Guest book review: “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War “

Today’s guest post is a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book,  “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War.”  The reviewer,  Colonel Cliff Krieger, USAF (Ret.), brings a rather unique perspective to his assessment as he’s a retired fighter pilot and former wing commander.

Here’s Cliff’s evaluation:


Malcom Gladwell

Bomber Mafia

The book, Bomber Mafia, on the development of US Army Air Force strategic bombing doctrine before and during World War II, was a quick and easy read.  It smoothly and easily told the story, from the days of the Air Corps Tactical School up to the end of the war in August 1945.

That said, it needed some editing by someone who knew the story.  The Air Corps Tactical School was not the equivalent of a War College, notwithstanding the audacious thinking going on at the school.  And, in those days, the Army War College was located at then Washington Barracks, in the District of Columbia, not Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, as stated.  More pertinent, airplanes do not take off going down wind, but rather, into the wind.

That said, the flow is basically correct.  We tried precision bombing over Germany and it didn’t work out (unless you believe the writings of Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production, Albert Speer).  On the other hand, with the addition of long-range escort fighters to the force we managed to destroy the Luftwaffe, Nazi Germany’s air force.  This made the Normandy landings on D-Day much easier, since there was little German air opposition.

As for the Pacific, yes, the jet stream, flowing right over Japan, made the idea of high-altitude bombing unachievable.  An alternative was needed.

The narrative gives us two main characters, Haywood S Hansell and Curtis E LeMay.  General Hansell developed the concept of precision bombing and justified it, while General LeMay was the practical warrior who adapted as the situation evolved, doing what had to be done to accomplish the larger mission.

The author portrays that difference in leadership and operational approach in terms of moral issues.  For the Air Corps Tactical School, the thinkers were trying to avoid the horrible slaughter of the trenches during the Great War, World War I.  The British, French and Russians and their allies lost five and a half million dead and missing, with the Germans and their allies losing almost four point four million.  Then there were the 21 million wounded, many of them grievously.  On top of that were the civilian deaths, four million in France, Belgium, Russia and its friends and three point seven million on the other side.

Millions would not have to die if there was a better way of imposing one’s will on another nation.

From Author Gladwell’s point of view “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”  As technology has been refined, we have improved to the point where we can actually drop a (guided) bomb into a pickle barrel from 40,000 feet.  We can attack the key targets that represent the Center of Gravity of our enemy and take him out of the fight.  That was Haywood S Hansell’s vision.  In the end, it has prevailed (if you discount nuclear weapons).

On the other hand, General Curtis LeMay’s campaign was a major factor in defeating Japan, in avoiding the slaughter of Allied and Japanese military and civilian personnel that could have occurred had it been necessary to invade Japan.

The numbers vary widely by source, but could have hit a million dead and missing, based on the Battle for Okinawa.  General LeMay took the tools that were at hand and fashioned a devastating effort that both shortened the war and saved lives, both friendly and enemy.  It was ugly, but not as ugly as it might have been.  It was not as ugly as the trenches and the starvation of the First World War,

The other thing that General LeMay did was find a use for a $3 billion dollar investment – the B-29 bomber – which produced over 1,000 very expensive aircraft.  Imagine the outcry, both in Congress and amongst the voters, if we had shipped a thousand four engine bombers to the Marianas and then mothballed them there.

And yet, there is a moral here for all of us.  It isn’t Satan temping Jesus in the Desert.  Gladwell says:

“But Hansell is the one we give our hearts to.  Why?  Because I think he provides us with a model of what it means to be moral in our modern world.  We live in an era when new tools and technologies and innovations emerge every day.  But the only way those new technologies serve some higher purpose is if a dedicated band of believers insists that they be used to that purpose.”

That “dedicated band of believers” has to be the average voter across the land.  The developers of the technology will wish to see how much they can do and their industrial leader will be gauging technological success in terms of the profits being earned.  We, the public, must question the direction technology is leading us and speak up if we have questions.  Defeating Japan seemed a worthy goal.  Defeating the First Amendment, not so much.

About the author:

Colonel Cliff Krieger is a 30 year Air Force Veteran, with two tours in Southeast Asia, flying F-4 fighters and commanded the 86th Fighter Wing at Ramstein AB, Germany.  His last assignment was at the National War College, where he was the first Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair.

The views and opinion expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: read the book, gather the facts, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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