Malcolm Gladwell on the Hard Decisions of War
Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia” looks at the air campaign against Japan in World War II and finds a surprising hero in Curtis LeMay.,
THE BOMBER MAFIA
A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
By Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” is a kind of love song to the United States Air Force, which is surprising, because it is the least romantic of our armed services, with leaders who focus on technology, not tradition. Also, the air arm tends to be regarded by the other services as suspiciously civilian-ish — as in the soldiers’ one-liner, “I have a lot of respect for the U.S. military, and also for the Air Force.” But in Gladwell’s deft hands, the Air Force generals of World War II come back to life as the stirring 20th-century equivalent of Adm. Horatio Nelson and his band of audacious captains from the age of fighting sail.
Here is Gladwell’s stunning description of a United States Air Force B-17 bomber being cut up on a run over Germany:
“One 20-millimeter cannon shell penetrated the right side of the airplane and exploded beneath the pilot, cutting one of the gunners in the leg. A second shell hit the radio compartment, cutting the legs of the radio operator off at the knees. He bled to death. A third hit the bombardier in the head and shoulder. A fourth shell hit the cockpit, taking out the plane’s hydraulic system. A fifth severed the rudder cables. A sixth hit the number 3 engine, setting it on fire. This was all in one plane. The pilot kept flying.”
The unexpected hero of Gladwell’s story is Curtis LeMay — yes, that one, the general who firebombed Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities and then, decades later, supposedly advocated bombing the Vietnamese back into the Stone Age. (Gladwell partly excuses this notorious phrase, saying it was likely the work of a ghostwriter.) The villain, or at least loser in this account, is another Air Force general, Haywood Hansell, who had tried to win the war in the Pacific through the precision-bombing of Japan. In Gladwell’s account, Hansell’s relatively more humane approach didn’t work. One historian tells the author that Hansell “was not the kind of man who was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people. He just didn’t have it. Didn’t have it in his soul.” After a few months in command of the B-29 raids on Japan, Hansell was dismissed and replaced by LeMay, who was told to come up with a new plan.
What could be more American than the story of LeMay, a gruff, cigar-chewing Ohioan who made his way through the state university by working night shifts at a foundry? He was hardly a theorist, and especially not someone out to make war more humane. LeMay was instead, in the words of the military historian Conrad Crane, “the Air Force’s ultimate problem solver.” As Gladwell tells it, the practical problem was how to win the war as quickly as possible. LeMay’s solution was to saturate Tokyo with napalm bombs, killing as many as 100,000 people in about six hours, and then to go on and firebomb dozens of other Japanese cities, killing thousands upon thousands, sometimes when the target cities were of little or no military value. This ferocious approach may have helped end the war, but there is no question that it was horrible.
One of Gladwell’s skills is enabling us to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. To most people, a city park is a grace note, a green space that makes urban life more livable. To bombing experts, parks are nettlesome “firebreaks” that interfere with a target city’s combustibility. Randall Jarrell captured LeMay’s blithely brutal approach in two of the most memorable lines of 20th-century American poetry: “In bombers named for girls, we burned / The cities we had learned about in school.”
A novelty of this book is that Gladwell says it began as an audiobook and then became a written one, reversing the usual process. It is indeed a conversational work, almost garrulous at times, as when he reports that one psychologist “has a heartbreaking riff about what one member of a couple will often say when the other one dies — that some part of him or her has died along with the partner.” However, this chatty style also glides over some important historical questions.
Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller. When he is introducing characters and showing them in conflict, “The Bomber Mafia” is gripping. I enjoyed this short book thoroughly, and would have been happy if it had been twice as long. But when Gladwell leaps to provide superlative assessments, or draws broad lessons of history from isolated incidents, he makes me wary. Those large conclusions seemed unsubstantiated to me. Was Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, truly “responsible, more than anyone, for the extraordinary war machine that the United States built in the early years of the Second World War”? It certainly is arguable that others, like Gen. George C. Marshall, were just as important, but Gladwell simply tosses out the claim about Stimson and hurries on. Another example: Gladwell calls the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, 1945, “the longest night of the war.” This unfortunate phrase, this unproven superlative, is repeated in the book’s unwieldy subtitle. I immediately thought, Oh yeah? What about the sailor whose ship is torpedoed and who hangs from debris in the water with no chance of rescue? Or the soldier in a minefield whose buddy is bleeding to death? What of the infinitely long nights of millions of concentration camp prisoners?
Gladwell argues that LeMay’s savage firebombing campaign succeeded, and that, combined with the two atomic bombs that followed, shortened the war. “Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone — Americans and Japanese — back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible,” he writes. Had the war gone on longer, into the winter of 1945-46, he suggests, millions of Japanese could have died of starvation.
Yet he also concludes that in the long run, in the years that followed, the idealistic Hansell was right to believe that an air campaign based on precision strikes was possible. So, he asserts, “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.” The evidence for this, of course, is the ability of today’s “stealthy” radar-evading bombers to drop ordnance from great heights and have them guided to precise points on a given target — say, a hardened aircraft hangar or an enemy intelligence agency’s power system.
But I don’t think the ghost of LeMay can be put to rest so easily. The American military’s precise new way of information-based warfare so far has been tested only in relatively small and short bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, the gunboat wars of our time. Precision-guided munitions are hugely expensive, and the stockpiles of them are surprisingly small. What would happen with bombing in a really big war remains to be seen. So it is probably too early, far too early, to believe that wide-area, city-destroying attacks that kill large numbers of civilians have become a horror only of the past.