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Audiobook Review: The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War


The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia is Malcolm Gladwell’s 2021 book on the growth of military air power in World War II, and how it was used, particularly by the United States. Gladwell being Gladwell, he has come up with a unique lens through which to view that history.

Gladwell focuses his story on the competing theories for the use of air power in the second world war. Two theories were in play, and both had their proponents. One camp, represented in the book by General Haywood Hansell, believed that air war should be conducted by bombers at high altitudes, using precision instruments to deliver payloads on strategic military targets to weaken the enemy’s ability to fight, thus shortening the overall war.  

The other camp, represented by General Curtis LeMay, believed that bombers should target the enemy’s population centers, destroying every day life as a means to weakening the enemy’s resolve, thus shortening the overall war. The British were big proponents of this theory of the use of air power as well, leading Churchhill to push Roosevelt in 1943 at the conference in Casablanca to drop attempts at daytime bombing in Europe and join the RAF in nighttime raids on German population centers.

As the war progressed Hansell’s camp soon learned that the key precision instrument they relied on - the Norden bombsight - wasn’t nearly as precise in practice as it was in theory. The bombsight was a mechanical instrument utilizing an analog calculator that required the bombardier to make adjustments through control wheels. The calculator was meant to take into account the plane’s ground speed, direction, strength of wind, etc. But attempts at precision bombing and destruction of Germany’s ball bearing plants (meant to cripple their ability to produce war machinery)  failed twice, with large losses of planes and men, and is a key turning point in the book. 

Beyond its mechanical nature one key limitation of the Norden bombsight was that it relied, as its name implies, on sight. The bombardier looked through a lens to locate the target - meaning that the instrument could only be used during the day and only on cloudless days. This was a key reason why missions were meant to fly and deliver their payloads from high altitudes, so they could avoid being hit from the ground.

In Japan, Hansell and the US Air Force encountered the jet stream for the first time. Planes flying in the jet stream had airspeeds so great that they rendered the Norden bombsight practically unusable - by the time the target was sighted, the trajectory calculated, and the bomb released the plane had moved too far away to have any chance of hitting the target. This meant that maintaining the altitude required for precision bombing of Japanese strategic military targets was simply impossible.

On the other hand, progress in making indiscriminate bombing of population centeers far more deadly bore fruit as the war progressed. Out of the chemistry labs at Harvard came a fearsome weapon - napalm. Napalm is a highly flammable, sticky gel that burns for an extended period. Napalm bombing of Japanese cities - firebombing - by waves of low flying B29 bombers under General LeMay (who replaced Hansell in the Pacific after the initial attempts to bomb Japanese industrial sites failed) killed anywhere from a quarter of a million up to a million Japanese, and, coupled with the nuclear blasts on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, led the Japanese to surrender.

The question all this raises is which is the more moral use of air power during war? If bombing of population centers kills civilians but ultimately leads to a shorter war, is it more moral than Hansell’s precision bombing approach? 

What I appreciated about this book is that Gladwell ruminates on the question, but he doesn’t try to give us the answer, as he might have been tempted to in his earlier books. Even though precision bombing has made tremendous strides since World War II Gladwell points out that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses - a point he makes in discussion with several retired Air Force generals in the Epilogue of the book.

I listened to the audiobook of The Bomber Mafia, and in it Gladwell says that the project started out as an audiobook and then transitioned into book form. In the audiobook, Gladwell’s podcasting experience shows. There are musical interludes and several audio segments including archival interviews with some of the key players. While it does give the audiobook more of a podcast sensibility, for some reason (maybe because it started out as an audio project) in this case it just feels right. 

The Bomber Mafia is unusual in subject matter for a Gladwell book. But as a fan of history I found it to be a great refresher as well as a unique look at the air war. If you’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s and also appreciate history I think you’ll find the audiobook a great listen.

RATING: Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Title: The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Pushkin Industries

Publish Date: April 27, 2021

ISBN-13: Not Provided

Publisher’s List Price: $14.99 (As of 10/2022)