#Reviewing Always at War

Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62. Melvin G. Deaile. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

At a recent reunion of the B-47 Association—whose motto is “Victors in the Cold War” despite the fact that no B-47 ever dropped a single bomb during that conflict—a former crew member began a speech on his experiences by shouting, “We kicked their butt,” as cheers erupted from the audience.[1] This anecdote serves as a microcosm for the larger organizational culture of Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the years in which General Curtis LeMay was its commander. Defining and explaining that culture is the subject of Always at War, the new book from Melvin Deaile, an associate professor at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and former B-52 and B-2 pilot. The book’s core argument is that SAC’s culture of constant war readiness, team mentality, and strict adherence to detailed procedures was the result of both pre-World War II thinking about strategic air power as well as the LeMay’s forceful personality. This is not necessarily a new argument; these ideas have been repeated in many works over the years.[2] Indeed, some readers may wonder why another book on the early years of SAC is necessary so soon after Phillip Meilinger’s recent volume on the topic. However, Deaile goes into much more detail on the cultural elements of SAC, weaving a rich tapestry that incorporates doctrine, technology, and daily life in a way that previous authors in this crowded field have not fully explored. He has crafted one of the best single-volume treatments of SAC and its culture, and it should be required reading for anyone studying either Air Force history or Cold War military issues.

Deaile spends a great deal of time defining exactly what he means by culture, which is useful considering how vague that term can be. Referencing theoretical works on the nature of institutional culture, Deaile promises to engage with both the visible and invisible parts of culture, or both the ideological and the material. What emerges is what he calls an “evolutionary view of SAC,” in which pre-World War II assumptions about the nature of air power became core values, which then led to the formation of physical artifacts (aircraft and associated equipment) and reinforced in rituals (official procedures for various tasks).[3]

General Curtis LeMay (USAF Photo)

The book is arranged mostly chronologically, but also somewhat thematically. As the narrative moves forward in time, Deaile examines ideals, physical manifestations in artifacts, as well as the physical rituals of daily life in Strategic Air Command, and through all of this focuses on how leadership—specifically LeMay—worked to successfully create a specific culture. The result was an authoritarian type of organization built on rigid adherence to standardized procedures in which members became highly specialized.

Three early chapters on the interwar period, the Second World War, and the immediate post-war period examine how strategic bombing theory became the backbone of the air service. These are the book’s weakest chapters, at least in part because there is so much secondary literature to draw from that summarizing these broad topics so quickly is inherently challenging. Yet Deaile successfully shows how pilots formed a counterculture within the U.S. Army, and used strategic bombing as an ideological springboard from which to argue for a separate service. The supreme role of strategic bombing as the main goal of air power became official doctrine in FM 100-20 in 1943, which contemporary officers considered the air service’s declaration of independence. Air leaders at that time such as General Carl Spaatz, the Commanding General of Army Air Forces and then first Chief of Staff of the Air Force, did not view atomic weapons as a major shift in military history, but as simply a bigger weapon to accomplish the same types of effects as before. What atomic weapons did provide, however, was a much more cost-effective way to deliver strategic effects.[4] Thus, Strategic Air Command, primarily responsible for delivering nuclear weapons, became the backbone of the newly born Air Force for the most part due to budget considerations.

Despite the fact that strategic bombing was the dominant culture of the Air Force even before the Air Force actually existed, the first commander of Strategic Air Command was General George Kenney—a commander in the Pacific theater who specialized in fighter and attack aviation, not strategic bombing. Deaile does not adequately explain the reasoning behind Kenney’s appointment, but Kenney does serve as a useful foil in comparison to LeMay, who replaced Kenney as commander of Strategic Air Command in 1948. Deaile presents LeMay as almost single-handedly responsible for not only increasing SAC’s readiness after Kenney’s years of near-neglect, but also for creating its organizational culture. LeMay argued that Strategic Air Command should be the highest priority, not just within the Air Force, but in terms of U.S. national defense more broadly. He fostered a culture in which Strategic Air Command considered itself at a constant state of war against the Soviet Union—ready to initiate all-out nuclear destruction at a moment’s notice.

A Strategic Air Command crew runs to their aircraft during an alert, 10 February 1960 (Getty Images)

To accomplish this, LeMay pushed for a sweeping series of reforms across the board. These included ensuring that Strategic Air Command was staffed and commanded by the right people, which meant LeMay’s former staff from his bombing operations in the Pacific Theater, as well as others who showed a firm belief in strategic bombing doctrine.[5] LeMay also introduced realistic training procedures to simulate a wartime environment. All procedures within Strategic Air Command became standardized checklists that were to be followed with strict rigidity. Crews were to stick together, train together, and compete against other crews based on how well they adhered to procedures. LeMay also toured Strategic Air Command bases and took an interest in reforming all aspects of life in his command, from improving the dining facilities and base housing, to taking measures to decrease rates of venereal disease among crews. The goal of all of these reforms was to “keep [SAC’s] members in a warfighting mode without actually engaging in combat operations.”[6] The dominance of Strategic Air Command and its culture is evident from how its leaders approached conflicts within the Cold War. The Korean War, for example, was deemed a “minor skirmish,” and did not receive prioritization over readiness for a hypothetical war in Europe against the Soviet Union.[7]

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its emphasis on the day-to-day experience of Strategic Air Command members. The emphasis on discipline, procedures, and constant readiness (to the point of surprise training missions) took its toll on families. Strategic Air Command had the highest divorce rate of any command in the Air Force, and marriage itself was discouraged. That said, LeMay’s wife, Helen, took it upon herself to provide support for the wives of Strategic Air Command’s crew force. She organized wives clubs that could provide mutual support, voluntary financial assistance, and aid with household duties. LeMay himself also sought to provide some recreation for his men (as well as boost fundraising) by making sports car events a core part of Strategic Air Command culture. LeMay set up workshops for crewmembers to spend their spare time working on cars, that they could then use in competitions co-sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America.

A family walking among SAC aircraft. (The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum)

All of this focus on Strategic Air Command and its exclusive culture led to severe elitism. Strategic Air Command members saw themselves as superior to fighter pilots, who they viewed as unprofessional and undisciplined. Transport roles were derided as glorified commercial airlines. Tactical Air Command (TAC) was mocked as, in the words of one SAC officer, a “raggedy ass militia.”[8] The term SAC type came to stand for professionalism and dedication, and became synonymous with leadership. Some Strategic Air Command members even argued the U.S. should completely do away with the Army and the Navy since it could, in their belief, ensure world peace and handle any potential conflicts on its own. Deaile concludes with a short summary of the preparations Strategic Air Command made during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how, immediately after that, the shift toward Flexible Response doctrine spelled the end of its dominance.

Although this book is one of the best of its type, it has its flaws. At times, important issues seem a bit glossed over—particularly the World War II-era material. Some of these flaws are minor quibbles, such as Deaile’s characterization of Lt. Col. Kenneth N. Walker as the main driving force behind the creation of early strategic bombing doctrine against Germany defined in the now famous AWPD-1 bombing plan, instead of the true leader of the group, Lt. Col. Harold L. George.[8] Also, Deaile seems to overstate the influence that Giulio Douhet had on the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, and he only mentions the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey—one of the key documents in forming the early Air Force and its emphasis on strategic bombing—in passing.[10] The book also would be stronger if it more fully examined the subcultures that formed in Strategic Air Command’s wake, and their relationship to the overriding culture of the command. For example, the book chronicles the ways in which ballistic missiles challenged the prevailing culture of Strategic Air Command, creating a cultural gap between bomber crews and missile operators. Despite the extensive discussion on these differences, Deaile insists that missile operators did not form a counterculture of any kind, but that Strategic Air Command took steps to ensure that they remained a subculture that adhered to its overall mentality. Yet he provides little evidence of these steps beyond the fact that certain missile units were named after bombing units from the Second World War. Although one of the book’s values is in the sheer number of interesting anecdotes and details that reinforce the main argument, sometimes those anecdotes have problematic sourcing. For example, one entertaining story of a B-47 commander who had to use his own credit card to pay for fuel at a civilian dispersal airfield is only cited as, “Anecdote told by unattributed B-47 crew member at the B-47 Association Reunion.”[11]

These flaws are mostly minor and do not diminish the value of the book. If anything, Deaile’s work fits well alongside other work on Air Force culture.[12] Despite these minor issues, Always at War takes some well-known ideas and expands them, by extension expanding the field of air power history and pointing the way toward further scholarship. In the process, Deaile has created a wonderful distillation of Strategic Air Command into a single brief, enjoyable volume. This book is a useful starting point for research into Strategic Air Command and Air Force culture in the early Cold War.

Michael Hankins is Assistant Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College eSchool of Graduate PME, a former instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and an Assistant Editor at Balloons to Drones. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A Strategic Air Command B-52 taking off. (HistoryontheNet)


[1] Melvin G. Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 222.

[2] Many overviews of this period present it in a similar light—see for example Bernard C. Nalty, ed., Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Volume 1: 1907-1950 (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997).

[3] Deaile, Always at War, 3.

[4] This concept has recently been explored in much more depth in Edward Kaplan, To Kill Nations American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[5] Deaile, Always at War, 94.

[6] Ibid, 118.

[7] Ibid, 127.

[8] Ibid, 185.

[9] For more details on the writing of AWPD-1, see Craig Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2017); and Brian Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (Lexington: Kentucky University Press, 2017)

[10] Examinations into the records of the Air Corps Tactical School show that Douhet had little, if any, influence there. For more details, see Robert T. Finney, History of the Air Corps Tactical School 1920 - 1940 (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 57; see also Laslie, Architect of Air Power. For a useful, in-depth analysis of the strategic bombing survey, see Gian Gentile, How Effective is Strategic Bombing? Lessons Learned From World War II to Kosovo (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

[11] Deaile, Always at War, 217, note 9.

[12] The most relevant being Carl Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); and Mike Worden, Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945-1982 (Alabama: Maxwell Air Force Base, Air University Press, 1988). For more on SAC and its place in the Air Force in the early Cold War, see Caroline Ziemke, “In the Shadow of the Giant: USAF Tactical Air Command in the Era of Strategic Bombing, 1945-1955,” PhD Diss. Ohio State University, 1989; and for the culture of TAC and among the fighter pilot community, see Michael Hankins, “The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991,” PhD Diss. Kansas State University, 2018