Malcolm Gladwell’s new book examines one of the great moral challenges of World War II and the price of different actions
Malcolm Gladwell (Photo: Alamy)
FOR A WRITER who has written bestsellers in social psychology, The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War is a departure for Malcolm Gladwell, the celebrated 57-year-old UK-born Canadian journalist, author and public speaker. This book is about a lofty idea floated by a few intrepid men at the Air Corps Tactical School in Montgomery, Alabama, US, in the first half of the 20th century and an ideological battle they finally lost to more pragmatic and ruthless men in the American Air Force during World War II.
These men wanted to transform modern warfare and make it more precision-oriented and less brutal. They were at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. It was originally the site of a plantation converted into an airfield by the Wright Brothers. This group at the airbase came to be known as the ‘Bomber Mafia’. Charged by the ambition of youth, they were all goggle-eyed about technological advances that would allow target bombing and bring down civilian casualties. One of their doctrines was to attack during the day and use ‘bombsights’ developed by Dutch inventor Carl Norden. They believed that, thanks to bombsights, a mechanical computer, they could do precision attacks and drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet up.
Interestingly, Gladwell isn’t a stranger to air warfare. Right from his childhood—since he heard his father speak about experiences of the Blitz over England during World War II—he has gorged on enough military history books and visited numerous war museums to enjoy the credentials of a subject expert.
In 1941, when the ‘Bomber Mafia’ joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Great Britain for strikes against Germany, some of its ideas did not strike a chord with RAF honchos, especially with Arthur Harris, also called ‘Bomber’ Harris, who was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, fast friendship blossomed between Harris and his American counterpart and ‘Bomber Mafia’ member Ira Eaker. Harris believed in ‘morale’ bombing, which is aimed at breaking the will of the people of an enemy country. He somehow thought that the effect on resilient Britain of such bombing was going to be different compared with Germany.
Gladwell calls Harris a psychopath in this book.
The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War by Malcolm Gladwell
Then enter the two most important characters of The Bomber Mafia: Haywood Hansell, a member of the Bomber Mafia, and Curtis LeMay, another ‘young light’ on the US team. At that time the US Air Force was part of the Army and was called US Army Air Forces.
It was Hansell, whom Gladwell calls the truest of true believers of the doctrines of the Bomber Mafia, along with other strategists, who drew up a plan for raids in Germany using B-17 bombers in locations such as Schweinfurt, a Bavarian town that supplied the German military machine with millions of ball bearings every month, and Regensburg, where Germany made their Messerschmitt fighter aircraft. LeMay commanded one of the raids. The operation took place first in August and then in October of 1943, but to cut the long military story short, both failed to achieve any lasting effect. That was a huge embarrassment for the Bomber Mafia and their doctrines. The casualty on the American side was huge. They had underestimated the shortcomings of bombsights in bad weather.
Gladwell quotes LeMay as saying years later that he had never been convinced by the elaborate logic behind the Schweinfurt raids: ‘The idea was, they found the ball-bearing plants over there—some of these swivel-chair target analysts back in the Pentagon—and the idea was, if we knock out that plant, which supposedly had the bulk of the ball-bearing production in the country, then the war would grind to a halt because there were no bearings.’
Among the swivel-chair target analysts LeMay is referring to include Hansell, the puritanical Bomber Mafia member. Bomber Mafia comprised intellectuals like Hansell, but LeMay, who later became Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, was a man of action. By the time the Americans prepared to force Japan to surrender in 1945 and when the scene of war shifted to the Pacific, the top brass at the American army became overly disapproving of Hansell and his orthodoxy and preferred a hands-on LeMay to take charge. That transfer of power took place in Guam, on the Marianas island, which was captured by the Americans a year earlier from Japan. When Hansell was sacked and replaced by LeMay, Gladwell writes, ‘Hansell understood immediately that this was not a standard leadership reshuffle. This was a rebuke, an about-face. An admission by Washington that everything Hansell has been doing was now considered wrong. Because Curtis LeMay was Haywood Hansell’s antithesis.’
Gladwell writes about how the Americans launched several attacks from Marianas island on Japan until it eventually surrendered. They had considered taking off from eastern India, crossing the Himalayas and launching attacks from China, but soon realised it was an impractical plan.
It was around this time that inventors from Harvard University tested the Napalm bomb which was used extensively in Japan. Any member of the Bomber Mafia would have found it offensive to use such a highly inflammable and sticky explosive that caused uncontrollable fires and killed civilians in tens of thousands. And so did Hansell who saw it as a violation of all the values they had stood for, but not LeMay whose team, after he took over from Hansell, razed one Japanese city after the other over the following months. The thrust was that precision bombing was not working.
Gladwell quotes historian Stephen McFarland, ‘He (Hansell) is a tragic character in a way. His forte was thinking. He helped formulate this strategy, helped design the war plans that would lead to the bombings of Germany and Japan. He was almost philosophical… He was not a combat officer… He spoke in terms of high ideals.’
The idealist had to give way to the pragmatist. And LeMay throws all Bomber Mafia doctrines out of the window, as Gladwell notes. The rest of the devastation caused by Americans from Nagasaki to Hiroshima is part of history textbooks and yet beyond comprehension.
Gladwell’s book, therefore, is about the end of the dream of a group that emphasised on morality even in a war. But at that time when the Americans wanted to bring the Japanese to their knees, they found themselves unwanted.
In hindsight, however, with precision targeting increasingly becoming a reality, Gladwell notes, ‘Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.’
The Bomber Mafia believed ‘we don’t have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better.’
Gladwell’s book, at least between the lines, explores social psychology among warmongers and racists, which was obvious from the way some of them treated the deaths of the Japanese people, whom they saw as fair game and an inferior race.
But the question remains: can technology make wars less brutal? Would Bomber Mafia have thrived in the 21st century or would their plans go awry now as they did during WWII?
Gladwell doesn’t give us those answers. Written, as always, in his elegant prose, the book leaves us to ponder over these questions.