In Gladwell’s binary world (precision bombing = GOOD, area bombing = BAD) Hansell is a hero and LeMay a villain. He also places in the latter camp the Arthur Harris, the RAF’s chief supporter of area bombing, whom the author calls a “psychopath”. The war might have ended earlier, Gladwell claimed in a recent interview, had the RAF not conducted itself so “recklessly”. This, too, is well wide of the mark. You can debate the necessity of bombing mainly civilian targets like Dresden, but to imagine that the Nazis might have capitulated earlier if we had not been so beastly is cloud cuckoo land.
Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller. When he is introducing characters and showing them in conflict, “The Bomber Mafia” is gripping. I enjoyed this short book thoroughly, and would have been happy if it had been twice as long. But when Gladwell leaps to provide superlative assessments, or draws broad lessons of history from isolated incidents, he makes me wary. Those large conclusions seemed unsubstantiated to me. Was Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, truly “responsible, more than anyone, for the extraordinary war machine that the United States built in the early years of the Second World War”? It certainly is arguable that others, like Gen. George C. Marshall, were just as important, but Gladwell simply tosses out the claim about Stimson and hurries on.
Hard choices are still required, and the people who take them should at least be understood, it not admired. By using one-dimensional figures to prop up a misleading thesis, The Bomber Mafia reveals itself as history lite and yet another example of an obsessive leading us astray.
A small group of American airmen rejected this logic. Fortified by their Yankee self-belief, they wanted to reinvent war, using science to limit its lethality. Malcolm Gladwell examines these self-styled revolutionaries in his intriguing but insubstantial little book. Gladwell, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of bestsellers such as The Tipping Point, confesses to a long fascination with bombs and bombers. “This book was written in service to my obsessions. But it is also a story about other people’s obsessions.” The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell writes, “is a case study in how dreams go awry”... The Bomber Mafia reminds me of a really good podcast — a fascinating story is appealingly delivered. That’s perhaps no surprise because the idea for the book originated in Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast series. But podcasts are not books. While I admire brevity, the subject demands more depth than this volume provides. Gladwell simplifies the evolution of bombing strategy into a clash of personalities, in particular between the urbane, vaudeville-singing Hansell and the brutal, cigar-chewing LeMay.
Faced with such statistics, and such acts, “our normal mechanisms of commemoration fail us”, and Gladwell calls this book an act of commemoration. It is not a classic Gladwell — not the sort of book that changes the conversation and the very language in which we can have it. It feels like less of a big-release cinema epic and more of a one-off TV special — and indeed it turns out it was originally written as an audiobook. Gladwell’s critics will also say that he has turned another complex issue into a facile opposition. That would not be entirely unfair, but it would miss what he is trying to do.