The Bomber Mafia Cover

The Bomber Mafia

A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War

Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2021, 256 pages

Book Review published on: June 18, 2021

Malcolm Gladwell is known for his insightful and interesting treatments of historical events. His revisionist approach to the past is often critically lauded and seen by many as a narrative breath of fresh air. Recognized for addressing diverse and interesting topics, his work regarding the human experience is often reflective of his journalistic background rather than that of a serious scholar. Like Gladwell’s earlier works, The Bomber Mafia displays his journalistic background but exposes his failure as a historian. In this work, Gladwell tries to explain how the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) came to conduct firebombing raids over Japan in spring 1945. These raids, which preceded the atomic bombs, resulted in significantly more damage to the Japanese homeland but are often overshadowed by “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” The central topic of Gladwell’s thesis is the firebombing effort and the relief of Gen. Haywood Hansell as commander of the XXI Bomber Command with his replacement, airpower icon Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

Gladwell begins the work addressing how the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field, Alabama, developed the idea of precision daylight bombing. This untested doctrine served as a catechism of sorts for true believers in airpower, especially when combined with the emerging technology of the time. As aircraft performance increased in speed, range, and payload, framers of the precision bombing doctrine became increasingly convinced their ideas held great promise. The author also includes a lengthy discussion of how the irascible Carl Norden developed his famous bomb sight that, when merged with aircraft performance, seemingly enabled marksmanship-like precision for the USAAF. Convinced that this marriage of technology and airpower would be decisive in an upcoming war, ACTS acolytes looked to validate their ideas with almost religious zeal.

As the air war progressed, precision bombing failed to produce the expected results, and changes had to be made. Gladwell skips over most of the European theater of operations (ETO) and goes directly to discuss the Pacific War and the Air Force’s newest bomber, the B-29. The only real discussion Gladwell provides regarding the ETO is LeMay’s actions as a group commander, although the author erroneously claims LeMay is only a squadron commander. The lack of a detailed discussion of the ETO is a glaring omission to the strategic bombing narrative, as it fails to provide the full context of the USAAF experience. Despite this oversight, central to the author’s treatment is the dichotomy of these two Pacific air leaders. Gladwell addresses how Hansell’s initial use of the B-29 was in accordance with prescribed ACTS doctrine. As one of the framers of precision bombing doctrine, Hansell was unwilling to stray from the prescribed theory he helped develop. When early B-29 missions failed to produce the desired effects, Hansell was replaced with LeMay. Ever the pragmatist and not wedded to ACTS doctrine like his predecessor, LeMay embraced low-level, incendiary, area bombardment. His new tactics with the B-29 lay waste to much of the Japanese urban landscape. Gladwell focuses on the doctrinal and moral contrast between the two air leaders.

Using religious symbolism, Gladwell compares Hansell to Jesus and LeMay to Satan. While silly comparisons, the author tries to connect those who believed in the ACTS theory as devotees to an established religion with LeMay the heretic breaking from the larger church. Gladwell’s apparent inability to understand the context of the air war and strategic bombing is problematic. He fails to address various factors relevant to this discussion like the strategic bombing effort in Europe and how that affected USAAF leadership. The author neglects how other technical considerations were equally relevant in the development of LeMay’s Pacific applications. Indeed, the XXI Bomber Command was under pressure to not only prove the legitimacy of the B-29 and its expense but, more importantly, to also validate the creation of an independent Air Force apart from the Army. Moreover, the strategic efforts in both Europe and the Pacific were of keen importance to Gen. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, who continually pressed commanders for results. Had the author cared to look, he would have found area bombardment in the ETO by both the 8th and 15th Air Forces before LeMay’s Pacific efforts.

Using only secondary sources and interviews with scholars on the topic, Gladwell provides no new insights to USAAF bombing applications, nor does he provide any meaningful revisions to contemporary narratives on the topic. Large parts of the book are merely block quotations from other published works, personal interviews, or videos and movies. He appears to validate his hollow analysis by mentioning the names of important Air Force-related people or academics he met in drafting the work. This alliterative “name dropping” is clearly superficial and is no substitute for primary research or archival work. Furthermore, his factual evidence is clearly wrong at various points of the book and detracts from its validity.

In addition to this, Gladwell takes off on irrelevant diatribes that are at best tangential to the topic at hand. Waxing mostly philosophically, Gladwell clearly puts form over substance, superficiality over analysis. There are at least half a dozen books that cover this topic with greater insight, depth, and analysis. Three that come to mind are Michael Schaffer’s Wings of Judgement, Michael Sherry’s The Rise of American Airpower, and Ken Werrell’s Blankets of Fire. All three of these works provide context, detail, and the substance this topic requires. While Gladwell’s journalistic publishing record is indeed impressive, this is a work best avoided, and it is certainly not responsible scholarship.

Book Review written by: John M. Curatola, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas