James K. Galbraith

The Dis-Economics of Bombing

After one month, the bombs over Serbia have not won the war. But before we decide that the remedy is another month, and then another, let’s ask: can bombing work at all? And let’s not ask the generals, for a change. Some simple concepts from economics, and some deep lessons from history, can help us answer this question for ourselves.

Let’s go back to World War II. In October, 1945, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which my father directed, filed its report. The Survey found that our huge air assault on Germany had not worked well. Nazi aircraft and munitions production rose prodigiously in 1943 and 1944, under the bombs. They fell only as Germany collapsed, in the final months of the war.

“Substitution” is what defeated our Flying Fortresses and Liberators. We hit the railroad marshalling yards, but the military trains only needed a little bit of the capacity that was there; they switched to undamaged track and got through. We hit ball-bearing factories, but the Germans used stockpiles and redesigned their engines. We hit the nitrate factories, and they switched from fertilizers to explosives. German farm output might have fallen, the Survey found, if the war had continued into 1946.

Years earlier, German bombing had also failed. The Blitz famously strengthened British morale. And while the V-bombs rained on London late in the war, Churchill announced (or so I once read in Thomas Pynchon’s novel V) that it would take until 1960 for the city to be half destroyed. After that, more than half the rockets would hit rubble, and the pace of destruction would slow.


In Vietnam, years later, diminishing returns undermined our air war. Pre-industrial North Vietnam just didn’t have enough targets; after a while, the B-52s could only make their own craters bounce. And the Ho Chi Minh trail pitted a $4,000 truck, easily replaced, against an F-4 Phantom costing one thousand times as much.

In the Persian Gulf, we exaggerated the effects of bombing, as later studies showed. At the time, bombs were said to have killed 100,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait alone. But in fact the whole Iraqi garrison was smaller than that; most of the soldiers we admitted killing never existed at all. In Bosnia, also, NATO’s bombing of the Pale Serbs was mainly for show. What decided that war was the Bosnian-Croat force that retook Herzegovina on the ground.

And so today over Serbia, hard lessons need relearning. U.S. General Wesley Clark announced that in less than a month NATO cut Yugoslav oil stocks in half. And how much gas does the Serb military now have? As much as it needs – at civilian expense. Meanwhile the other half of the oil will be harder to find. The other real targets are also elusive. After a month, The New York Times reported that we had destroyed just sixteen of eighty Yugoslav aircraft, just 30 percent of their older SAM missiles, and just 15 percent of the newer ones. Today’s B-52 is the B-2 bomber – with its payload of eight F-15s at only forty times the cost.

Then there are increasing costs of a grimmer kind. So long as we targeted air defenses and fuel depots, civilian casualties were few. But as we moved to rail bridges and trucks, they mounted. Passenger trains pass over railroad bridges; refugees use the roads. And as we now add 300 more planes, as we seek out more marginal targets for them, as we drop more cluster bombs because the inventory of smart weapons runs down or we add aircraft not equipped to use them, the random aerial murder of innocents will grow. Night crews at Serb TV are easy to kill. But the Kosovars cannot be saved by planes that cannot distinguish half-tracks from tractors at fifteen thousand feet.

This is not the place to argue the hard question: invasion and ground war, or cease-fire and mediation, which I favor. But either way the bombing should stop. No agreement can ever be reached while bombing continues, and stopping it would have no material effect on an eventual ground campaign.

We need to relearn the economic lesson: bombing doesn’t work. From Guernica to Nagasaki, bombing has always been mainly a terror weapon, used mostly against economic targets, leaving mostly civilian dead. As we so use it, we hand propaganda victories to Milosevic, we stain our own hands with blood.

James Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, U.T.-Austin. This is an expanded version of a commentary for National Public Radio’s “Marketplace,” which aired on April 26, 1999.

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Published at 12:00 am CST