An exploration of how technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.
Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists, the “Bomber Mafia,” asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?
In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, whose brutal pragmatism and scorched-earth tactics in Japan cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion. In The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?”
Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the darkest night of World War II. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
There were so many outstanding technological achievements in the 20th century. Computers! Space travel! Aerial bombing? As he does on his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell asks us to reconsider the past, in this case prodding us to rethink everything we know about the air campaigns of World War II. The young, cool military leaders who created the air force saw a future in hitting strategic targets from the air, whereas the older generation argued for levelling much of Germany and Japan. While the establishment may have won that argument, we were fascinated to learn that the younger flyers’ thinking has ultimately shaped the modern military. (Unmanned drone strikes are the logical outcome.) Gladwell presents fascinating research into history and technology, letting the facts speak for themselves. This is the kind of revisionism we love—where a deeper look into the past gives us a better understanding of the present.
Gladwell (Talking to Strangers) delivers a ruminative, anecdotal account of what led up to the deadliest air raid of WWII: the firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. forces in March 1945. Expanding on a recent multiepisode arc of his Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell begins with the development in the 1920s of the Norden bombsight, which gave pilots the ability to aim at specific targets, rather than drop their bombs indiscriminately. A group of young U.S. Army Air Corps pilots including Haywood Hansell enthusiastically endorsed the bombsight and other new aviation technologies and their potential for reducing casualties. Hansell eventually took charge of U.S. bomber units in England during WWII, and used "precision bombing" techniques to target German factories and supply lines. But when he arrived on the Mariana Islands to command the U.S. air attack on Japan in 1944, bad weather and the jet stream near Tokyo made precision bombing impossible. After refusing to launch a full-scale napalm attack, Hansell was replaced by Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the raid on Tokyo that killed an estimated 100,000 people. Gladwell provides plenty of colorful details and poses intriguing questions about the morality of warfare, but this history feels more tossed off than fully fledged. Still, Gladwell's fans will savor the insights into "how technology slips away from its intended path."
It’s a good read
I enjoyed it. Gladwell’s style is pretty engaging. But in the end, I kinda wished there was more here. Finished it in one day of airplane travel.
Awesome book as always Gladwell masterfully tells the story.
The Bomber Mafia
Another great Gladwell tome. Always insightful into the human condition and mindset. The insanity of war contrasted with the vagaries of mankind’s dilemmas.