The Bomber Mafia: Book Review

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (2021), Malcolm Gladwell. I read every book that Gladwell writes. He’s a great story teller and most of the time it’s a topic I have an interest in. This is a topic I don’t care about, but Gladwell wrote it. There is enough interesting information/insight to actually write a book review (but not much about bombing). One difference in this work is it started as an audio book from his podcasts, then turned into a book.


The basic idea was that bombing was ineffective during World War I and Army brass had no interest beyond protecting the infantry. The flying training school in the 1930s (the Bomber Mafia) was given free rein to do what they wanted. They came up with the concept of precision bombing of key military hardware sites like ball bearings and petroleum refining. The problem was the technology was not available. The B-17 with the Norden bombsight was a step in the right direction during World War II, but untested.


The British bombers used night bombing of civilian targets which did not require prevision, but did not hinder the war effort. The theory (which did not work when the Germans bombed London) was low morale would push the people to demand surrender. Gladwell focuses on General Haywood Hansell to try the Bomber Mafia strategy, without any enthusiasm from the Army. The B-17 was not as effective as hoped for, but they did have some success bombing ball bearing works in Germany. The cost in terms of downed planes was horrendous and, therefore, not considered successful. German War Production Minister Albert Speer (after the war) noted that it would have worked if they had continued bombing. There were new problems in bombing Japan, which were not solved by the Bomber Mafia.


The story shifts to General Curtis LeMay, a great bomber commander not part of the Bomber Mafia, who was pragmatic and not an ideolog. When chemists created napalm, he used it to bomb German cities, but effectively to bomb Japanese cities. The key to LeMay’s success was other risky techniques that worked. Between the fire-bombing and then the two atomic bombs, the Japanese surrendered before the islands were invaded. LeMay was the hero, Hansell was an all-but-forgotten failure. Thanks to improved technology, bombing now means precision bombing—the Hansell/Bomber Mafia approach.


The book makes no attempt to portray the role of the Army Air Corp in World War II, but presents limited stories to demonstrate Gladwell’s points. This works for telling an interesting story, but doesn’t give a good overall perspective: what worked, what did not and why?

Part I

“The dream that the airplane could revolutionize warfare was based on a massive untested and unproven assumption: that somehow, someone at some point would figure out how to aim a bomb from high in the sky with something close to accuracy” (p. 20). The Norden bombsight was available by World War II and the B17 was a tough plane. Gladwell described the bombsight with enough detail to suggest it could be accurate. But the Army folk didn’t fly or understand planes strategically. The “Bomber Mafia” did training independent of the Army brass at Maxwell Field. The key point was for the bomber to get through and fly high enough to be able to bomb during the day with accuracy. Too bad fighter planes and anti-aircraft weapons were reasonably accurate. Daylight bombing of Germany meant big losses. It wasn’t as accurate as expected.


The Army: patriotic, service to country. [Also, everyone is a grunt.] Navy as arrogant, independent with global ambitions. Air Force interested in the future and what technology is needed for tomorrow. Gladwell makes the point that the Air Force attitude was started by the Bomber Mafia in the 1930s. “War, in its classical definition, is the application of the full weight of military forces against the enemy until the enemy’s political leadership surrenders” (p. 34). The Bomber Mafia’s position was to target choke points to cripple the opposing country. The standard targets were bridges, aqueducts and electric power. They produced “Air War Plans Division One” for the WWII planning including what was needed and what targets.


The British focused on area bombing, just destruction using inaccurate night bombing. The focus was civilians not military targets. This seemed in direct retaliation for the Blitz. They viewed the American plan was too risky, resulting in big losses against targets that could not be hit. Churchill: “a man with very little common sense, no ability to handle numbers, no way to bring order to his life” (p. 47). Frederick Lindemann served as a “gatekeeper to Churchill’s mind.” Lindemann wanted indiscriminate bombing of cities; perhaps he was a sadist. He convinced Churchill. The Bomber Mafia did not want to cross this “moral line.”

Hansell concentrated on the German ball-bearing industry in Schweinfurt, Bavaria. Curtis LeMay was chosen to lead the raid. “He was rational and imperturbable and incapable of self-doubt” (p. 58). LeMay had developed a formation to best defend against fighter attack. Plus stopping evasive action close to the target to allow the bombardier to better hit the target. “He knew the technical as well as the leadership aspects of what he was doing. He was the Air Force’s ultimate problem solver” (p. 63). The Schweinfurt raid was only partially successful, but with big losses. The net result: it was considered a failure.


A digression on the psychology of “true believers” by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, based on a group called the Seekers whose leader predicted a world-destroying flood on a specific date; the group would be saved by aliens. It didn’t happen, but the leader predicted another date, then claimed they had saved the earth because of their belief. “The more you invest in a set of beliefs … the more resistant you will be to evidence that suggest that you are mistaken. You don’t give up. You double down” (p. 74). Cognitive dissidence and conformation bias at work, plus hedgehogs. Then back to Hansell and the rationale for continuing.


Part 2: The Temptation.


The B-29 was used against Japan; it had a long range and improved technology. They still needed to get to the Mariana Island to make the bombing runs. This happened in the summer of 1944. Hansell was put in charge. His bombing runs did not work, mainly because of unexpected trade winds over Tokyo and weather—plus problems with the plane. Hansell did not solve them and he was replaced by LeMay.


LeMay was a problem solver, a “doer” according to Gladwell. LeMay found the solution, but not with high-altitude precision bombing. Hs bombers flew under the trade winds and the clouds at night. This seemed risky, but the Japanese were not prepared for it. Then there was napalm. Hansell could have used it, but chose not to. LeMay had no reservations. Fire-bombing worked effectively in Tokyo and other Japanese cities (a total of 67) and LeMay used it repeatedly. Gladwell stressed the morality issues, the Hansell position. The justification for LeMay was it would shorten the duration of the war. The Japanese did surrender after the massive fire-bombings and atomic bombs.


I think more discussion should have been paid to incentives. Morality did not seem high on anyone’s list of priorities at the time. The motivations for success however defined seem clear. LeMay got things done, in line with basic military and political motivations. The Air Force has incentives to destroy stuff and document it (easy from 40,000 feet), not test theories related to strategic importance. It is hard to justify testing strategy when planes are destroyed at an alarming rate. We look at the world different in the 2020’s different from the 1940’s. Almost every historical figure falls short when looking through the 2020’s lens. Hansell fits better with this 2020’s perspective than LeMay.


Quotes I liked: “My dad was a mathematician. And an Englishman, which is to say that the language of emotion was not his first language” (p. 6).


“I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up everyday life and just zero in on one thing—the thing that fits the contours of his or her imagination. Obsessives lead us astray sometimes. Can’t see the bigger picture. Serve not just the world’s but also their own narrow interests” (p. 7). [Gladwell’s “obsessives” are somewhat similar to Tetlock’s “hedgehogs.” I’m drawn to “foxes,” although obsessives can be important.]