Book Review: The Bomber Mafia

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book was originally produced as an audiobook, later adapted to the written word. I didn’t know this until I finished the audiobook, so I’m glad that I listened to it instead of reading it. The listening experience was much like a long Revisionist History podcast: live interviews, sound effects, music, Gladwell narrating. Like his podcast and his other books, this one was very well done. I highly recommend it.

The Bomber Mafia is titled after a group of US pilots who developed a new bombing philosophy in the years leading up to the Second World War. The pilots reasoned that, with advances in technology, such as airplanes capable of high altitude flight and the Norden bombsight, it should be possible to selectively target critical infrastructure (factories, power plants, aqueducts), crippling their enemy, and ending wars with minimal bloodshed.

By the time the USA entered the war in 1942, Britain and its allies had fought a brutal war in Europe. London had experienced indiscriminate “morale bombing” in the latter half of 1940 and Britain was using a similar tactic over Germany, specifically targeting civilian infrastructure. US “Bomber Mafia” pilots were horrified. They considered Britain’s tactics to be immoral. Churchill wanted US pilots to join in the Allies’ night raids over Germany; an American general convinced him to allow the US air forces to try daytime precision bombing of strategic targets.

Precision bombing relied heavily on the Norden bombsight, itself an incredible feat of engineering. It was effectively an analog computer that could account for many variables: altitude, velocity, wind speed, and the curvature of the earth. It was mounted on a gyroscope to remove errors associated with the airplane’s movements. In demonstrations, it was quite precise. In practice, it wasn’t good enough. It required significant manual calculations and input from the bombardier which is very hard to do when you’re pitching and rolling, all while being shot at. It also required a clear sightline from 20,000+ feet. Clouds were a big issue.

In 1944, Brigadier General Heywood Hansell was commanding the air force in Guam, the primary base for the air offensive against Japan. Hansell was committed to the precision bombing doctrine. However, he was getting poor results on his bombing runs against war factories. Because of poor weather in the Pacific, he could only go a couple times a month. Furthermore, high altitude bombers over Japan encountered the jet stream for the first time. They couldn’t account for extreme wind with the bombsight. Only a small percentage of bombs made it to their intended target.

Major General Curtis Lemay was Hansell’s counterpart in India. He was leading bombing runs over the Himalayas, refueling in China before trying to reach the southwest corner of Japan. It wasn’t going well for him either. But unlike Hansell, Lemay was a pragmatist; he wanted to end the war by any means necessary. By the end of 1944, the army needed results from Guam and it was clear that Hansell wasn’t going to get them. Lemay was given command of Guam in January 1945. In March, Lemay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians. Dozens of other towns and cities were napalmed in the spring, followed by the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August. Japan surrendered shortly after, ending WWII.

Lemay ended the war and the hopes of the “Bomber Mafia”. Some think that he is a war criminal (Lemay even remarked that if the Allies lost the war, he’d be tried as one). Some think he is a hero for swiftly ending a war that could have dragged on for another couple years, costing millions of lives. Evidently, some Japanese politicians held this view; in 1964 Lemay was awarded Japan’s highest honour for a foreign citizen (not without controversy). I don’t know how to evaluate these counterfactual arguments. The reality is a lot of people died who just wanted to live their lives. It was a tragedy no matter how you look at it.

I found The Bomber Mafia compelling because I have a morbid fascination with WWII. Perhaps because it’s impossible for me to comprehend the scale of the destruction and suffering I feel the need to read more in the hopes that I can understand it better. Contemplating WWII is like looking at an entirely different world. It doesn’t seem real. I’ve visited Europe in recent years and I’ve seen pictures of it in 1945. I can’t reconcile these two images.

Likewise, I can’t imagine how a soldier of this war could reconcile these two parts of their consciousness. The same pilots who smelled the stench of burning human flesh while firebombing Tokyo went home a few months later to their families and communities. Somehow they had to get on with their lives.

A lot of soldiers suffered, often in silence, in the years following WWII. Those that considered themselves part of the “Bomber Mafia” probably had a harder time than most. They were trained to believe that a “better war” was possible, where civilians needn’t be slaughtered thanks to the promises of new technology. In the end, they were wrong. The pragmatists beat the idealists. Brute force beat precision tactics.

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