The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

It seems like Gladwell has taken some hits recently in the media because some of the theories and conclusions from his older books (Blink, The Tipping Point, etc.) have been proven to be a bit inaccurate or dated — depending on the source of the criticism — but regardless, I’m still a huge fan because he always makes me re-think what I thought I knew about a certain topic. In this one, Gladwell tells the little-known story of the U.S. Air Corps and a series of air raids they lead against Japan late in World War II that used napalm on civilians for the first time — the devastation wrought, the after-effects, and the moral dilemmas it presented to the pilots at the time. The center of the story revolves around two Air Force Generals — Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay — who both have differing views and theories as to how, when, and where air bombing should take place, and also the strategic battle between “Precision Bombing” (hitting specific targets to minimize damage and human casualties) and “Morale Bombing” (bombing with the intent to destroy your enemy and reduce your enemy’s population to a state of despair). LeMay wins out in the end because he is willing to use napalm while Hansell is not, but a fundamental moral question of World War II remain to this day: was it defensible to use such a destructive force to end the war quickly, or could hundreds of thousands of lives been saved if they had been more patient and continued to try and perfect their precision bombing techniques? Impossible to answer, but Gladwell tries and succeeds to shape the story as LeMay winning the battle (WWII), but Hansell winning the war (incendiary weapons are banned in 115 countries to date).

  • Case study in how dreams go awry
  • Carl Norden invented a bombsight prior to WWII
  • is there a more accurate way to drop a bomb from an airplane?
  • WWI = 7M wounded or killed
  • in the early days of aviation, bombers couldn’t hit anything
  • somehow, someone at some point would figure out how to aim a bomb from high in the sky with something close to accuracy
  • leaders of the Air Corps Tactical School were labeled “The Bomber Mafia”
  • high altitude, daylight, precision bombing — that’s what they wanted to try and do
  • Air Force, in contrast to other branches of the Army, was uninterested in heritage and tradition — wants to be modern
  • prior to WWII, Mafia went to DC and produced a document that would serve as a template for everything the US did in the air war
  • titled “Air War Plans Division One”, laid out how many planes US would need, fighters, bombers, transport planes
  • how many pilots, explosives, targets in Germany
  • choke point theory: fifty electrical power plants, and other places to hit
  • British disagreed with the theory, they thought the advantage of having fleets of bombers was that you could broaden the scope of war — bomb everything, everyone, anywhere, anytime
  • “area bombing”, they called it
  • just hit everything you could before flying home
  • “morale bombing” — bombing with the intent to destroy your enemy and reduce your enemy’s population to a state of despair
  • Blitz — German assaults grew heavier, British authorities began to observe to their astonishment not just courage in the face of bombing but also something closer to indifference
  • despite the lesson, Royal Air Force two years later was proposing to do the same thing to Germany
  • transactive memory: little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds
  • Churchill became Prime Minister, his closest aid was Lord Lindemann, gatekeeper to Churchill’s mind, and he was a proponent of morale bombing
  • Bomber Mafia didn’t want to cross the line
  • moral argument on how to wage war
  • Haywood Hansell — precision bombing
  • first mission was 230 B-17 bombers sent against the Schweinfurt ball bearings factories
  • Curtis LeMay was the anti Hansell
  • LeMay thought pilots should stop taking evasive action, fly over targets, go against received wisdom
  • 1942 bombing took no evasive action, group put twice as many bombs on the target as any group before, didn’t lose a single bomber
  • 1943, England: deepest penetration ever attempted into Germany, largest bomber force to be dispatched to date
  • 80 hits out of 2K bombs — not exactly precision bombing, lots of losses
  • Norden bombsight did not behave in the real world the way it had in the lab or in training films
  • if there were clouds over target, nothing worked
  • best estimate was that the attack decreased the German ball bearing production but about a third
  • concluded that there was no evidence that the attacks had any measurable effect on essential war production
  • second raid only marginally more successful than the first
  • Leon Festinger, Social Psychologist: more you invest in a set of beliefs, the greater the sacrifice you make in the service of tat conviction, the more resistant you will be to evidence that suggests that you are mistaken
  • you don’t give up, you double down
  • LeMay was never part of The Bomber Mafia circle
  • Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production said that if they had continued the attacks on the factories with the same energy Germany would have been done
  • Center of Tokyo Raids and War Damage — outcome of struggle between The Bomber Mafia and LeMay
  • Nov. 1944 — winter of 1945
  • Jan. of 1944, you couldn’t find an air base controlled by the allies within a thousand miles of Tokyo
  • US overtook the Marianas Islands in the summer of 1944
  • LeMay was in Calcutta, but couldn’t get the bombers over the Himalayas to Japan to take action
  • jet stream: river of fast flowing air that circles the globe in the upper atmosphere, starting at around 20K feet
  • winter of 1944 and early spring of 1945, narrow, hurricane force band of air was directly over Japan
  • impossible for Hansell’s pilots to do any of the precision bombing
  • high altitude precision bombing in the midst of a jet stream is impossible
  • Cambridge, MA — Hottel and Fieser of MIT met with the National Defense Research Committee (did the Manhattan Project, amongst other things)
  • divinylacetylene, film keeps bursting into flames at DuPont; Fieser was a Harvard chemistry professor, looked into it
  • idea of a bomb that would scatter large burning globs of sticky gel
  • drop the bomb, gel scatters
  • keep burning and burning and burning
  • Napalm invented — if it is thrown on something, it will stick to it
  • baptized in eight inches of water in the middle of Harvard’s Soccer pitch (tested it there)
  • intended to be used against Japan
  • uncontrollable fires, 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 minutes
  • Bomber Mafia wanted to make war more humane, restrain murderous impulses of generals on the battlefield
  • incendiaries, objects to be dropped from the sky with the intention of starting violent, indiscriminate fires
  • precision bombing wasn’t working
  • all Hansell had to do was switch to Napalm, but he wouldn’t do it
  • not the kind of man who was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people
  • irony is his final mission, before LeMay took over, was a success
  • LeMay switched to night raids, and napalm
  • relentless, decisive, devastating turned a two year war into a one year war — isn’t that the most desirable outcome?
  • attacked at 5K feet, which Japan was not prepared for
  • crowded, working class places were intentionally targeted because they would burn quickly and easily
  • 16 square miles burned in Tokyo
  • after the war, concluded that probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six hour period than at any time in the history of man — maybe 100K people died that night, March 9th, 1945
  • remains no government sanctioned memorial in Japan for the March 9th attack
  • LeMay burned down 67 cities in Japan over the course of half a year
  • higher levels of government couldn’t comprehend the air war, the scale of destruction that LeMay planned and inflicted on Japan that summer but also with the audacity of it
  • ground invasion never had to happen though
  • 1964, Japanese government gave LeMay their highest award for a foreigner, in appreciation for his help in rebuilding the Japanese Air Force
  • cleaner and more precise a bomber gets, the more tempting it is to use that bomber — even when you shouldn’t (modern day thinking)
  • genius of Bomber Mafia was to say we don’t have to slaughter the innocent, we can do better
  • LeMay won the battle, Hansell won the war
  • 2009 — Obama signed UN protocol banning use of incendiary weapons, 115 nations have signed the treaty, first introduced in 1981

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.