Field of Science

Malcolm Gladwell's "The Bomber Mafia" - Weak Tea

Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "The Bomber Mafia", and am sorely disappointed. It's like Gladwell has expanded a short blog post into a 150 page book that's big on storytelling but essentially a complete lightweight when it comes to content and conclusions.

The basic thesis of the book can be summed up in a few short sentences: During WW2, there was a group of air force officers led by Haywood Hansell called the Bomber Mafia who thought that they could bomb cities "more morally" through daytime precision bombing; they were hedging their bets on a revolutionary invention, the Norden bombsight, that allowed bombardiers to pinpoint targets from 15,000 feet. In reality, the philosophy failed miserably because the bombsight was less than perfect under real conditions, because even with the bombsight the bombs were not that precise, and most crucially because in Japan, the hitherto undiscovered jet stream which buffeted airplanes with 120 knot winds basically made it impossible for the B-29s to stabilize and successfully bomb their targets. 

Enter Curtis LeMay, the ruthless air force general who took the B-29 down to 5000 feet to avoid the jet stream, ripped most of the guns out and instead of precision bombs, used incendiary bombs with napalm at night to burn down large built up civilian areas of Japanese with horrific casualties, the most famous incident of course being the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo that killed over 100,000 people.

Gladwell tells these stories and others like the invention of napalm well, but the core message in the book is that the switch from precision bombing by Hansell which failed to strategic bombing by LeMay which presumably worked was the linchpin air strategy of the war. This message is a highly incomplete and gross oversimplification. The fact of the matter is that strategic bombing did very little damage to morale and production until very late in the war. And while strategic bombing in Japan was more successful, the bombing in Europe did not work until the bombers were accompanied by long-range P-51 Mustang fighters, and even then its impact on shortening the war was dubious. Even in Japan, strategic bombing could have been hobbled had the Japanese had better fighter defenses the way the Germans did. The Germans used a novel method of firing called "Schr├Ąge Musik" that allowed their fighters to shoot at the British Lancaster bombers vertically - if the Japanese had used such efforts they would likely have been devastating to LeMay's strategy. Even from a civilian standpoint, the strategic bombing of Dresden and Hamburg did little to curb either morale or production. But in talking only about Tokyo and not Dresden or Hamburg, only about Japan and not Europe, Gladwell leaves the impression that strategic bombing was pretty much foolproof and always worked. These omissions are especially puzzling since he does discuss the lack of effectiveness of the bombing of civilians in London during The Blitz.

There are very few references in this short book - Gladwell seems obsessed with quoting two historians named Tami Biddle and Stephen McFarland for most of the discussion. These are fine historians, but the superficial treatment is especially jarring because strategic bombing has been written about extensively during the last several decades by historians like Richard Overy and Paul Kennedy. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Patrick Blackett wrote about the mistaken assumptions about strategic bombing way back in the 1950s. I would also recommend physicist Freeman Dyson's essays on the part he himself played in strategic bombing during the war that really drives home how boneheaded the method was. But Gladwell quotes none of these sources, instead just focusing on Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay as if they and their thoughts on the matter were the only things that counted.

Perhaps worst of all, the complex moral consequences of LeMay's argument and strategic bombing in general are completely sidelined except for a short postscript in which he discusses how precision bombing has gotten so much better (except in that case the moral consequences have also gotten more complex, precisely because it's become easier). Strategic bombing was wasteful and morally unforgivable because it cost both pilot and civilian lives. LeMay generally receives a very favorable treatment and there are copious quotes from him, but interestingly the one quote which is missing is one which might have shed a different perspective - this is his quote after the war that he would have been hanged as a war criminal had the Allies lost.

I really wish this book were better, given Gladwell's fine storytelling skills which can draw the reader in. As it stands it's slim pickings, a couple of anecdotes and stories compressed as a grand philosophical message in 150 pages that leaves the reader completely unsatisfied. If you are really interested in the topic of bombing during WW2, look at other sources

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