B-24 Liberator statue
The statue in Veterans Memorial Garden commemorating the B-24 Liberator bombers built in San Diego. Courtesy Balboa Park Online Conservancy

Malcolm Gladwell has in his hands a very good story in The Bomber Mafia. On the one side, there are the Americans who believed that the Norden bombsight and the B-29, which could fly at more than 30,000 feet, combined to give them the ability to undertake precision bombing. On the other, there are the British, who from the get go believed in area bombing, sometimes euphemistically called, “dehousing.” 

Gladwell is correct to ask why, after the Blitz failed to break the will of the British, indeed, apparently strengthened it, night after night of bombing Germany would produce a different result. And why the Americans believed in precision bombing and then lost faith in it is worth knowing.

The Bomber Mafia

The popular author’s discussion of the Norden bombsight is the best I’ve ever read.  He makes clear how it was, essentially, an analog computer in which gyroscope, gears and ball bearings did the work done today by a microprocessor. He shows how in addition to the obvious problem of bombing a small point from a plane that is moving hundreds of miles an hour twenty or thirty thousand feet in the sky, both air temperature and humidity are important factors: in cold, dry air bombs fall faster. 

I’ve written two books that deal with air warfare in the Second World War, and this was the first time I’d read that bombardiers had to take into account the rotation of the earth. If it takes a bomb 20 seconds to fall to earth, the target has moved 25 feet. His explanation of how napalm was invented and tested (near the tennis courts behind the Harvard Business School in 1942, on, appropriately, July 4) is clear and concise. 

The book is, however, fatally flawed.  No doubt Gladwell’s hipster tone plays well on his Revisionist History podcasts. In a military history, however, it wears thin pretty quickly. It’s true that Winston Churchill wasn’t much of a numbers guy, though, Gladwell might have noted, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, essentially Britain’s Treasury Secretary, from 1924 to 1929, a time when though depressed, the British economy did better than the American. And it’s true that he spent lavishly. But, what, exactly, is gained by reading that “within a month of becoming prime minister, he was broke?” Does Gladwell think Churchill should have taken time out from dealing with Nazi Blitzkrieg smashing its way through Europe to balance his check book?

 In the middle of the book, Gladwell’s tone is equally jarring and dismissive when he writes of the odds of a U.S. airman’s survival. Airmen had to fly 25 missions to complete their tours of service. A quarter of the air crews that took part in the second raid on Schweinfurt in 1943 were killed or captured. The town was home to Germany’s main ball bearing factory — destroying it would have, literally, caused the German war machine to seize up. The raid was only slightly more successful than the first one in 1942 and demonstrated, as Gladwell notes correctly, that even at 30,000 feet planes could be shot down. 

But then, he writes, “if you were part of that second Schweinfurt mission, in which a quarter of the crews didn’t come back — well, you do the math.”  But the fact of the matter is that not in the U.S. Army Air Force, not in the RAF not in the Royal Canadian Airforce, not in the Soviet Air Force and not in either Germany’s nor Japan’s air forces did such terrible odds or worse break the will of the airmen and women, who, assuredly, could do the math.

Nor does Gladwell show a grasp of the most recent scholarship on the air war. Indeed, he doesn’t appear to know that the line, “The bomber will always get through” was uttered first by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1932 and not Americans entranced with the Norden bombsight, which they believed could put a bomb in a pickle barrel from six miles up. In fact, the belief that the bomber will always get through can be traced back to five years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.  It’s found in H.G. Wells’s novel The War in the Air.

Then, there’s the bombing of Dresden. Gladwell prepares the way for criticizing the firebombing of Dresden by filling in the backstory of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the mastermind of area bombing. Part of this backstory, Gladwell appears not to quite believe, as indicated by the parenthetical statement “—the story goes —”.  Doubts aside, he uses the story that when stopped by a policeman for driving to quickly and warned, “you might kill someone,” Harris answers, “Now that you mention it, it’s my business to kill people: Germans.” 

The ground is then well prepared to dismiss Harris’s reason for bombing Dresden, “Ostensibly to prevent the movement of troops.” Except, as Sinclair McKay’s The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 showed last year, cutting off those troops was an important war aim and the city was home to factories, including ones that made anti-aircraft guns and poison gas.

In fact, while he does a good job of explaining the differences between the British policy of area bombing — undertaken at night — and the American policy of daylight precision bombing, Gladwell clearly believes that since neither brought Germany to its knees in 1942, they should have, “just called the whole thing off” — excuse, please, my slipping into Nöel Coward’s song book from Anything Goes

In making this argument, Gladwell ignores two important points. Until the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, bombing Germany was the only way the Americans had of striking at Hitler’s empire. Second, and even more importantly, since Stalin did not understand the Battle of the Atlantic and viewed the slugging match between Rommel and Montgomery as a side show, bombing Germany was the only action his allies were taking that he saw as taking pressure off the Red Army, which after August 1942 was fighting for its life in Stalingrad. 

An interesting counterfactual analysis would be to see whether Stalin signs a separate peace if the air war was suspended. From Moscow, it surely would have looked as though the Americans and British were on their way to standing down. Keeping Russia in the war was vital, even at the cost of the thousands of names on the monument to the RAF dead at Runnymede and the long lists of dead Canadian and U.S. airmen published with metronymic regularity in papers across North America.

It’s one thing to read in almost any history of the development of the atomic bomb that as he watched the mushroom cloud rise above Alamogordo, New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer thought, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” found in the Bhagavad Gita, which the polymath physicist knew well. It’s quite another to read that from the safety of his desk Gladwell writes, “If firebombs were a betrayal of precision-bombing [i.e., the American’s notion of a clean bombing campaign], then what was the atomic bomb? Good Lord.  It was a technological Judas.” 

I don’t know anything about Gladwell’s religiosity. But he clearly had his copy of the New Testament nearby. Twice, he turns to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. The first time, in fact, Jesus appeared to have it easy, for the temptation lasted only 40 days, while Gen. Haywood Hansell, a commander in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flew out of the “wilderness” of the Mariana Islands for fifty-five days bombing Japan. The second time Gladwell turns to this Bible lesson he ends up casting Hansell as Jesus’s disciple, who, by refusing to turn to area bombing resists “the temptation to do evil that good may come [of it],” i.e., the surrender of Japan.  

Gladwell must have a different translation of the Bible than the King James Bible on my shelf.  It has Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple but doesn’t show him using catapults or, for that matter, knives. In other words, the equation of Hansell’s bombing campaign with anything Matthew, Mark or Luke report Jesus doing or teaching is curious at best.

By contrast, General Curtis LeMay, who replaced Hansell and, having learned in Europe that precision bombing was a pipe dream, wholly supported area bombing and masterminds the firebombing of Tokyo that is the climax of Gladwell’s book, sups with the devil: “He would have accepted the illegitimate means if they led to what he considered a swift and more advantageous end:” i.e., a quicker end to the war that saved more American lives. LeMay, who in 1968 was George Wallace’s running mate is best known now for saying he wanted to bomb North Vietnam “back to the stone age” — which, Gladwell shows, he never said. Nevertheless, he is a villain sent from central casting.

Given Gladwell’s obvious moral judgement about area and fire bombing, it is surprising how devoid of human pain his presentation of the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities is. The numbers are there, a fleet of B-29s flying into the night on March 9, 1945, carrying 1,665 tons of napalm. Sixteen square miles of the capital of the Empire of Japan is destroyed in a firestorm in which “babies were on fire.”  The more than 100,000 who died made the six hours of the fire the deadliest period in human history. 

He quotes an airman saying, “It looked like you were looking into the mouth of hell.”  The stench of burning flesh reached the planes, which flew at only 5,000 feet so as to avoid Japanese defenses, which were primed to shoot at planes at 30,000 feet. The planes “actually ha[d] to be fumigated when they land[ed] back in the Marianas.” Gladwell quotes an American general standing next to LeMay saying, “It’s all ashes — all that and that and that.”

What we don’t get is the experience on the ground. What we don’t see is how the firestorm was for those who lived through it, which McKay’s book gives us for the firebombing of Dresden and, which many have read in Kurt Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse Five, his memoir of living through that terrible night. Not only are there Japanese sources for this, but there are British, American and Canadian sources, for there were thousands of POWs in camps around Tokyo who saw the firestorm. 

Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.

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