Review: The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell

If Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about cardboard boxes, I would buy it. He could write about paint drying and make it interesting. I think every non-fiction author wants to grow up to be Malcolm Gladwell. This is a man who is a master storyteller — and his latest book is no exception. The Bomber Mafia of the title was a group of men serving in what eventually became the United States Air Force. Following on the First World War, which saw the first use of heavier-than-air craft, the first dogfights, the first aerial bombardment of cities, they had a dream. Their dream was that using new technology like the Norden bombsight, bombs could be dropped precisely where needed. There would be no need to kill civilians, armies would not need to clash on the battlefield, and wars would be waged quickly and cleanly with minimal loss of life. Of course it was an absurd idea, but it was tested in practice by the Americans during their air wars in Europe against Nazi Germany and in the Pacific against Imperial Japan. They discovered that their vision was an illusion. It didn’t work. Eventually, the most outspoken of the Bomber Mafia crowd, Haywood Hansell, found himself without a job. His replacement, commanding a fleet of B-29 bombers that could reach Japan, was General Curtis LeMay. LeMay decided to deploy a new technology, napalm, which did the opposite of what the visionaries had in mind. Instead of precision attacks on Japanese war industries — which proved to be nearly impossible — LeMay took advantage of the fact that Japanese civilians lived in densely packed neighbourhoods in houses made of wood. He launched raids that were specifically designed to create firestorms in those cities, causing incredible levels of devastation — and the loss of many thousands of lives. From LeMay’s point of view, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the icing on the cake: the war had been won, he believed, by his bombers setting Japanese cities, including Tokyo, ablaze. An incredible story, told brilliantly – highly recommended.