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James Burnham

Their Government

(28 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 28, 28 April 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Several months ago President Roosevelt announced a little surprise for the youth of the country. Entirely at the government’s expense, indeed with cash allowances from the government during part of the process, 20,000 boys from the high schools and colleges were to be trained as airplane pilots.

For a day or two, the plan got big headlines in the general press. There was, however, surprisingly little comment on so startling an enterprise. One or two of the columnists and scattered editorial writers thought the whole idea fantastic and absurd. Where, they asked, would the planes come from that these 20,000 boys were supposed to learn how to fly? And where were the flying schools and training fields that could handle them?

Since that first, rather mild flurry, nothing much has been heard of the President’s plan. It has slipped pretty well from public sight. Nevertheless, it is going steadily forward. Already thousands of students have been directly or indirectly enrolled. For the most part, up to now, they are being sent through already established flying schools, with government subsidies paying for their tuitions.

I want to explain what lies back of this plan. You will not find this explanation in any of the publicity which has been released in connection with it. You will not, in fact, so far as I am aware, find this explanation anywhere in print.

The Replacement Ratio for Personnel and Materiel

Everyone knows that all of the great powers have on hand large numbers of military aircraft and of trained personnel to handle them – pilots, bombers, radio operators, observers, etc. Speculation as to the exact comparative size of the various fleets is frequently allowed to occupy the public mind; it was very prominent, for example, during the Munich crisis, and was generally supposed to have been a decisive factor in compelling Chamberlain to adopt his appeasement tactic.

Nevertheless, in the colder and more deliberate calculations of the general staffs of the powers, the total figure of planes now on hand and personnel now on active duty in the air forces is allotted only secondary importance. Far more decisive, to their minds, is the rate at which any given nation can produce planes and trained men for the fighting service.

A moment’s reflection will show why this is the case. A large force of planes can, at the outset of the war, strike two or three heavy lightning blows against the enemy nation. The notion, popular a few years ago, that such lightning thrusts can win a modern war in a few weeks has been abandoned, and was at no time held by the most responsible military strategists. The new war, like the last one, will be a mass war, and of indefinitely long duration.

In the air, consequently, the long-run advantage will be held not by the nations which have most planes and pilots in active service at the outset, but by those which can produce planes and trained men fastest, in order to acquire during the course of the war itself a, differential superiority, over the enemy, and especially to be able to replace the planes and men that are shot down. 5,000 planes, adequately manned, today will mean little or nothing unless there can be at least the same number, properly manned, after a year and two and three years.

Each of the general staffs has, therefore, worked out in advance the expected figure at which planes and men will have to be replaced after the war starts. This figure, which is sometimes referred to as “the replacement ratio for personnel and materiel,” thus expresses the prediction of the general staffs as to the rate at which planes and men will be destroyed. The figure is obviously just about the same for both planes and men; and for the men it means the rate at which they will be killed, since there is a negligible number of wounded in the air service.

What Your Odds Are

All of the European general staffs have arrived at the same figure for the replacement ratio. This figure is 50% per month.

At first glance, perhaps, this figure looks calm and mild and business-like. Let me explain what it means in terms of the odds on the life of a member of the air corps.

It means that any given member of the air corps has a 50–50 chance to live one month.

It means that he has one chance in 4,096 to live one year. In other words, the odds are 4,095 to 1 that he will not live a year.

It means that he has a chance of less than 1 in 16,000,000 to live two years. The odds are greater than 16,000,000 to 1 that he will be killed before two years are finished.

The Blessings of God’s Country

50% is the figure for the European general staffs. God’s country, naturally, looks out better for the welfare of her children.

I am happy to report to the youth of America that, basing itself on more strongly built planes and longer and more intensively trained pilots, the U.S. general staff has arrived at a figure of only 331/3% per month. So don’t be discouraged.

This means that you have 1 chance in 3 of lasting a month. Pity the poor foreigner!

And the odds are only approximately 1,250 to 1 that you will be killed within one year. And they are just slightly more than 1,500,000 to 1 that you will die within two years.

Surely that chance is worth taking when the President himself has promised that the war is to be fought for the very highest ideals.

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