the other. Public knowledge of the brevets was due to its use in propaganda, and its use in propaganda was based on expected public knowledge. Regardless of the origins of their fame, the innumerable representations of RAF ‘wings’ brevets in British Second World War propaganda indicated their popularity among the contemporary British public.
Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.
 For further discussion of this historical debate, see C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew Roles in the RFC, RNAS and RAF, Revised Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), pp. 61, 81, 257.
 Thomas Somerfield, ‘The Growth of Decorations…’, Punch, 21 August 1918, p. 124.
 Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 7.
 ‘New Badge for Air Gunners,’ The Times, 1940, p. 8.
 Roald Dahl, Going Solo (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 207.
 Leslie Kark, The Fire was Bright (London: Macmillan, 1943), cover; Leslie Kark, Red Rain (London: Macmillan, 1945), cover.
 Anonymous, Britain’s Royal Air Force (London: Ministry of Information, 1943), p. 1.
 See Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst & Adrian Brunel, The Lion Has Wings (London Films, 1939) as an example of early-war aviation propaganda, in which little to no emphasis is placed upon the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the two lead actors’ uniforms.
 Carol Reed, The Way Ahead (Two Cities Films, 1944).
 Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (The Archers, 1942).
 Joseph Lee, ‘Smiling Through: Point of View,’ Evening News, 14 July 1942.
 Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars (Two Cities Films, 1945).
As a means of acknowledging its increasingly diverse composition, the Royal Air Force (RAF) introduced shoulder patches to its uniforms during the Second World War. These small pieces of cloth, varying widely in construction, not only identified the wearer’s nationality to the viewer, but highlighted the contributions of non-British personnel to the service, and thereby the international scale of the broader conflict. Although Commonwealth aviators had made significant contributions to the RAF’s numbers since its foundation, the service’s diversity was further compounded during the Second World War by an influx of exiled aviators from continental Europe and volunteers from neutral countries such as Ireland and the United States. While many occupied nations’ air arms retained their administrative independence from the RAF, all, save for the Free French, adopted the RAF’s uniform as their own.
Many adapted their uniforms to reflect their original services by altering insignia, such as replacing the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevet with their own air forces’ brevets, or dying their uniforms a darker shade of blue, as Australian aviators did. Despite their differences, however, all adopted the RAF’s shoulder patches as a part of their varying insignia, sewing them just below the shoulder seams of their Service Dress uniform jackets, in a similar fashion to the British Army’s regimental insignia. Their introduction was often at the request of the RAF. Produced for all major nationality groups serving in the RAF, the patches presented the wearer’s original service, such as the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), or home country either in full, or in acronym, stitched in light blue or white thread on dark blue or black cloth. Introduced at intermittent stages across the conflict’s duration, the patches came in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from single-line titles to the comparatively ostentatious insignia worn by American Eagle Squadron pilots. Regardless of their format, however, all patches made the wearer’s nationality abundantly clear.
Even in the case of the Eagle Squadron patch, omitting written reference to the United States, it nonetheless clearly communicated national identity through a large embroidered replication of the country’s national symbol. Despite their innocuous size, RAF personnel attached great sentimental value to their shoulder patches. Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, the British commander of Canadian No. 144 Wing from 1943 to 1945, was presented a pair by Leslie ‘Syd’ Ford, one of the Wing’s Squadron Leaders, after his first operation with the unit. Johnson recalled Ford stating that ‘the boys would like you to wear these. After all, we’re a Canadian wing and we’ve got to convert you.’ This action’s ‘deep significance’ to Johnson reflects the shoulder patches’ extended symbolism beyond that of personal identity, for Johnson was not Canadian, to one of inclusivity and group identity.
Thanks to the Ministry of Information’s (MoI) interest in promoting international support for Britain, particularly before the United States’ entry into the conflict, RAF shoulder patches were frequently included in British domestic propaganda. Among the various media to feature them were newspaper articles, with international airmen serving in the RAF frequently promoted through photographs of specific individuals and their insignia. Exemplifying this is a small pictorial Times article on Squadron Leader William Taylor, ‘the fighting commanding officer of the new R.A.F. Fighter squadron with all American pilots’, in which Taylor is posed side-on to the camera, compelling the audience to notice and recognise his prominent Eagle Squadron patch. Shoulder patches also appear in numerous MoI posters, one example being ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’ from the ministry’s ‘For Freedom’ series, in which a New Zealand pilot, identifiable by his camera-facing shoulder patch, appears in the centre of the poster’s illustration. In many cases, propagandised aviators appeared as anonymous members of a group, appearing only in close-up shots of their shoulder patches. The November 1943 British Movietone News newsreel story ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ exemplifies this phenomena, dedicating eight seconds of its length to a succession of shots showing the shoulders of a Canadian Air Bomber, an Australian Air Gunner, a New Zealand Navigator, and a Rhodesian Sergeant, each shot excluding the subjects’ faces.
Other stories utilising aviators’ shoulder patches include those covering the influx of immigrant RAF personnel from Empire Air Training Scheme, often before their allocation to nationally-specific units. The October 1941 British Movietone newsreel story ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ exemplifies this theme. As its title suggests, the story, also covered by Pathé Gazette under the title ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, shows King George VI and Queen Elizabeth inspecting foreign RAF personnel newly-arrived in Britain. Most of the segment’s one-minute length is dedicated to a sequence of shots focusing on selected personnel’s shoulder patches. Aviators from Canada, Singapore, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand and Rhodesia receive the camera’s attention in turn, with their identifying shoulder patches appearing in each shot’s centre, often, as in ‘Battle of Berlin’, at the expense of their owners’ faces.
Originally intended as a political concession to overseas governments’ requests for increased autonomy within the RAF, the shoulder patch’s frequent centre-stage appearances reveal that its symbolic value extended beyond its simple cloth constitution. By focusing solely on the unnamed aviators’ shoulder patches, both ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ and ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ eschew all of their subjects’ characteristics save for their nationalities, depicting them as simply their nations’ de facto ambassadors. Commonwealth military historians such as Jeffrey Grey have criticised their nations’ ‘disastrous’ ‘surrender’ of aviators to the RAF under the Empire Air Training Scheme and the subsequent reduction of Commonwealth air arms to ‘training organisation[s] for the RAF’. Similar disdain was voiced by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who opined that:
[a]n ordinary mixed British crew from all parts of the British Isles […] is much better disciplined and certainly better educated than the average colonial and dominion crew.
However, the frequent appearances of the commonwealth and overseas aviators and their national insignia in British domestic propaganda indicate that their value extended beyond strategy and aided significantly in the MoI’s emphasising of the international support for Britain’s war effort.
Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.
Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars. London: John Blake Publishing London, 2018. Index. Hbk.
In this book, Peter Lee sets out to describe the ‘unknown community’ that is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Reaper Force. In doing so, Lee focuses on the aircrew in the ‘cockpit’ of these remotely piloted aerial vehicles (RPAS) and their partners, rather than all the other personnel needed to operate Reaper. Lee originally proposed the work to the RAF as an attempt to answer some of the questions that readers in one hundred years’ time might ask about these individuals, as a way of ensuring that those future enquirers would know more than we do about the RAF aircrew of 1918. Given this genesis, the limitation of scope is understandable and an outline of Lee’s research approach can found in his submission to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group that was established in 2016 to ‘analyse the emerging technologies of drones [and] the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones.’ Moreover, this starting point is a pleasing historical touch as 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the RAF. Indeed, it was during the First World War that we saw human-crewed flight come of age as a weapon of war, and one hundred years later, the success of the Reaper Force raises the question of what the future is for manned aviation in the RAF. However, Lee does not pursue this or many other intriguing avenues, for reasons of time and space. He does not engage in detail with the debate about whether drones are ‘fair’, quickly dismissing this by rightly arguing that war has always seen one side aiming to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage over another, and this is just another manifestation of this trend. So, this is not a book to read to understand more about the ethics of drones. A reader seeking this debate should look elsewhere, and indeed Lee has already little on this subject himself.
Lee aimed to record how the Reaper Force feels about their ‘experiences and day-to-day lives’, and the book does an excellent job fulfilling this aim. His interview-based approach provides a distinct perspective from books written by those operating drones, which lack the reflection and perspective on experiences that Lee provides through the questions he puts to the aircrew. The bulk of the book is made up of content taken from interviews Lee conducted with members of both No. 39 Squadron based at Creech AFB in Nevada, and No. XIII Squadron based at RAF Waddington and these provide genuine insights into the aircrew’s (and their partners’) feelings about what they do. One comes away with a sense that this is a highly trained, highly dedicated group of men and women, with a culture that among other things is focused on ‘zero CIVCAS,’ that is a ‘policy direction’ of no civilian casualties (p. 279). Lee (p. 279) describes this focus as ‘almost an obsession […] that has had a significant impact on how they operate and make decisions.’ He recounts a mission where the aircrew believed the target was valid, as did the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, but the Senior Mission Intelligence Coordinator, an acting sergeant outside the aircrew, objected to the strike. This was because they believed it was a child rather than a parcel on the back of the target and was proved right (pp. 284-8). This is an excellent illustration of the commitment to zero CIVCAS, given both the hesitation to launch the weapon and the freedom the most junior person in the process felt to halt it. This indicates a very healthy culture if one believes zero CIVCAS should be accorded that level of importance.
Lee discussed further a 2011 ‘CIVCAS incident’ in Chapter Five when an RAF strike killed four civilians riding in lorries transporting explosives. This attack occasioned many levels of review, and it is clear that there is a huge determination in the Reaper Force that this should not happen again – even though as Lee (p. 113) notes, ‘the crew’s actions were in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and their procedures and directives.’ This message is one the RAF’s Air Staff would presumably be no means averse to having more widely understood. However, Lee also makes the point through his interviews with several of the aircrew’s partners that this care and skill should be more widely appreciated, to counter all those who claim drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, including the Reaper Force in this blanket condemnation. Indeed, one is left with the evident understanding from the interviews that the Reaper Force does not operate in this way; Eye in the Sky (2015) was a good film but what is depicted would never have happened under the RAF’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), and the Reaper Force is not guilty of causing wanton civilian deaths. There are, however, hints in the book that at times those looking for support from the Reaper Force are frustrated by these RoEs, for example, when a British Army JTAC is frustrated that a Reaper crew will not launch a missile and calls for assistance from an Army Air Corps Apache instead (p. 282). These RoEs can also frustrate those in the Reaper Force, as described in Chapter Nine when on Boxing Day 2014 permission to destroy a suspected IS-controlled ex-Iraqi armoured vehicle was denied, with the result that the Reaper crew had to watch then the aftermath of a successful IS attack using it.
The above example affected the crew in question, and Lee uses this and other cases to explore the issue of how the high-tempo of Reaper operations, and how the nature of those operations, with the graphic and detailed images they see as part of launching strikes, may be impacting the mental health of the aircrew. His interviews provide illuminating examples, and those he interviewed have a range of ways of coping, dependent on the various ways what they do affects them. Some aircrew seems to be able to operate for several years without being adversely affected; others burn out much more quickly. This issue links to the RAF’s perception of bravery, and how this should be recognised. Historically, bravery has been defined by physical courage. Lee, however, makes a case for those who continually put their mental health at risk through flying Reaper operations as showing as much bravery as aircrew who get physically airborne. In reading this, about issue continuing to put oneself at risk, one is undoubtedly reminded in some ways of the courage Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris described seeing in his Bomber Command crews.
Chapter Eleven looks at the question of bravery in its most visible military form, namely the award of decorations to Reaper crews. This is a subject that has generated discussion more widely over recent years. Lee addresses it by reference to a particularly challenging strike, footage of which was used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of the press release announcing the award of campaign medals to those involved in the campaign against IS. The irony was that since the Reaper crew executing the strike were not deemed to be ‘in theatre’, they did not qualify for the medal. However, as Lee points out both in the book and in his October 2017 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society, they were exposing themselves to not insignificant risks of mental injury, and certainly were knowingly taking greater risks with their health than those working in a mess at Akrotiri. This again reminds one of RAF Bomber Command, and Harris’ unsuccessful campaign to have his groundcrews awarded a campaign medal despite cooks and bottle-washers in other theatres being entitled to a campaign medal.
Lee, however, does note that the MoD announced on 18 July 2018 that the medal would be awarded to Reaper pilots (p. 249). There will always be those who wish to equate heroism with physical courage, and hence would never see Reaper crews as eligible for medals, but this decision feels appropriate given the increasing level of discussion in society around mental health and, in a military context, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. To what extent these issues will impact Reaper Force aircrew in the future is a subject for a later book, but this volume makes it clear that they have seen sights, repeatedly, that no-one would ask to see given the choice.
This potential to see bravery redefined is one example of how Reaper and its successors could change the RAF, and this is an area where one feels the whole growth of the Reaper Force raises many interesting issues that Lee has probably rightly only touched on very briefly. What will it mean for the RAF’s culture when perhaps many attack missions do not require a human in the aircraft? Already aircrew are being trained solely to operate Reaper, and the RAF, while awarding them aircrew brevets, is making them subtly different from the ‘normal’ brevets given to those who get airborne – does this demonstrate a reluctance to admit that Reaper crews are as valuable as those who get airborne? Moreover, what will this mean for the RAF as RPAS aircrews undertake more missions? The Reaper Force from its inception was crewed mainly by aircrew who served on Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado aircraft who transferred to Reaper as these aircraft were taken out of service. The aircrews who operated on manned platforms brought with them the culture and attitude from those environments, and Lee describes several interesting stories from aircrew about the different operating styles. For example, Lee recounts how a former Tornado navigator said she could not get used to the amount of talking an ex-Nimrod pilot would do, which was a huge change from the fast jet where ‘a good cockpit’s a quiet cockpit’ ethos was one that she was used to (p. 132).
As such, even within the Reaper Force, there are still vestiges of the culture that the members brought from their previous aircraft types, and the force will need to evolve its own culture over time. One suspects it will not be as extrovertly self-confident as the fast jet one it is partially replacing. Indeed, Lee recounts that his initial inquiry about when it would be time to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ on his first day watching an aircrew was met with a swift ‘very funny’, clearly meant to shut him up (p. 31). The RAF’s public image is very much built around the image of the fighter pilot, from the aces of the First World War, through the pilots of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain to today’s Typhoons on QRA, intercepting Russian Bears out over the ocean. Indeed, it is interesting that the RAF’s historic flight is called the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when far more aircrew served and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Reaper and other automated weapons (such as standoff missiles) can already deliver many of the classic roles of air power (reconnaissance, strategic attack, close air support, for example), but without a human to build a corporate (self) image around, how will the RAF’s own picture of itself change, and what image will it use to engage broader public support?
In summary, this is a valuable book for the insights it provides into the pressures of serving in a critical element within Britain’s armed forces. The Reaper Force is an element of the British military that will only grow in importance given both the capabilities it offers and the low risk it presents of unfavourable press. Indeed, between January and August 2018, Reaper has accounted for around 45 per cent of all RAF strike over Iraq and Syria during Operation SHADER. The only reservation that can, I think, be expressed is that this book leaves the reader feeling there were so many other avenues that could have been explored as well. Had Lee examined them, though, we would not have had this book now – we would have been waiting several years longer. What would be interesting would be to see a similar book in ten years’ time, to see how the Reaper Force (or Protector Force as it will likely be known by then) has evolved.
Mark Russell graduated with a degree in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation looked at whether the RAF was a learning organisation in the period 1925 – 1935, with particular reference to how the Air Exercises helped the RAF develop and test tactics and technology. He continues to work in professional services, but his current research interest is the RAF in the interwar years and how the organisation managed technological change. Since graduating from Birmingham, he has had two books reviews published by the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and is currently working on articles for both RAF Air Power Review and The Aviation Historian.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)
 Peter Lee, ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenges of Just War Reasoning,’ RAF Air Power Review, 16:3 (2013), pp 30-50.
Editorial Note: In this Research Note, Assistant Editor, Dr Brian Laslie reflects on his contribution to a new volume about military professionalism entitled Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics that has been edited by Ty Mayfield and Nathan Finney and published by Naval Institute Press.
In the Summer of 2015, I packed up some clothes and (a lot of) books and moved down to Montgomery, Alabama to attend the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). I had been selected along with about a dozen other civilians to attend the 10-month course. I looked upon those ten months in front of me as something of a sabbatical and a chance to research and write.
On the back end of my time at ACSC, I received a call from Ty Mayfield, of The Strategy Bridge, about a book project he and a team of authors were working on. This forthcoming project, Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics, published by the phenomenal people at Naval Institute Press, was an effort by the team at The Strategy Bridge to push the ball forward on the discussion of professionalism, ethics, civil-military relations, and professional education in the modern U.S. military. Following in the footstep of Samuel Huntington, Ty and co-editor Nate Finney collected chapters from a group including international and American officers as well as six academics holding both college and professional military education (PME) positions. It was a robust group, especially considering that most of the chapter authors only knew each other through Twitter. It turns out, Ty and Nate had covered all of their bases except one. In the end, they had no one writing about the USAF, the air domain, or the Airmen’s perspective. Thus, the phone call to me.
It turns out Ty and Nate decided to reach out to me at a somewhat fortuitous time. Ty asked me if I had any thoughts about professionalism and the USAF. As a current student at a PME institution who had spent the better part of seven months pouring over USAF history, I had plenty to say. I titled my chapter, ‘Born of Insubordination: Culture, Professionalism, and Identity in the Air Arm,’ and I am somewhat taciturn that my chapter contribution turned into something of “Oh and ANOTHER THING!” ranting about problems of USAF PME and the Air Force writ large. Ty and Nate did not see it that way.
What I produced, at least the way Ty and Nate ended up describing it was a chapter about the:
particularities inherent in the air arm of the U.S. military. Born from a culture of insubordination, Laslie describes three case studies that display how the positive aspects of this trait, one he titles “pragmatic professionalism”, has shaped – and will continue to shape – the Air Force. Using a historical lens to show the USAF’s unique history, identity, and culture Laslie uses these contemporary case studies to demonstrate that while the Air Force has long suffered with an internal identity crisis amongst its officer corps, the “stovepipes” that developed over the course of the past 70 years are actually conduits for professional advancement in different career fields and not something that needs to torn down.
My chapter on the USAF is but one of twelve. Other chapters include: ‘Questioning Military Professionalism,’ by Pauline Shanks-Kaurin, ‘Professionals Know When to Break the Rules,’ by H.M. ‘Mike’ Denny, ‘Ethical Requirements of the Profession: Obligations of the Profession, the Professional, and the Client,’ by Rebecca Johnson, plus eight others as well as an introduction and conclusion from the editors.
The book proper opens with:
[t]he challenging task of self-assessment for the military profession going into the twenty-first century. Crafted by military officers with recent experience in modern wars, academics who have trained and educated this generation of combatants, and lawyers and civilians who serve side by side with the defense enterprise at all levels, this volume seeks to begin the process of reevaluation for the 21st century.’
While discussing professionalism is not our usual milieu here at From Balloons to Drones, we have been known to stray into the realm from time to time; for example, see our recent post on John Boyd. Indeed, we believe that self-examination in any organisation is an essential part of development and Mayfield, and Finney should be commended for seeing this project through to publication. (We would encourage anyone interested in writing about issues related to professionalism within the context of air arms – air force, naval or army – to get in contact. Ed.)
In the age of social media, we have an entire generation of company and field grade officers who are taking their professional military education into their own hands. Through mediums like The Strategy Bridge, the Military Writer’s Guild and From Balloons to Drones, younger officers are studying and communicating about their profession in new ways. Ty and Nate seized on this moment to produce, what I hope, is a book that will generate discussion across the services and the military establishment at large. My contribution is modest, but this book surely has something for everyone. From company grade officers to flag and general officers, I hope it will do what it sets out to do, which is nothing less than ‘Redefine’ the modern military.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies. He received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)