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When Pop History Bombs: A Response to Malcolm Gladwell’s Love Letter to American Air Power

daftandbarmy

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I hate Illinois Nazis… and pop historians 😊




THERE’S A RICH IRONY that Malcolm Gladwell’s new book is spun off from episodes of his Revisionist History podcast. Ostensibly a meditation on the morality of bombing civilians during World War II, The Bomber Mafia is anything but revisionist. It’s indeed hard to imagine a more conventional account of the air war against Japan. In the questions it asks, the sources it uses, and the voices it amplifies, The Bomber Mafia offers an account virtually indistinguishable from the consensus position on the firebombings of urban Japan. It takes some of the most oft-repeated fallacies about the shift to area bombing and wraps them in a shiny new package.

The Bomber Mafia turns on a dramatic day in January 1945, when two protagonists “[square] off in the jungles of Guam.” Waiting on the tarmac as a B-29 bomber approaches for landing is Haywood Hansell, a career soldier unshakable in his faith in precision bombing, a man unwilling to bend his morals to the pressures of war. Stepping off the plane moments later is Curtis LeMay, his replacement. A ruthless pragmatist and brilliant tactician, LeMay has arrived to achieve what Hansell could not: bring the war in the Pacific to an end, even if it means destroying by fire every Japanese city, large and small. The Bomber Mafia, writes Gladwell, “is the story of that moment. What led up to it and what happened next — because that change of command reverberates to this day.”

Though the book takes many detours, all roads lead back to Hansell, LeMay, and their competing visions of air power — two men, face-to-face, presiding over a turning point of the Pacific War. Their meeting has all the hallmarks of a pivotal scene in a Hollywood film.

The only issue is that Gladwell’s account doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny. As a piece of writing, The Bomber Mafia is engaging. As a work of history, it borders on reckless. Setting aside the numerous errors of fact [1] and interpretation, Gladwell consistently cherry-picks from the historical record. Wittingly or not, he omits or downplays evidence that undermines the very premise of the book. Hansell was not the moral opposite of LeMay. To frame the book in this simplistic binary is to misconstrue the doctrines of both precision and area bombing. Gladwell mistakes practicality for dogma, projecting onto his subjects a high-minded morality that was not really there. The result is an account that fundamentally misrepresents the process through which the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the United States government rationalized the destruction of entire cities and their civilian inhabitants.

Owing to his celebrity stature, Gladwell is one of the few writers in the United States able to put the firebombings of urban Japan on the map of public consciousness. A steady string of books about these incendiary raids have appeared in print, yet this is the first in the 76 years since the end of World War II to receive significant attention from major media. And judging by some high-profile early reviews, readers appear more than willing to uncritically accept his account. Gladwell, in this sense, stands to leave an indelible imprint on American public memory — weak to begin with — of the incendiary bombing campaign and its legacies.

The Bomber Mafia is not so much a “case study in how dreams go awry,” as Gladwell claims, as a case study in how narratives of this incendiary campaign sidestep unsettling moral questions about the deliberate targeting of civilians. It pins responsibility for the destruction of 64 cities on one man, thereby absolving the AAF and, by extension, the American government. By the same token, it entirely overlooks the years-long process through which American war planners reduced Japanese cities in all their complexity to “industrial systems” populated exclusively by “skilled workers.” Rather than carefully consider the eroding ethical constraints governing what constitutes a legitimate target, Gladwell gives us a morality play. With its “great man” framing, exclusion of Japanese perspectives, and counterfactual justifications, it tells a story seemingly designed to soothe the American conscience.

At the heart of Gladwell’s account sits a tight-knit group of officers who taught in the 1930s at the Air Corps Tactical School — what he calls “the Bomber Mafia,” but who referred to themselves simply as “the School.” What this group lacked in numbers it made up for in faith in their dream for the future of American air power: high-altitude daylight precision bombing. Steadfast in their conviction that rapid technological advancements would enable bombers to “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel at 30,000 feet,” these men, according to Gladwell, called for more humane approach to air power. The School, we’re told, was composed of “idealistic strategists” who wanted to make war less lethal, who wanted to make “a moral argument about how to wage war.”

In sharp contrast to area bombing proponents such as Arthur “Bomber” Harris, air marshall of Britain’s Royal Air Force, these visionaries were unwilling to cause mass suffering. They wouldn’t aim for whole cities but for strategic industrial or military sites that would cripple the country and force it to sue for peace. “The genius of the Bomber Mafia,” writes Gladwell, was to say, “We don’t have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better.”

It’s a nice premise. And it helps to explain the supposed aberration on Guam. LeMay, following in the footsteps of that “psychopath” Harris, as Gladwell calls him, would lay entire Japanese cities to waste with incendiary bombs.

There’s just one catch to Gladwell’s portrayal of the School and its moral creed: it’s embellished at every turn. The School didn’t promote precision bombing out of some lofty ethical argument about humane warfare. They did so because they were convinced that, of all the strategies available to them, pinpointing key industries was the most effective means to dismantle the enemy state’s war economy. As they saw it, bombs did the most damage when they fell on vital lifelines that supported the “National Economic Structure.” With memories of trench warfare still fresh in their minds, many strategists saw air power as a new means to avoid protracted wars of attrition. The ultimate goal of precision bombing was to achieve suffering on two fronts at once: to cripple industrial production and, by destroying critical infrastructure, to unleash hardship on civilians who would in turn force their leaders to capitulate. The idea, as Michael Sherry has put it, was to attack “the enemy population indirectly, by disrupting and starving it rather than by blasting and burning.”

What motivated Hansell and other air power proponents, then, was less a moral crusade than a strategic outlook. In their public statements and lectures, the School may have played up the humanitarian aspects of their position. In briefings, studies, and planning documents, however, they were fixated on the practical exigencies of winning future wars. When the countries responsible for civilian bombings in Ethiopia, Spain, and China weren’t met with the international opprobrium many in the School were expecting, cracks in these principles only grew.

Gladwell pays no heed to these tensions and contradictions. Focused myopically on the Bomber Mafia, he instead charts the rise of a supposedly distinctive American doctrine of air power, one that eschewed the barbarism of other countries. If American exceptionalism has an air power equivalent, this would be it. In actuality, the School’s approach to bombing blended many different doctrines. At the same time that Hansell was studying precision bombing, other airmen were immersing themselves in target systems theory — the notion that “in order to destroy anything it is necessary to destroy everything.” In Italy, Giulio Douhet advocated directly targeting civilians as a way to quickly terrorize the state into submission. In Britain, Hugh Trenchard advocated attacking “worker morale” as much as the factories themselves. These ideas also had a profound impact on American air power strategists.

One would never know this from reading Gladwell’s account, which completely ignores these competing visions of air power and their transnational dimensions. The reader is accordingly left with the false impression that the moral case for precision bombing carried the day, when the reality is far messier and more interesting.

The omission of Billy Mitchell — arguably the godfather of the Bomber Mafia — from this account is telling. A World War I fighter pilot and early leader of the United States’s fledgling air corps unit, Mitchell saw air power as the decisive factor in all future wars. Monomaniacal in his promotion of the Air Service, he did not rule out using bombers to “intimidate the civilian population” and to attack them directly “in rare instances.” He also saw war clouds gathering over the Pacific. Writing in 1924 that “the white and yellow races will be brought into armed conflict,” Mitchell warned of looming hostilities with Japan.

Lucky for us, he suggested, Japan’s cities comprise “the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen.” As evidence, he cited the conflagrations that had engulfed Tokyo and nearby Yokohama following the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. A few years later, Mitchell expanded on the theme, noting that “an air offensive against Japan itself would be decisive because all Japanese cities are congested and easily located. In general, their structure is of paper or wood or other inflammable substances. It makes their country especially vulnerable to aircraft attack.”

While such musings didn’t immediately translate into Army Air Corps policy — they couldn’t because the technology did not yet exist that would allow United States bombers to easily reach Japan — they did implant themselves in the minds of some School members. In 1936, for example, one Army Air Corps study of Japan concluded that “still greater demoralization of Industry could probably be expected from the havoc of great fires among the FLIMSY Structures of the Densely Populated Settlements in the Japanese Industrial Centers, which would be caused by the use of Incendiary Bombs.” Renowned not only for their combustibility but also for their dense concentration of industry, Japan’s “wood and paper” cities had captured the attention of American war planners. Well before war broke out, air power strategists were exploring the possibility of burning down urban Japan.

But this is of little interest to Gladwell because it muddies his neat and tidy framework. Only in the wake of Pearl Harbor, we’re told, did Americans contemplate such methods. “The idea that you might destroy 80 percent of one of your enemy’s cities,” as one early 1942 Harper’s Weekly column suggested, was, according to Gladwell, “heretical.”

This suggestion is heretical only if you ignore years of commentary on the topic. Rather than consider the various ways in which urban Japan’s combustibility had fueled the interests of experts on both sides of the Pacific, we are left with the absurd claim that “[t]he United States and Japan probably had less contact with each other and knew less about each other than any two wartime combatants in history.” On the contrary, decades of migration, cooperation, and rivalry had linked these Pacific empires, nurturing, among other things, a strong awareness in both countries of urban Japan’s unique vulnerability to incendiary attack.

The Japanese assault on American military bases in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in December 1941 galvanized American efforts to set urban Japan alight. Politicians and pundits alike demanded that Tokyo and other cities be burned down as a form of payback for Japan’s treachery. News stories of Japanese atrocities across Asia and American sacrifice in places like Bataan and Guadalcanal only stiffened this sentiment. Where air power strategists once expressed abstract interest in urban Japan’s tinder-box conditions, they now drew up concrete plans to deliver fire across the Pacific.





Los Angeles Review of Books
 

MJP

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While a highly engaging writer, Gladwell could turn any anecdote into evidence. If you go into his books with that in mind they are mindless entertainment
 

mariomike

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While a highly engaging writer, Gladwell could turn any anecdote into evidence. If you go into his books with that in mind they are mindless entertainment
This seems to happen when the bombing of Germany and Japan - if mentioned at all - is "Disneyfied" for home-front consumption.
 

Infanteer

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This book has been shredded by historians, and is a largely a joke in terms of provided a factual account, and yet will be on the Barnes and Noble/Chapters best seller rack....
 

daftandbarmy

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This book has been shredded by historians, and is a largely a joke in terms of provided a factual account, and yet will be on the Barnes and Noble/Chapters best seller rack....

It's helped me get into a few good arguments with various 'Podcast Warriors' though :)

On the upside, at least it's helped connect some important pieces of history with people who previously might never have been interested in finding out more about it.
 

mariomike

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On the upside, at least it's helped connect some important pieces of history with people who previously might never have been interested in finding out more about it.
I doubt post-war Canadians would like the odds.

"Your chance of survival through one spell of operational duty was neglible; through two periods mathematically nil."
Bomber Harris.
 

daftandbarmy

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I doubt post-war Canadians would like the odds.

"Your chance of survival through one spell of operational duty was neglible; through two periods mathematically nil."
Bomber Harris.

A friend of my Dad's did three tours in heavy bombers. Over 90 missions, mostly over Germany.

He ascribed his survival to the fact that he was a Pathfinder for the last two tours.
 

Colin Parkinson

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The article misses the fact that US at the time was quite racist and looked down upon the Japanese. Coupled with the horror that the US population had from the Japanese atrocities in China, it took away the majority of moral ambiguity in the minds of the US leadership or public. The Japanese themselves went with a "total war" belief, not realizing that their enemies would adopt the same attitude and have the technology and means to conduct it.
Had the Allies had a better appreciation for the Japanese prior to the war and not looked down on them or their capabilities, the war in the east might have been prevented, delayed or better prepared for. The US attitude was at least explainable, but the British utter failure to assess the Japanese correctly is unexplained as they had greater contact with their military in the form of naval cooperation during WWI.
 

dimsum

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but the British utter failure to assess the Japanese correctly is unexplained as they had greater contact with their military in the form of naval cooperation during WWI.
Because they also looked down upon the Japanese, or pretty much anyone who wasn't British.
 

Colin Parkinson

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Because they also looked down upon the Japanese, or pretty much anyone who wasn't British.
The British worked very closely with the IJN, basically building it in their likeness and building the Kongo's for them. They requested the protection of the British Empire in the Pacific to the IJN in WWI and observe them dismantling the Imperial Russian fleet as well.
 

dimsum

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The British worked very closely with the IJN, basically building it in their likeness and building the Kongo's for them. They requested the protection of the British Empire in the Pacific to the IJN in WWI and observe them dismantling the Imperial Russian fleet as well.
Yes, but that doesn't mean they considered the IJN as equals. If anything, doing so probably made the British think that the Japanese would never be a match for them, and hence underestimate them (e.g. HK and Singapore).
 

OldSolduer

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Yes, but that doesn't mean they considered the IJN as equals. If anything, doing so probably made the British think that the Japanese would never be a match for them, and hence underestimate them (e.g. HK and Singapore).
And by the time the Japanese were at war with the US and Britain the Japanese had waged war in China for a number of years.

But the Japanese were like everyone else but more so. A Dan Carlin quote.
 

mariomike

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Because they also looked down upon the Japanese, or pretty much anyone who wasn't British.

They put a lot of research into breaking the will of enemy people. No matter who they were.

Investigation seems to show that having one's house demolished is most damaging to morale. People seem to mind it more than having their friends or even relatives killed. At Hull, signs of strain were evident, though only one-tenth of the houses were demolished. On the above figures we should be able to do ten times as much harm to each of the 58 principal German towns. There seems little doubt that this would break the spirit of the people.
 

Colin Parkinson

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Yes, but that doesn't mean they considered the IJN as equals. If anything, doing so probably made the British think that the Japanese would never be a match for them, and hence underestimate them (e.g. HK and Singapore).
True but with their ears to the ground ( a lot of Chinese refugees in Malaya), the official contacts they used to have, their assessment should have been much better. Their choice of commander in Malaya was dismal and he should never had been in command.
 

mariomike

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LeMay, following in the footsteps of that “psychopath” Harris, as Gladwell calls him, would lay entire Japanese cities to waste with incendiary bombs.
It may be of interest to some ( who may not be aware ), Japan awarded General LeMay the Order of the Rising Sun, 1st Class, Grand Cordon.

As for American bomber crews, Harris described them as "the bravest of the brave."



( That is not meant as a quote of D and B. It's from the article in the Original Post. )

 
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