On March 9, 1945, American B-29 flying fortresses firebombed Tokyo, Japan, in what Malcolm Gladwell in his new book The Bomber Mafia calls the “darkest night of the Second World War”. As many as one hundred thousand people were killed. Sixteen square miles of the city burned. Gladwell’s book is an attempt to make sense of it all, if that is possible, and to assign blame. The person he blames the most is US General Curtis LeMay, the commander who oversaw the planning and execution of what Gladwell believes was an unnecessarily destructive attack on Tokyo.
Gladwell is the celebrated, longtime writer for The New Yorker and the author of six New York Times bestsellers. His writing in The Bomber Mafia is crisp and concise. But the scope of the book is too narrow for the judgments he makes. Context is missing. The Second World War had many dark nights and many dark days, all brought on by Japanese and German aggression which posed an existential threat to the United States and Britain. As Churchill remarked, without victory there was no survival for the US and Britain as free and independent nations.
The “Bomber Mafia” was the name given to a group of US airmen who taught and studied at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama (now Maxwell Air Force Base), in the 1930s. Gladwell calls it “the birthplace of a revolution” that shaped the culture of the modern US Air Force. These airmen—Donald Wilson, Harold George, Ira Eaker, Muir Fairchild, and especially Haywood Hansell—had a “dream” that daylight precision bombing could limit civilian casualties, “narrow the scope of war”, and make war “cleaner”. The only problem was that the dream was just that—precision bombing using the famed Norden bombsight was ineffective. As Gladwell notes:
the bombsight did not behave in the real world the way it had in Carl Norden’s laboratory or in the military training films.
The weather—fog, winds, the jet stream—played havoc with the ability to locate targets and place bombs on or near the targets. Flak from anti-aircraft artillery and Japanese fighters also impeded US bombing missions and was costly to American pilots. Gladwell notes that the Bomber Mafia’s ideas “crumbled in the face of reality”. This is what Carl von Clausewitz called the “friction” of war.
Gladwell notes that Britain’s war leaders never shared the dream of the American airmen. Churchill’s science adviser Frederick Lindemann and General Arthur “Bomber” Harris believed that nighttime “area bombing” would break the will of the enemy, shorten the war, and would be less costly to Allied airmen. Gladwell appears to agree with CP Snow’s description of Lindemann as a “sadist”, and he calls Harris a “psychopath”. But Gladwell fails to answer the question: If precision bombing didn’t work, what was the Allied alternative—to continue the ineffective and costly dream of precision bombing and claim the moral high ground even if it meant lengthening the war? And if Lindemann was a sadist and Harris a psychopath, what was Churchill who oversaw and approved this bombing approach as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense?
The key moment for Gladwell is when US General Lauris Norstad relieves Hansell of command of the 21st Bomber Command and replaces him with LeMay. Hansell’s precision bombing had not worked. Hansell years later recalled how he reacted to being relieved: “I thought the earth had fallen in—I was completely crushed.” Gladwell looking back is crushed, too. “[I]f Curtis LeMay won the war and the prizes”, he writes, “why is it that Haywood Hansell’s memory is the one that moves us?”
We can admire Curtis LeMay, respect him, and try to understand his choices. But Hansell is the one we give our hearts to. Why? Because I think he provides us with a model of what it means to be moral in our modern world.
Gladwell is largely silent about the moral responsibility of Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall, who approved of the firebombing of Tokyo. LeMay—less beloved by liberals—is a much safer target.
Union General William T Sherman once remarked, “War is cruelty; you cannot refine it.” The dreamers of Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” tried and failed to refine it. The last word is LeMay’s. War is simple, he said, “You kill enough of [the enemy] and they stop fighting.”