Was the bombing of cities in WWII justified?

Tokyo after the March 9–10 1945 firebombing mission described in The Bomber Mafia as “the longest night of the Second World War.” Image: US Army via The Japan Times

In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell departs from the precincts of social psychology he knows so well (The Tipping Point, Talking to Strangers, Outliers) and ventures into the history of World War II. The book, subtitled “A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War,” dramatizes the debate at the heart of the growing use of airpower in the war — the dispute between the two schools of thought about strategic bombing in WWII: high-altitude precision targeting and unrestrained area bombing of cities. Gladwell terms it “a case study in dreams gone awry.” In his telling, the debate was personified by the divergent careers of two US Army Air Force generals, Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. LeMay emerged the winner at the time, and he comes across as the author’s hero.

“Dropping bombs into a pickle barrel”

Unfortunately, the temperamental device proved far less successful under combat conditions. In January 1945, the Army Air Force brass concluded that the Norden-based strategy had failed in Japan. They sacked the man in charge in the Pacific, Gen. Hansell, and brought in Gen. LeMay to replace him. If anyone could devise a more successful approach, they thought, it was LeMay. A military historian later dubbed LeMay “the Air Force’s ultimate problem solver.”

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell (2021) 179 pages ★★★★☆

The single most destructive bombing raid in history

By the time LeMay sent the Enola Gay over Hiroshima on August 6, he had run out of suitable targets. All told, area bombing of Japan’s cities killed several hundred thousand people, far more than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the ultimate expression of strategic bombing in WWII to a greater extent than the far better known firebombing of Dresden and other German cities.

Bombing the “choke points” of Japan’s military production

The Superfortress was “the most expensive single undertaking of the Second World War.” Its development had cost more than the Manhattan Project. Soon, Haywood Hansell and the men he commanded in the Twentieth Air Force were attempting to realize the dream of the Bomber Mafia using the new superweapon. They set out to bring Japan to its knees by hitting the “choke points” of the Empire’s military production with precision bombing. To their minds, the choke-point strategy was the key to strategic bombing in WWII. But they failed.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital. Image and caption: Black Rifle Coffee Company from National Archives

Airpower in the European Theater

Harris had witnessed the appalling losses suffered by Bomber Command when attempting — unsuccessfully — to target German military production in the Rhineland. Unlike the newly arriving Americans, Harris knew well that the mantra “The bomber will always get through” was nonsense. The daytime raids necessary for bomber crews to see their targets permitted the Luftwaffe and German antiaircraft batteries to exact a heavy toll on the British. They soon decided on nighttime bombing to reduce their losses.

Both Americans and British were in denial

In bombing German cities, the British got one thing right. By limiting themselves largely to nighttime raids, they did succeed in sharply limiting their losses — even though the destruction they caused had just as little effect on German morale as the Luftwaffe had produced in the British. But the Americans ignored the British experience and insisted they could do better, and US pilots reported far greater rates of success than was the case. Now we know what really happened. They didn’t.

The two dueling Air Force generals

It’s hard to know what the two generals thought of each other. But it’s clear enough from the author’s account that Hansell felt humiliated when he was later removed from command and replaced by the man Gladwell describes as his “antithesis” — ”the greatest air commander in history,” as the author describes him. LeMay represented a 180-degree turn in the strategy of strategic bombing in WWII.

“Bombing them back to the Stone Age”

But LeMay became a controversial figure in later years. He may have been the model for the unhinged General Buck Turgidson as played for laughs by George C. Scott in the classic Stanley Kubrick film Doctor Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And LeMay is credited with threatening to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” He may be a hero to Malcolm Gladwell, but he’s no hero of mine.

As Gladwell concludes, citing the extraordinary precision of “smart bombs” and missiles today, “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

About the author

Malcolm Gladwell in 2008. Image: Wikipedia

Malcolm Gladwell (1963-) was born in England but calls Canada his home. Since 1996 he was been a New Yorker staff writer. He gained fame in 2000 with the publication of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, a brilliant inquiry into fads and trends and how they start and are sustained. Every one of his books has been a New York Times bestseller. He also publishes a podcast, Revisionist History.

For more reading

For a lengthy review of this book, see the review by military historian Thomas E. Ricks in the New York Times Book Review (May 2, 2021) entitled “Malcolm Gladwell on the Hard Decisions of War.”

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