The Bomber Mafia
Malcolm Gladwell at his finest.
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In a world where people have taken to donning increasingly elaborate veneers, there remains a foolproof way to empirically verify whether or not someone is a serious reader: They have at least one Malcolm Gladwell book sitting on their shelves.
Mr. Gladwell — he of the best-selling everything-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong page-turners and host of Revisionist History, the immensely popular podcast — has made a pretty penny on his narrative nonfiction, and the nimbus-haired social savant enjoys a reputation for synthesizing complex topics and true-life stories to produce thought-provoking and counter-intuitive arguments.
His most recent work, The Bomber Mafia, yet again earned him enthusiastic plaudits across the board. The book is an accounting of the rise and fall (and rise again) of the doctrine of precision air bombing, an idea that emerged from the Air Corps Tactical School.
But while it’s true that I read this book relatively recently, you won’t find it on any of my book shelves. And that’s because I’ve hidden it in a seldom used and dimly lit closet, along with all the other things I’m determined to withhold from the light of day for reasons that have to do with self-worth.
I apologize, dear reader, if I’ve just relieved you of the delusion that you’re of the serious-reader persuasion. I hope we can still be friends.
Space doesn’t permit a comprehensive survey as to why every single one of Gladwell’s books is hot garbage. Suffice to say that, while he might be considered a master storyteller, the truth is that his writing is rarely anything more than anecdotal evidence intertwined with manipulative logic and small-scale studies in a bid to convince you that correlation is causation.
The Bomber Mafia is still among the bestsellers in Aviation History/Aeronautics and Astronomics on Amazon. Which is sort of tragic, really, as it fails to deliver. Bigly. Not just because it’s essentially a podcast episode morphed into an audiobook that Little Brown decided was worth binding and publishing (ignore that each of these three steps is incrementally more monetizing for everyone involved) as a slapdash 206-page pamphlet1 printed in the macro typescript favored by septuagenarians, but because Gladwell commits the capital crime of historical nonfiction writing: Putting storytelling before the integrity of one’s prose.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, given that this is an author who once said, “And as I’ve written more books I’ve realized there are certain things that writers and critics prize, and readers don’t. So, we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things.” Neatness of argument. Last time I checked, crafting a compelling narrative doesn’t take precedence over the basic tenants of historical nonfiction writing, and it certainly doesn’t trump remaining faithful to a subject of such import.
But our author, who has an occult talent for telling just-so stories, cherry-picks his way through the historical record while omitting information that undermines his narrative. Might he be influenced by his career in legacy media?
Gladwell’s attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare opens on a dramatic day in January 1945, when our two protagonists “[square] off in the jungles of Guam.” General Haywood Hansell, a proponent of precision bombing and a man unwilling to sacrifice his morals to the pressures of war, waits on a tarmac as his replacement, General Curtis Lemay, approaches in a B-29. A ruthless pragmatist and the model for the crazed General Jack Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, LeMay has arrived to do what Hansell could not: End the war in the Pacific, even if it means burning Japan to the ground.
The Bomber Mafia, writes Gladwell, “is the story of that moment. What led up to it and what happened next — because that change of command reverberates to this day.” Meandering detours abound, but all roads lead back to Hansell, Lemay, and this made-for-Hollywood premise that their competing visions of air power marked a turning point in WWII.
Also at the center of our story is a small group of Army Air Force (AAF) officers — the titular “Bomber Mafia” — who taught at the Air Corps Tactical School and shared a belief that the future of air power lay in high-altitude daylight precision bombing thanks to imminent technological advancements. According to Gladwell, who has a certain penchant for mavericks and geniuses, these men were “idealistic strategists” intent on making “a moral argument about how to wage war,” visionaries reluctant to inflict mass suffering in the pursuit of victory. They argued that targeting strategic industrial sites rather than indiscriminately bombing cities was the key to crippling an enemy.
“The genius of the Bomber Mafia,” writes Gladwell, was to say, “We don’t have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better.”
It’s a nice, neat premise. It’s also utterly false.
For starters, these men were advocates of precision bombing not because they were high-minded idealists, but because the lack of strategic options meant that targeting crucial industries was their best shot at victory. It wasn’t about minimizing collateral damage; it was about capitalizing on air power so as to avoid a protracted war of attrition with arguably the most fanatical enemy America has, to this day, ever faced.
Contrary to Gladwell’s narrative, practical exigencies of winning the war never took a back seat to moral qualms. Indeed, advocates of precision bombing sought to maximize suffering in the hope that it might cripple the Japanese war machine—not by firebombing cities, but by destroying vital lifelines and starving Japanese civilians into submission.
What Gladwell frames as some sort of moral crusade was simply a matter of pragmatic wargaming, and yet he holds this position throughout the book, incorrectly suggesting that America had a more “principled” air power doctrine relative to other Allied countries, when anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of WWII history knows that competing visions of air power had transnational dimensions.
Unfortunately for proponents of precision bombing led by Hansell, the technology they were hedging their bets on — the Norden bombsight, which they believed would revolutionize warfare — proved to be a pipedream.2 And while it’s true that war planners turned to Curtis LeMay after the strategy failed to bring Japan to its knees, the way in which LeMay is presented as a foil to Hansell — “good guy vs. bad guy” — grossly misrepresents how the U.S. rationalized firebombing, and it reduces an incredibly complex decision-making process to a crude binary while sidestepping the uncomfortable moral questions implicit in deliberately targeting civilians.
This is not a story of two men, as the author would have us believe, tempted like Jesus was by Satan during his 40 nights in the desert.3 Rather, it’s the story of top leadership accepting and then implementing plans developed as early as 1943 to systematically firebomb Japanese cities.4
Indeed, the incendiary bombings of Tokyo were seen as practice for the large-scale bombings strategized by some of the same “Bomber Mafia” members that Gladwell extols as models of military morality. Far from going rogue, LeMay was carrying out a plan set in motion by statisticians, military officials, and bureaucrats in Washington, DC.5 Both Hansell and LeMay were members of the Bomber Mafia, this is true; but the latter believed in the efficacy of indiscriminate destruction, which is why he was chosen to lead the firebombing of Japan.
On the night of March 9th, 1945, a wave of B-29 bombers dropped half a million incendiaries on working-class suburbs of east Tokyo, killing 90,000-100,000 people in the most lethal three hours in the history of human conflict. By August 1945, LeMay’s bombers had killed 333,000 civilians, wounding another 473,000.
What does our author make of burning hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive? As is typical of his podcasts, Gladwell opts to ignore the icky moral questions; this is presumably how he rationalizes lionizing LeMay, going to great lengths to portray the general as merely an airman with a little bit of a mean streak who hastened the end of the war and saved more lives than he extinguished.
That last bit is important. Gladwell believes the viciousness of the firebombing campaign, itself only made possible by the philosophical advances of the ersatz “Mafia” of his book, secured the end of WWII. Readers are led to believe that the slaughter was not only justifiable, but commendable, and that it “brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.”
It cannot be emphasized enough how incorrect this conclusion is.
Perceptive readers might well ask why Gladwell, who spends page after page waxing poetic about LeMay, would also opt to discuss the brutal lethality of his firebombing campaign. The answer lies in what’s become thematic of Gladwell’s oeuvre: Deliberately skewed, monocausal narratives omitting inconvenient facts.
Mentioned only glancingly in The Bomber Mafia are the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
Why? Because omitting this discussion allows Gladwell to make a stunningly stupid argument: that indiscriminate firebombing, rather than the atomic bombs, brought a swift end to the war, and that subsequent, similar philosophical innovations continue to envelop us in a blanket of security that hasn’t been adequately appreciated.
Gladwell’s barely-grade-seven historical knowledge is exposed once again, as he seems unaware that the Japanese were willing to endure firebombings because they wanted better terms of surrender, which could be negotiated with the Soviet Union. As it became clear that the Soviet Union was readying to invade Japan, the Truman administration, wanting to deter the Communist threat, decided to drop “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, followed three days later by “Fat Man” over Nagasaki, prompting Japan’s unconditional surrender to the U.S.6
The Bomber Mafia is, at least ostensibly, a meditation on the morality of bombing civilians. But there’s some very palpable irony at work here, in that Gladwell, who literally has a podcast called Revisionist History, has written a book that’s anything but revisionist.
Indeed, Gladwell’s take is no different than the consensus position on the subject. Contrary to his stated desire to render “a fresh analysis of one of the most important events in military history,” he merely parrots the same morality play as so many other apologists: It was ugly, but not as ugly as it might have been. With its “great man” framing, exclusion of Japanese perspectives, and counterfactual justifications, The Bomber Mafia tells a story seemingly designed to soothe the American conscience.
It’s difficult to convey just how bad this book is in both substance and writing. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the final product is wildly irresponsible and arguably unethical—riddled with enough fallacies and howlers to send historians into paroxysms.
For example, Gladwell states that “there remains no government-sanctioned memorial in Japan to the March 9 attack.” Actually Malcolm, such a memorial has stood in Tokyo’s Yokoamichō Park for two decades.
He also writes that “heavily loaded B-29s flying from the Marianas needed a ferocious tailwind to take off.” Believe me, Malcolm, a ferocious tailwind will guarantee that those B-29s will not take off on the available runway, but will be uncontrollable until their ground speed exceeds that tailwind enough to create airflow over the wings and tail. You need a ferocious headwind.
Among the more bizarre claims made in the book, Gladwell says “[t]he United States and Japan probably had less contact with each other and knew less about each other than any two wartime combatants in history.” This is laughable. Decades of rivalry between the two countries, not to mention migration and spying, ensured they were intimately familiar with one another.
The bottom line is that someone with Gladwell’s pull could have, and should have, done better in writing this book. Are we to believe it wasn’t possible to employ even the most amateur of “fact-checkers” to ensure a modicum of fidelity to the truth? That Gladwell couldn’t have done actual research instead of simply palming off excessive block quotes from shockingly few sources in a book that’s only 206 pages long? That the writing had to be so head-clutchingly prolix and self-involved and convoluted?
Readers deserve better from a writer with the reach and persuasive power of Malcolm Gladwell. They deserve effort. And a subject matter of such import deserves far better.
According to Gladwell, his latest book is “designed to be heard (as well as read),” which I cannot help but interpret as a pre-emptive defense of one of the more cringe books I’ve ever read, the text peppered with asides like “That is so Air Force” and “And this is my favorite part.”
Arguably the most laugh-out-loud Gladwellism is the author’s assertion that the Norden bombsight was one of mankind’s greatest technological innovations, only to later explain how it proved utterly useless.
Rather peculiarly, Gladwell makes several biblical analogies and metaphors throughout The Bomber Mafia. Your guess here is as good as mine.
In 1936, for example, one Army Air Corps study of Japan concluded that “still greater demoralization of Industry could probably be expected from the havoc of great fires among the FLIMSY Structures of the Densely Populated Settlements in the Japanese Industrial Centers, which would be caused by the use of Incendiary Bombs.”
Among the more ridiculous claims made in the book? It wasn't until Pearl Harbor that the U.S. considered something as “heretical” as firebombing Japanese cities. This is flat-out false. As early as 1936, American military minds were salivating over how vulnerable Japan — with its densely concentrated industries and urban dwellings, not to mention the combustible tatami mats that were a key element of Japanese architecture — would be to a scorched-earth campaign.
Gladwell writes that the Enola Gay dropped both H-Bombs. Not true. The Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” (the uranium bomb) over Hiroshima; the Bockscar dropped “Fat Man” (the plutonium bomb) over Nagasaki.