USAFA Historian’s New Book Takes Fresh Look At Air Force History

In just over 200 pages, a new book from the command historian at the Air Force Academy covers more than a century of airpower in a concise primer for newcomers and armchair historians.

“Fighting From Above: A Combat History of the U.S. Air Force,” by Brian Laslie organizes the 117 or so years of the Air Force and its preceding organizations into four eras defined by the changing styles of U.S. airpower, including the uncertain future presented by drones, cyber warfare, and space operations.

Laslie is one of the instructors for USAFA’s Introduction to Military History course that all Cadets must take, and he hopes the book can help them and others interested in airpower to think critically about Air Force history and prepare for whatever happens next in air warfare.

“There are things that airpower is uniquely good at, and conversely there are times when airpower might not be the best military option,” Laslie told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “There are gray areas: that not everything is right and wrong, and the situations and the conflicts that they will deal with in the future are incredibly complicated.”

While Laslie’s previous four books focused on specific Air Force history topics such as Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, airpower in the Vietnam War, and the Kosovo air campaign, “Fighting From Above” offers a broader view of Air Force history. Along the way, he sheds light on unsung heroes and offers a different point of view on some of the service’s main characters and themes.

Ways of War

Military historians often discuss the “ways of war” of various nations, but the Air Force way of conducting war has changed dramatically over the decades to keep up with technological developments and shifting American political goals. After several drafts, Laslie classified four “epochs” of Air Force history.

The first epoch, Period of Discovery from 1907-1941, covers the years between the U.S. Army establishing the aeronautical branch of its Signal Corps and the U.S. entering World War II. Early advocates of U.S. airpower such as Mitchell, Spaatz, and Arnold saw airplanes as a way to end future conflicts faster, without the endless, bloody slog of World War I trench warfare.

B-17 Flying Fortresses during World War II. George Letzer/American Air Museum/Imperial War Museum

Those advocates saw their vision take flight during the second epoch: Strategic Dominance from 1942-1975, which began with thousands of heavy bombers targeting Axis industrial and transportation centers in an attempt to break the enemy’s home front during World War II. While the results proved more complicated than early advocates expected, strategic bombardment “remained king” in the newly-formed U.S. Air Force, especially with the advent of nuclear weapons delivered by bomber and missile crews, Laslie wrote.

The strategic bombardment mindset continued until the end of the Vietnam War, where tangled political goals, lack of interservice coordination, and insufficient training marked the end of the Air Force’s founding belief “that strategic bombardment could win any conflict where it was applied,” Laslie contends.

Out of the Vietnam experience emerged the third epoch: Tactical Ascendancy from 1975-2019, marked by fighter pilots assuming leadership positions, new training institutions such as Red Flag, and new technologies such as precision-guided munitions that blurred the lines between tactical and strategic aircraft.

But the future Air Force way of war is uncertain. With the rise of uncrewed aircraft large and small, the launch of the Space Force in 2019, and the emergence of artificial intelligence, another fundamental shift may be on the horizon.

“What you see in the shifts of the epochs is that something breaks, something forces a change,” Laslie said. “Eventually there will be an event or a point of inflection that forces us into epoch four, and I don’t know what that is.”

The rapid pace of technology makes it hard to see the future and catch up to the present; Laslie had to rewrite the last chapter several times to stay relevant.

“Things were happening as fast as I could write them down, which is why historians typically don’t come up to present-day,” he said.

1916 photograph of American WWI aviator Victor Chapman (Wikimedia Commons)

Background Characters

Despite its short length, “Fighting From Above,” is more than a list of names and dates. It also features human anecdotes that bring Air Force history to life.

One anecdote is of Victor Chapman, the first American pilot to die in World War I. Chapman was a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, the group of American fighter pilots who flew for France before the U.S. entered World War I. The 26-year-old was flying a plane loaded with oranges to deliver to a fellow aviator in a nearby hospital when he attacked a group of five German Fokker planes who he believed had shot down his friend.

“It was, in hindsight, a particularly bad decision, as Chapman engaged in one-on-five combat,” Laslie wrote. “But Chapman’s penchant for such a fight was emblematic of the Escadrille and the willingness of the American Airmen to protect, or exact revenge for, their comrades.”  

Though Chapman did not survive the engagement, his spirit lived on as generations of American Airmen after him climbed into cockpits and flew into danger. Another example is Capt. Jim Cardoso, an MH-53 helicopter pilot who helped rescue Lt. Col. Dale Zelko after the F-117 pilot was shot down over what is today part of Serbia in 1999. 

“Cardoso remembers thinking, ‘A stealth just got shot down and now [they] want us to go in there?’” Laslie wrote.

A pararescueman assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., fast-ropes from an HH-60G Pave Hawk, April 25, 2019, in Eufaula, Ala. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taryn Butler.

While such bravery often occurred in combat, Laslie also highlights the air transport crews who flew daring supply missions over the Himalayas in World War II and who turned a Soviet blockade into “a complete failure for Stalin” during the Berlin Airlift.

Though much of “Fighting From Above” may be familiar to Air Force buffs, Laslie also highlights unsung heroes and offers a nuanced take on some famous figures. Billy Mitchell, often called the father of the U.S. Air Force, was “unequivocally” an important early advocate for airpower, Laslie wrote. But in the historian’s mind, Mitchell’s focus on publicity sometimes overshadows the hard work of Benjamin Foulois, Mason Patrick, and other leaders who built the Army Air Corps.

“Foulois, Patrick, and the others wanted a functioning Air Service capable of working with but also independent of the rest of the Army,” Laslie argues. “Mitchell wanted headlines.”

Laslie also argues that World War II strategic bombardment was in some ways even more horrific than the World War I trenches it was meant to circumvent, due to the massive loss of civilian life while German factories, for the most part, “were little hindered by the American bombs raining down around them.”

Still, the threat of U.S. bombers, plus the development of long-range fighters that could protect them deep into European skies, created an unwinnable dilemma for the German Luftwaffe, which eventually ran out of pilots to fight them off, yielding air supremacy to the Allies. The effectiveness of strategic bombardment has been debated for 80 years—by academics, Air Force strategists, and even popular authors—and Laslie’s goal wading into it is to help readers gain a nuanced view of Air Force history.

“I don’t view these things as binary: win or lose, good or bad. It’s much more complicated than that,” he said. “When you study history, you look for nuances: What worked, what did not work, and what can we learn?”


Those learning moments often don’t come without sacrifice, Laslie wrote. Billy Mitchell and the ‘Bomber Mafia’ were Army pariahs for pursuing an independent Air Force, while Col. John Warden, the mastermind of the Desert Storm air campaign, never made general. 

“For every good decision made by the Air Force,” Laslie wrote, “someone had to be sacrificed on the altar of old-fashioned order and tradition and martyred to prevent upsetting the institution.”

But there is another theme throughout Air Force history: that of Airmen willing to climb into canvas biplanes, B-17 ball turrets, rocket-powered ejection seats, and countless other dangerous situations to help deliver victory with airpower.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go with space and cyber and unmanned aircraft. But there are still people willing to swear an oath and defend against enemies,” Laslie said. “The way of war may change over time, but the people are going to remain the same.”