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.

7 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.

  • March 4, 2022 at 1:26 am

    The problem with assuming that the fire-bombing of civilians in Tokyo (or anywhere else) would bring enemy forces to their knees is that by the Allies’ own admission this didn’t actually happen. The Allies continued to assume right up until the unconditional surrender was signed that the Japanese would fight to the last man, suggesting that they didn’t believe their own strategy had worked. The most common apologist defense for using nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that a war of terror was necessary presumes that the strategy of terrorizing civilians hadn’t already been tried, to little apparent effect on enemy morale.

    For Gladwell to take the existence of the Bomber Mafia as proof that such war crimes can be morally justified, rather than undermining that argument is, well, pretty typical Gladwell. And of course, such ethical calculus only comes into play when discussing America’s war crimes. Try talking about how Russia would be justified in using such tactics to bring Ukraine to heel in a war that will only be worse for everyone the longer it goes on. Wait and see how long it takes you to get banned on social media.

    • March 4, 2022 at 3:55 pm

      I’m curious as to why you think Japan did surrender, if the Allied “war of terror” was so ill-conceived and ineffective. And what other options we had, besides an invasion of the Japanese home islands that would have cost at least a million soldiers on our side alone.

      • March 5, 2022 at 2:02 am

        They were literally starving to death. Firebombing Tokyo, if anything, actually bolstered the claims by the Japanese government that the Americans wouldn’t stop until they murdered every single Japanese man, woman, and child they could find. This was about the only thing the Japanese Empire could claim to defend their actions by the latter stage of the war, because the general population blamed their government for the war and pushed hard in the years afterward to ensure the country never remilitarized.

        Even then, it’s not inaccurate to say that Japanese high command didn’t care what the civilians thought so this doesn’t matter. But then you’re still left with the problem that a Japanese government that doesn’t care about their civilians can’t logically be expected to surrender just because two civilian cities were completely destroyed. The real threat of atomic weapons from the Japanese perspective wasn’t any immediate damage they could do, it was that they believed (incorrectly at the time, but entirely true today) that they were so cost-efficient we could literally obliterate the country off the map if we felt like it.

        Nothing about that necessitates using atomic weapons on largely untouched civilian cities as opposed to testing them in an unpopulated area where the Japanese could see them. The main advantage of using them on largely untouched civilian cities instead was to see the exact amount of damage they would do in a real-world situation. There was also the intimidatory value against the Soviets, although that’s going a bit beyond the ethics of committing war crimes to force a peace settlement.

        • March 6, 2022 at 11:44 am

          The question was not whether the atomic bombs should have been dropped on remote areas as opposed to cities. It was what drove Japan to surrender when doing so ran against certain tenets of the bushido warrior code, to which Japanese generals and their subordinates subscribed. The devastation unleashed on Japan was simply too horrific to endure.

          • March 6, 2022 at 3:29 pm

            The unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender wasn’t due to Bushido code. Their strategy from the outset had been to negotiate a favorable peace settlement because they knew they couldn’t win in the long term. This was obviously wrongheaded in retrospect but it was a reasonable strategy at the time. Japan had achieved major concessions in the Russo-Japanese war in similar circumstances.

            Historians really don’t emphasize how unprecedented and unusual the idea of unconditional surrender was in the forties. For all of recorded human history the main advantage of surrendering was the ability to negotiate terms under the impression that a negotiated surrender was always preferable to a pyrrhic victory. The atomic bomb changed the calculus on that precisely because if the Americans could destroy Japan without invading the home islands, they no longer had to worry about a pyrrhic victory.

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