Budiansky's achievement is twofold. First, he has managed a singular act of compression by telling the story of air power, from the first thoughts about flying machines and their potential application to the Iraq war, in fewer than 440 pages. Second, his book is never less than entertaining, with lively writing and well-chosen examples, drawing on film and literature as well as technical manuals. No attempt is made to present this as a work of reference, yet it will be a natural place to turn for the essentials of key themes and events, and a sense of context. One theme is the tension between the futuristic musings that influenced the early air-power enthusiasts and practical limitations on what they could achieve. Even the marginal role of aircraft in World War I provided a sufficient glimpse of the future to set off campaigns for independent air arms that could win wars all on their own, as well as resistance from those who wanted "close air support" of more traditional campaigns on the ground and at sea. Now, because of the quality of the munitions, such support can be truly decisive without really having to be close. This may not be quite what the futurists had in mind, argues Budiansky, but he nonetheless claims, not wholly convincingly, that this demonstrates that air power has at last gained its ascendancy.
Inevitably, one of the many colorful characters in this story is Brigadier General "Billy" Mitchell, who led an intemperate and brash campaign in the United States to establish an independent strategic air force. His unrestrained contempt for the Army and the Navy eventually led to his court-martial for insubordination in 1925. Rice explores the civil-military aspects of Mitchell's campaign, demonstrating the general's use of his political connections as well as his ability to stir public opinion. Rice also takes the story beyond Mitchell, telling how one of his acolytes, "Hap" Arnold (who narrowly avoided his own court-martial), learned how to achieve the desired result by working cooperatively with the Army and the politicians.
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