Malcolm Gladwell What-Ifs World War II

To bomb or not to bomb?

In his latest book, Malcolm Gladwell takes a page from his podcast “Revisionist History” to talk about one of the most intense battles of World War II, a battle that wasn’t fought against the Axis forces but within the ranks of the Allied military itself. In The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and The Longest Night of the Second World War, Gladwell explores the conflicting philosophies behind using aerial bombing to bring the enemy to its knees, and how each side was both right and wrong about its guiding principles. 

Gladwell, a longtime bestselling author, began his podcast in 2016 to challenge the received wisdom that historical events unfolded the only way that they could. In this case, with the Allied bombing campaigns against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Gladwell seeks to show that the battle over carpet bombing of military and civilian targets indiscriminately wasn’t the only way to go, that a dedicated school of thought pushed for more targeted precision bombing and, had history (and weather) gone differently, this side might have won out on bringing the way to a swifter conclusion. 

Malcolm Gladwell

At issue were the horrors of the First World War, four years of carnage that no one on either side was eager to replay. From the standpoint of the Twenties and early Thirties, the notion of aerial bombardment to break up military entrenchments and keep the enemy from holding onto ground was not as ludicrous as it might seem to us in hindsight. Many people working in military aviation genuinely hoped to fight (and win) wars of the future through strategic air power, with an emphasis on bombing only the essential military targets that were in enemy hands, lessening the loss of life among civilians.

The “bomber mafia” coalesced around a group of American aviators who trained at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in the pre-war era, with many prominent future generals in the mix. But the most interesting figure to Gladwell, and the one who ultimately stands in for the Bomber Mafia’s way of thinking during the war, was Haywood Hansell, a young Army aviator who eventually came to lead one of the first squadrons to be able to bomb Tokyo directly during the war. Hansell’s group of B-52 bombers would be the first to put the Bomber Mafia’s notion of precision bombing to the test. And the results of that test would change the outcome of the war. 

Gladwell, whose previous books have dealt with a blending of history and psychology, does so again here to show that the Bomber Mafia staked their views on precepts that they believed in, despite evidence that they might have been wrong. For instance, the fabled Norden bombsight, supposed to make bombing as precise as dropping a fish into a barrel, was often less than accurate in real-time military strikes. And the jet stream, which Western aviators at the time didn’t even know existed, had taken a course almost directly over Japan during the winter of 1944-1945, causing bombers to frequently overshoot their targets.

Precision bombing wasn’t getting the job done, and the military replaced Hansell in command by Curtis LeMay, a general who didn’t give a damn about negating civilian casualties. Though, as Gladwell points out, the infamously “bloodthirsty” commander led the first bombing runs of his new squadron himself, and often appeared the airfield counting to see how many plane returned from a bombing run and how many didn’t. Evasive action was no longer allowed with LeMay in command, despite the common wisdom among bomber crews that this made them sitting ducks, and as Gladwell points out, that “common wisdom” had no correlation with actual losses among the bomber crews under LeMay’s command. 

Gladwell does all of this to set up the nighttime bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, where we deployed napalm for the first time to burn the capital of Japan to the ground. Wave after wave of aircraft dropped bombs filled with the deadly accelerant all over the city. Gladwell argues, though he’s hardly the first person to do so, that this helped bring the Japanese war machine to its knees before America had to stage an invasion that would have cost countless lives among invaders and defenders alike.

The Bomber Mafia may also have won the long game. We can use unmanned drones today to target specific military installations with much more precision than human pilots had ever managed. The dramatic tension of the story lies in that trade-off between precision and total bombing, and in the unintended irony of how Hansell and LeMay’s personal grudge match worked out in the vanquished commander’s favor. 

War will always be hell, as General Sherman once said. But following the bloodshed in the trenches, military minds tried to devise ways to shorten those conflicts and make sure that as few men as necessary had to die. It may seem like an oxymoron now, but making war to save lives was a serious philosophy in that era. The legacy of the Bomber Mafia might not seem obvious in our age of global terror, but, as Gladwell shows, the way that history unfolds is never a given. 

(Little, Brown April 27, 2021)


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Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is currently a substitute teacher (one of the cool ones) in his home state of South Carolina. He also spends a lot of time reading, hence his pursuit of English as a major in college. He's been going broke ever since.

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell What-Ifs World War II

  • May 11, 2021 at 7:19 pm

    I think there is a typo. The B-52 was a post WWII Cold War Era Bomber used to carpet bomb in VietNam.
    Not Japan.


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