When Curtis LeMay was five years old, standing in his family’s backyard in Columbus, Ohio, in about 1912, the future Air Force general saw his first aeroplane. He would recall in his memoir: “Suddenly, in the air above me, appeared a flying machine. It came from nowhere. There it was, and I wanted to catch it.” The boy was enchanted by the “wonderful sound and force and the freakish illusion of the Thing”. He chased it down the street, and when he couldn’t catch it he cried, recounts Malcolm Gladwell in this important and characteristically readable new history.
By early 1945 LeMay was overseeing the American bombing of Japan. A craftsman of death and one of history’s most prolific killers, he became Air Force chief of staff in the 1960s, and the model for the crazed General Jack Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.
The Bomber Mafia, which started as podcast episodes for Gladwell’s Revisionist History series, tells the story of the mid-20th-century argument between two kinds of warfare. “Precision bombing” was the idea of using planes to bomb select targets: if you could destroy the enemy’s munitions factories or power plants, then soldiers wouldn’t need to slaughter each other on the battlefield. LeMay incarnates the rival approach, euphemistically known as “area bombing”. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age,” as he allegedly said about North Vietnam.
Gladwell is possibly the most confident storyteller in non-fiction. He always knows exactly where he is going, and he takes you with him in pleasure and comfort. Sentences are short. The key phrases are repeated. Each new character is coloured in. Yet, in the 2020s’ answer to the “book versus the film” debate, I finished the book thinking the podcast was better.
The podcast industry is booming and investors are throwing money at proven storytellers. Gladwell, whose mellifluous voice and counterintuitive histories have sold out theatres for years, was target number one. Pushkin Industries, the podcast company he co-founded, has equipped him with a fearsome support team: few writers get their own composer, plus researchers pulling forgotten audio interviews from the dustiest archives. Gladwell set out to make a single podcast episode, but ended up with four. Large chunks of his spellbinding series appear unaltered in this book.
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The story starts in one of the most bucolic, soul-soothing places in the US: Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, which today houses the country’s Air War College. Staying there as a visiting speaker years ago, in my own house with a porch, I felt I had landed in a small American town circa 1950. Airmen strolled down sunny lanes saying “hi” to strangers. Cars puttered along at 15 miles an hour. Inmates of Maxwell’s federal prison manicured the golf course.
Maxwell Field had been a cotton plantation until the Wright brothers converted it into an airfield. When the Air Corps Tactical School set up here in the 1930s, Maxwell became home to the “Bomber Mafia”, a group of, at most, a dozen Air Force officers with a peculiarly American dream: to use new technology to disrupt the enterprise of war.
The bloodshed of the First World War had horrified them. They wanted to win “clean” wars by bombing key infrastructure. If a plane could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from six miles up”, brutish armies would become obsolete. Technology could save the world.
With the Second World War, these men thought their moment had come. Unfortunately, bomber planes remained so primitive they couldn’t even fly in fog. When the “Bomber Mafia” attempted “precision raids” on Germany from British airbases, their hosts were unimpressed. The RAF under Arthur Harris – whom Gladwell calls a psychopath – believed in area bombing. Flying at night because they didn’t need to see anything in particular, the British flattened German cities.
The second half of the book shifts the focus to the Pacific War. The Americans first had to get close enough to Japan to bomb it. In 1944 they sacrificed thousands of men to conquer the Marianas, a few tiny islands 1,500 miles from the Japanese coast. There they built what was at the time the world’s largest airfield and filled it with new B-29 Superfortress bomber planes. (Their development, according to Gladwell, was “the most expensive single undertaking of the Second World War”, ahead of the atom bomb).
At first, the Pacific air war was led by the aristocratic southerner Haywood Hansell, a charter member of the Bomber Mafia. Gladwell always finds characters to embody ideas, and in this case, Hansell is precision bombing. But precision bombing still wasn’t very precise, especially in 1944-45, when the “jet stream”, a “river of fast-flowing air that circles the globe in the upper atmosphere”, happened to have located itself over Japan. Windblown American bombers kept missing their targets. Many planes were shot down. Others plunged into the endless Pacific while searching for the Mariana airstrip.
In January 1945, Hansell was sacked and LeMay took over. Although LeMay had been through Maxwell, he had seen in Europe that precision bombing didn’t work. Efficacy was what he cared about, partly because he was what Gladwell calls a “problem solver”, and partly because he was a careerist. He told one postwar interviewer: “If I didn’t produce [results], or made a wrong guess, get another commander in there. That’s what happened to Hansell. He got no results.”
These archived interviews, by the way, work better on the podcast than on the page. A few seconds of somebody’s voice on a grainy old archive tape evoke a person’s texture in a way that a quote in a book sometimes cannot.
LeMay set out to flatten Japan with the help of a new weapon: napalm. This is one thing Harvard doesn’t brag about, but the incendiary was developed by the university’s chemists and first tested on its soccer field on Independence Day, 1942. Robert Neer, a historian of napalm, told Gladwell: “In the initial pictures of the test, there are people dressed in whites playing on the tennis courts. And then after the bomb goes off, you see that the tennis courts are abandoned.” Either the tennis players were warned to leave, or they ran away in post-explosion horror.
On 9 March 1945 more than 300 B-29s, stuffed with napalm, flew in terrifyingly low beneath the jet stream and hit Tokyo. The wood and tatami straw mats in the city’s houses created a tinderbox. “Mothers ran from the fire with their babies strapped to their backs only to discover – when they stopped to rest – that their babies were on fire,” writes Gladwell. The Americans in their planes could smell the burning flesh. The US Strategic Bombing Survey later concluded: “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” It may be the single deadliest bombing raid ever, possibly worse than Hiroshima.
Even after LeMay’s rivals dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he kept on bombing, destroying towns of no strategic importance. “Went to Kumagaya on 14 August… [burned up] 45 per cent of that town,” he reminisces in his memoir, in a passage full of statistics that read like baseball averages.
In the podcast, Gladwell quotes LeMay telling a colleague that if they lost the war, they would be tried as war criminals. Instead, the war criminal got promoted. LeMay had helped save the US from having to attempt a terrible land invasion of Japan. In 1964 Japan gave him its highest award for foreigners to thank him for helping rebuild the Japanese Air Force. “Bygones are bygones,” the country’s prime minister told disgruntled MPs. For the purposes of Gladwell’s story, the bad guy wins, and Hansell’s precision bombers lose.
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But the Japanese surrender was about the only victory area bombing ever won. The German Blitz didn’t break Londoners’ morale: the psychiatric hospitals that the British authorities had prepared for traumatised victims remained empty. In his recent book Humankind, the Dutch author Rutger Bregman said the British drew the wrong conclusion from the Blitz: they thought Londoners coped thanks to their uniquely British stiff upper lip. The RAF then tried to break German morale through area bombing – but the enemy turned out to have stiff upper lips, too. In the Korean War, when LeMay was head of the US Strategic Air Command, North Koreans also remained unbowed under area bombing. LeMay reflected in 1984: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off – what? – 20 per cent of the population.” Those memories contribute to North Korean anti-Americanism today, says Gladwell. Nor could napalm defeat the North Vietnamese. The US has since down-pedalled area bombing; today, smartphone footage wouldn’t win hearts and minds on social media.
Conversely, the early promise of precision bombing is finally materialising. The book ends with US Air Force generals telling Gladwell that their precision has progressed from being able to hit a street in Vietnam, to hitting a house in the first Gulf War, to hitting a base of a particular chimney today. Even if CNN’s images of “smart bombs” flying in through chosen windows in 1991 were propagandist, the broad sweep is surely correct. Gladwell concludes: “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.” Here is the prospect of the US fighting wars from the air alone.
Precision bombing is only one possible future scenario. A plausible alternative is the most extreme version of area bombing: nuclear war. Serhii Plokhy’s new book Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis charts how narrowly we skirted Armageddon in October 1962. A Soviet submarine captain, wrongly believing his vessel was being attacked by American planes, ordered the launch of a nuclear-armed torpedo. That could have set off an unstoppable escalation. Only an accidental delay gave the submarine commander time to realise the Americans weren’t attacking, and to countermand the order.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last year moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock – which symbolises the risk of human extinction – to 100 seconds to midnight, the latest it has stood since its creation in 1947. The Bulletin cited threats including “a renewed nuclear arms race… the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and… lowered barriers to nuclear war”, potentially involving North Korea and Iran. The next LeMay may not come from Ohio, and he may be better armed.
While we’re still around, Gladwell is one of the compensations. The Bomber Mafia isn’t his best work: the tale is a touch simplistic, with too much talking down to his audience, and it lacks the detective-story structure of his most readable books. Still, it is well told – albeit better on the podcast, with its hard-won archival treasures and perfect musical accompaniment. That may be the future for the best literary communicators: from the solitary writer’s life to head of studio.
Simon Kuper is an author and Financial Times columnist
The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War
Allen Lane, 240pp, £20
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This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?