Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Bomber Mafia - Malcom Gladwell: Brief Summary

The Bomber Mafia is a book about two approaches to a problem. The problem in question was 'What is the best way to end WWII by bombing?' The context was the last year of the war and the target was Japan.

Malcolm Gladwell narrates the story of two US Air Force Generals: Brigadier General Haywood Hansell and Major General Curtis LeMay both of whom, at different times, were in command of the Twenty-First Bomber Command stationed on a cluster of small islands, the Marianas, in the middle of the Western Pacific (Guam, Saipan and Tinian). The significance of these islands was that they were (just) in range for a B29 bomber to run a raid to Tokyo and other significant Japanese industrial cities.

The first General, Hansell, was a devotee of the 'The Bomber Mafia', a group within the Air Force command who believed that air power alone could win a war. They believed that the precision bombing of key strategic pinchpoints could bring the enemy to his knees (and thus to surrender). without committing thousands of troops on the ground. In the 1930s this concept was quite and ran contrary to the prevailing US military thinking which, given that it had been the case in nearly every war to date, saw ground troops as essential to military success. Furthermore, they believed that, unlike blitz bombing, precision bombing would also minimise non-combatant casualties - thus there was a moral dimension to this view. At the heart of Hansell and the Bomber Mafia's belief was that they placed enormous faith in the 'Norden Bombsight' which, they claimed could enable an airborne bombardier to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from six miles up. Sadly this faith was misplaced and Hansell's B29 bombers never managed to effect high level precision bombing of key Japanese instillations.

For this reason he was replaced by General Curtis LeMay, who approached the problem of bombing to end the war with a more open mind. After a brief attempt at following his predecessor's approach, he switched to a totally different strategy: low level blanket bombing of cities with napalm. The results were devastating. May's first raid on Tokyo on March 9th 1945 lasted 3 hours, dropped 1,665 tons of napalm, destroyed 16 square miles of the city killing about 100,000 people.

"Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six hour period than at any other time in the history of man." US Strategic Bombing Survey

Further bombing raids on other cities followed with similar results.

 The irony here is that the US WWII narrative focuses on how President Truman agonised over the dropping of the two atomic bombs, but much less consideration is given to the 'on-the-ground' action of LeMay to blanket bomb significantly larger urban populations.

Hansell was a man of principle, but the fact is that he didn't get the job done.

LeMay was a pragmatist who believed that his actions would bring an early end to the war. This proved to be true. His extensive bombing campaign and the dropping of the atomic bombs brought about a Japanese surrender, preventing a costly invasion, probable partition of Japan, and enabled food supplies to be flown in saving millions of Japanese from starvation.

However, viewed from the perspective of 2021, LeMay's approach to bombing and ending wars has had its day. Today, targetted precision bombing is the norm - Hansell's dream has been realised.

Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.

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