A Look at Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Most of his books deal with research into the social sciences, particularly sociology and psychology and have been best sellers. His latest book, The Bomber Mafia, deals primarily with the philosophies of bombing during World War II, and has not become a best seller —  at least not yet.

The words “Bomber Mafia” refer to a group of American pilots in the 1930s stationed at what was then called Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. These pilots dreamed of more humane ways to conduct wars. They believed that bombing strategic targets made sense, and bombing population centers didn’t.

During World War II, some of these pilots became major decision makers. The theoretical discussions they had back at Maxwell Field didn’t properly account for weather, enemy fire, and mass-produced bomb sights. The biggest runs against a strategic target, specifically a ball bearing factory, largely was a failure. Almost 100 B-24 planes were lost with only minimal damage done to the ball bearing plant.

In the Pacific, they had better planes to go against Japan. The B-29s were capable of making the 3,000+ mile round trip from Guam to Japan. The problem here was there above Japan there was a 140 mph (125 knot) jet stream, which played havoc with the bomb sight and precision bombing. 

It was decided primarily by General Curtis LeMay to carpet bomb Tokyo, using napalm. He flew in at 5,000 feet elevation, which was under the jet stream, and under the altitude at which Japanese antiaircraft weapons were effective.  Napalm is a gel that when it explodes, blows large clumps of fiery hot substance that sticks to every substance and burns brightly for several minutes. Much of Japanese housing was wood, paper, with straw mats. Perfect tinder for firebombing. In one day in March, 1945, more than 400 B-29s totally burned 16 square miles of Tokyo — killing far more than 100,000 people. And then they did the same thing to another city. And then another.

We’ve all be taught that it was the two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that caused the Japanese to surrender. Actually, LeMay’s B-29s firebombed 67 different Japanese cities with far more lives lost than the atomic bombs. If LeMay firebombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the loss of life would have been similar as to what the atomic bombs caused — without the radiation.

After the war, LeMay was given a high medal by the Japanese government. Why? Because even though his bombing caused more than 500,000 Japanese citizens to lose their lives, it prevented a land invasion — which undoubtedly would have cost many more deaths than that. On both sides.

The war ended some 76 years ago. Perhaps bombing debate this is old hat to many of my readers. But it was news to me. And interesting. 

There are a lot of moral dilemmas to chew on here. Once you are in a way, are some forms of bombing more humane than others? Can the less humane way actually save more lives in the long run.

I went back and read The Bomber Mafia a second time. And was engrossed once again.


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