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Malcolm Gladwell’s Fantasy of War From the Air

“The Bomber Mafia” enthuses about precision tactics said to spare civilian lives. Except they didn’t.

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There’s a scene in the 2011 film Moneyball where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane is mentoring young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) on how to cut a professional baseball player from the roster: bluntly, without euphemism. “Would you rather,” he asks, “get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” Imagine, if you will, that this was not a rhetorical question or an analogy about firing someone but rather a serious, literal question. Now imagine 206 pages of this, and you have a sense of what it’s like to read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown and Company, 256 pp., $27.00

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is a nasty, brutish book—if it’s also short, it’s not nearly short enough. It is a breathless and narratively riveting story about the best way to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. It is the story of two different approaches to killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and of the heroic men who each championed their own method for mass killing. Its central question is whether one should approach the wholesale massacre of the innocents with indifference or with hypocrisy, and its conceit is that this is a relevant or fascinating distinction. It is a book detailing a series of ingenious new technologies for butchery, dressed up in the polished technophilic language of a TED talk.

The book details the rise and fall (and rise again) of the doctrine of precision air bombing, an idea that emerged from the Air Corps Tactical School (the aviation equivalent of the Army War College), nicknamed the “Bomber Mafia.” The Air Force was not yet a separate branch of the military in the 1930s, but with the advent of military aviation the men at the Air Corps Tactical School (based at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama) began to fantasize about entirely new kinds of war-making and attempted to birth a revolution in how war might be fought. Their singular obsession, according to Gladwell, was this: What if, instead of bringing the full might of one’s military on the enemy, battering them into submission, you could take out key infrastructure and manufacturing targets (“choke points,” in the Bomber Mafia’s parlance) that would incapacitate your opponent while avoiding mass death?

It’s an interesting enough idea. In the opening years of World War II, aerial bombing meant total destruction. The London Blitz was designed to overwhelm the British and demoralize them into submission. England’s answer to this was Arthur “Bomber” Harris, whom Gladwell describes as, simply, a “psychopath.” Harris was one of the chief architects of the British tactic of “area bombing” or “morale bombing”: Reduce cities to rubble and incinerate the civilians until they submit. For Harris, civilians were viable targets if for no other reason than some of them worked in the factories that made bombs and submarines. As he would say later, “They were all active soldiers, to my mind.”

The minds at the Air Corps Tactical School thought there might be a different way. “The whole argument of the Bomber Mafia, their whole reason for being, was that they didn’t want to cross that line,” Gladwell writes. “They weren’t just advancing a technological argument. They were also advancing a moral argument.” When the Americans joined forces with the British Royal Air Force in bombing Germany, the Bomber Mafia sought to prove its approach. Under the command of General Haywood Hansell, the Americans argued that if they could destroy the German’s capacity to make ball bearings, they could bring their manufacturing to a standstill. What if you could leave the Germans for want of a nail and lose them the whole ship?

This is the “dream” of the subtitle—what if by changing one’s perspective and focusing on something small and seemingly insignificant, one could change how wars were fought? One can see how the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers would be taken by a group whose motto was Proficimus more irrententi—“We make progress unhindered by custom.” The Bomber Mafia is adapted from an audiobook, which means that what sounds conversational and engaging on tape can sound garrulous on the page, but it also allows Gladwell to telegraph his breathless fascination with these men. “I worry that I haven’t fully explained just how radical—how revolutionary—the Bomber Mafia thinking was,” he says at one point, before launching on a long digression about chapel architecture. Unbound by tradition, the Bomber Mafia wanted to innovate and rethink war from the ground up (or the sky down). This is a group “utterly uninterested in heritage and tradition,” Gladwell explains; rather than “studying the Peloponnesian War or the Battle of Trafalgar,” they were readying themselves for “today’s battles.”

In Gladwell’s world, the people who matter are the innovators, the disrupters. The protagonists of The Bomber Mafia are all various analogs of Steve Jobs or John Lennon—heroic icons who brought a unique perspective and, through determination and insight, pursued a dream that changed the world. But such decisions never happen in a vacuum, and by foregrounding such technological pursuits, The Bomber Mafia furthers the fiction that somehow airstrikes can be moral.

How much can you change the world from the air? In the 1920s, when aviation was in its infancy, proponents for air power imagined a utopian possibility: The airplane was so new, so unrefined, and offered so much potential. The sky was the limit, and perhaps somewhere in this technology would be a way to end war once and for all.

Though this dream would fade fast, the book strains to carry this early naïveté over to the realities of World War II. Gladwell organizes his chapters around individual men with unique, startling ideas, like Carl L. Norden, a Dutch engineer whose obsession was the aerial bomb sight, which would enable precision strikes and could entirely change how aerial warfare was conducted. The book follows first Norden and then the Air Corps Tactical School under Haywood Hansell, as it attempts to prove the efficacy of the precision bombing thesis. This group is repeatedly contrasted with men like Harris, as searching for a “moral” approach to bombing. Hansell, we’re told, “provides us with a model of what it means to be moral in our modern world.”

Gladwell repeats this line throughout; he quotes Tami Biddle, professor of national security at the U.S. Army War College, on this as well: “I think there’s a strong moral component to all this,” she tells Gladwell,

a desire to find a way to fight a war that is clean and that is not going to tarnish the American reputation as a moral nation, a nation of ideas and ideology and commitment to individual rights and respect for human beings.

Tellingly, though, Gladwell provides no direct quotes from Hansell or the Bomber Mafia suggesting that they thought their approach was moral; it’s all a retrospective appraisal from contemporary historians. After all, here is what their so-called “moral” approach looked like at the time: In a wargame that proposed a conflict between Canada and the United States, the Bomber Mafia gamed out what it would take for a hypothetical airstrike launched from Toronto to take out New York City. Bomber Mafia associate Muir Fairchild instead theorized that you could bring the city to its knees by striking 17 targets: the bridges, the aqueducts that brought fresh water to the city, and the power grid. As military historian Robert Pape explains, “They basically want to create a situation where there’s almost no potable water for the population to drink.” This would avoid “wave upon wave of costly and dangerous bombing attacks” or reducing the city to rubble, while still incapacitating the city. This, somehow, is the moral option: cutting off a city of millions to die slowly of thirst. We are back to Billy Beane’s question: Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?

If the military minds of the 1920s might have imagined how air power could end wars quickly and with a minimum of casualties, by World War II the calculus had already changed: The question now was how best to “incapacitate a city,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for: How do you wipe out a civilian population? The mildly grating aspect of Gladwell’s style when he writes about ketchup or The Beatles here becomes an unforgivable moral lapse as he writes about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Gladwell’s traditional methodology—focusing on innovators, the singular individuals and the quirks, obsessions, and insights that led to new inventions and discoveries—obscures a basic fact about World War II. The story of that war’s prosecution is not to be found in the new technological discoveries, be they Norden’s bomb sight or the Manhattan Project. Rather, it is a story about the ways in which the great powers rationalized the killing of civilians and noncombatants. By the war’s end, nearly every nation had targeted civilians from the air.

It turns out precision bombing never worked during World War II, anyway: Norden’s bomb sight never provided the precision he imagined it would, Hansell was never able to successfully carry out precision raids over Japan, and he was finally replaced by Curtis LeMay. LeMay decided to forgo the precision approach. His preference for overwhelming force led to the “longest night” of the book’s subtitle, when American forces napalmed Tokyo and, according to America’s own estimate, more people lost their lives by fire in a six-hour period than at any other time in the history of humanity. By Gladwell’s analysis, this, too, was a success: “Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” (He waves away any and all lingering questions of wartime atrocity by quoting a secondhand anecdote about a “senior Japanese historian” who once “thanked” an American historian for the firebombing because it prevented a land invasion.) Having built his career on championing human ingenuity and invention, Gladwell here, inexplicably, offers a parable about how technological innovation is less successful in war than indiscriminate butchery.

But even as Gladwell cedes the field to the “psychopaths,” he still wants to hold out a place in his heart for the innovators and their dream of precision air attacks. Which leads us to the book’s utterly baffling conclusion. Gladwell ends with a conversation with General David Goldfein (nearly all his interview subjects are war college historians or military men, and for this reason the book reeks of propaganda), who describes just how far American bombing tactics have come since World War II. According to Goldfein, the ethos of the Bomber Mafia has become standard practice. This sea change, Gladwell argues, has allowed for a military that no longer needs to slaughter the innocent or burn them beyond recognition in order to achieve its goals. He closes with a cliché that is as literally false as it is rhetorically awkward: “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Which war, exactly? His words appear here in print in the twentieth year of an unwinnable, unending war in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has had, for the entire duration, unchallenged air superiority. Precision bombing has not won the war in Afghanistan, nor has it avoided civilian casualties or kept the county from being reduced to rubble. It has not done so in Iraq, either. It has not done so in Yemen, or in Syria. It has not done so anywhere it has been used.

Air war accomplishes one thing: the destruction of civilian landscapes and the murder of noncombatants. It may accomplish other military goals in the process, but the wanton destruction of innocent life is its purpose and its innovation. Books like The Bomber Mafia that discuss the varieties of air war and the various merits of different approaches obscure this fact under irrelevant technological distraction. Gladwell’s thesis—that LeMay’s destructive impulse was right, even though the U.S. now wins wars with Hansell’s moral tactics—is muddled because the distinction he’s groping for is incoherent. For anyone who takes even the slightest unblinkered look at how much hell and death airpower has brought to the civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the world over, the only answer to Gladwell’s central question—area bombing or precision bombing?—can be, What’s the difference?