Book Review: Gladwell dabbles in more militaria with “The Bomber Mafia”

I was curious to see what “The Nickelback of American Letters” was up to, dipping his glib toe in the murky waters of World War II and the undying myth of the “surgical (air) strike.”

“The Bomber Mafia” is a well-heeled podcast masquerading as a book, short and thinly backed up enough to devour in a single sitting. He of course plugs his podcasts on this same subject many times during its pages, and the TED talks he’s showbizzed on it as well.

Gladwell comes at several subjects and points, some head-on, some he sidles up to, about the bombing practices of World War II. He didn’t coin the phrase “The Bomber Mafia,” but he gives a functional overview of the pre-war corps of airmen, stationed in remote Alabama, who came up with the idea of “choke point” bombing, designed to break the enemy’s ability to make war without sacrificing millions in trenches and millions of civilians in the bargain.

A more “humane” way of making war spun out of these flying theorists, one that dominates US military thinking even today. Gladwell chats with a number of high-ranking Air Force folks, as well as historians and (pointlessly) the descendants of some of those who made those fateful decisions long ago.

As a historian, my “Nickelback” label fits, as he’s a popular best seller whom most legitimate historians seem to dismiss, and you’re hard pressed to find anyone who’ll admit he or she is a “fan.” You figure out why when you see the weight he gives a Ronald Reagan-narrated Air Force documentary script and the exonerating, image-polishing memories of General Curtis LeMay’s daughter. Not serious research.

“Glib.” As glib as say, a podcast, TED talk, or a movie or book review. It makes him readable, easy to summarize and quote (“10,000 hours” to become an “expert”), but with none of the authority he seems to crave.

Here’s what’s valuable in the book. We know little about the brilliant Dutch crank who invented the famed Norden bombsight of WWII bombing myth. The fact that the damned complicated analog computer didn’t do the job well at all under combat conditions isn’t wholly brushed aside, but Gladwell gets at that.

The “choke point” theory didn’t work under WWII combat conditions either. There have been other books decrying the staggering human and financial costs of that part of the war in Europe, debunking the “official” Air Force legend of how we brought Germany to her knees by bombing fuel refineries and ball bearing plants. The math, economists pointed out, didn’t add up. They’d still be making ball bearings and fighting had the Russians, Brits and Americans not marched in and stopped them.

LeMay, a much vilified figure who supposedly fretted over being charged with war crimes for his fire bombing Japan into submission, gets an image makeover. “Pugnacious,” a “doer” not a “thinker” (lazy, dim, drunken legacy-admission C-student George W. Bush stole quotes from the best), LeMay figured out that he couldn’t get Norden-directed bombs to hit the Japanese airplane engine factories (to become Subaru), so he swiftly pivoted to doing what the British did in Europe — carpet bombing/fire bombing cities.

Other books I’ve read — not all by British “I told you so” historians — maintain that Germany came closest to collapsing before its borders were ever crossed by ground troops after British bombers laid waste to Cologne, Dresden and Hamburg, killing thousands but leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless, adrift on roads and bringing the country nearly to a halt. A few more night “terror raids” or “morale raids,” and Berlin would have lost control.

No, “terror bombing” didn’t defeat Britain when the Germans did it, and thinking it would make the Germans give up where “British breeding” did not is, as Gladwell points out, laughable.

But the German bombers didn’t have the numbers or the payload to cover the skies with planes that carpeted blocks and square miles of cities. Gladwell leaves that out, as well as some of the other famous “choke point” strikes of the war — Ploesti, Peenemunde and the famous “dam busters” raid on the Ruhr, which did work…just not well enough.

LeMay took that British “terror bombing” notion, and the American-invented, Harvard-tested (in a retention pond dug near the Charles River) napalm, and burned over 60 Japanese cities to the ground.

No housing, no manufacturing, hundreds of thousands of deaths, Japan was at an untenable “cannot carry on” point before the A-bombs were dropped (which LeMay had nothing to do with), with only fanatics in the Japanese government hellbent on carrying on. There are other book length accounts of their sudden surrender, attempts to kidnap the Emperor to stop it, etc. “Bomber Mafia” and Gladwell admit that LeMay probably won the war, and insist that the “surgical strike” fellows won the peace. But for proof he cites a cocktail party conversation with Air Force leaders who boast of bombing accuracy today. Not always. Not by a long shot.

Gladwell’s book is too short to consider the consequences of that. We didn’t try to kill enemies, terror cells or foreign leaders with air strikes before Reagan took a swing at Gaddafi (and, uh, missed). It’s a monthly occurrence and cornerstone of American policy today, even though no surgical strike took out bin Laden, Assad or Hussein.

So perhaps the real value of “Bomber Mafia” is as a “podcast” that points you to “further reading.”

Gladwell’s dalliances in the psychology of doubling down” on “truths” that devotees treat like articles of faith — people cultishly refusing to surrender their long-held beliefs when confronted with damning, irrefutable contrary facts — seems like more fertile soil for him to till, and perhaps he will in his next podcast-short publishing outing.

But even Nickelback wore out their welcome and their fans, eventually.

“The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War.” by Malcolm Gladwell. Little Brown, $27, 240 pages including index.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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