The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

War and death

I thought The Bomber Mafia was so-so. This book took the unusual route of originally taking birth as an audiobook - which is how I read it - before becoming a regular book. In this book, Gladwell recounts the history of WWII and the US Air Force and tells the story through the diametrically opposite viewpoints of two USAF generals. Curtis LeMay on the one hand who wants to bomb everyone and everything to smithereens and Haywood Hansell on the other who wants a more targeted approach that aims to disable the enemy’s war apparatus rather than blindly maim them.

The Bomber Mafia are the group of people within the USAF who believe in strategic bombardment or what we might today know as ‘precision bombing’. They try repeatedly but fail to convince the powers that be that taking out some key portion of the Nazis’ infrastructure (for example arguing that damaging the Germans’ ball bearing factories) would cripple their war effort far more effectively than the indiscriminate bombing of cities that killed tens of thousands of German civilians. For various reasons their plan doesn’t work and President Roosevelt is prevailed upon to go the area bombing route championed by the RAF General Arthur Harris. Within the RAF, Harris had, for obvious reasons, earned the nickname of Butcher Harris and he remains controversial for the firebombing of Dresden.

As the Nazis surrendered and the action moved to the Pacific theater, the Bomber Mafia approach is again thwarted when Hansell is fired and replaced by LeMay. In turn, LeMay oversees the firebombing on Tokyo with Napalm. On the single night of March 9/10 1945, (the ‘longest night’ of the book’s subtitle), B-29 bombers killed some 100,000 Japanese civilians. The carnage was so overwhelming Gladwell notes that the airplanes were filled with the stench of burning human flesh! This area bombing philosophy then led to the logical - if horrifying - conclusion of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

As with any Gladwell book, I did learn some interesting trivia - for example that the Nakajima Aircraft Company which was center of Japanese aircraft production in WW2 is now a much-loved car company. Or that the jet stream was discovered by a Japanese meteorologist who decided to publish his findings in his favorite language - Esperanto - as a result of which his work was largely unknown outside Japan.

The audiobook has great production quality with sound effects and actual voices and interviews being played that gives it a much more real feel that just words on paper. So what’s not to like? Gladwell’s style is too anecdotal - it’s almost as if he’s decided on the narrative first and then finds one-off quotes and interviews to make it appear as if it was a logical progression of ideas and insights that led to the conclusion he’s already reached. If you’re already a Gladwell fan I expect you’ll love this but if you’re not - and I’m not any longer - it lacks the rigor that I would expect for such an important topic.