I had high hopes for The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Little Brown, 2021). I was hoping to gain some good insight into B-29 Superfortress operations in World War II. I was hoping that I would get some more background for some of the scenarios for Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2016). The ad copy of The Bomber Mafia looked to be a nice comparison of “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” Curtis LeMay versus General Haywood Hansell, proponent of precision bombing. That story is somewhere in this book, but the way Gladwell tells it makes me doubt every bit of what he writes.
I should know better. The signs that The Bomber Mafia should be avoided were all there in the various ad copy and comments. This “story” started out as an audiobook birthed from the authors Revisionist History podcast. “Revisionist” in this case is what I call “pop history;” soundbites of words allegedly concerning a historical subject that the author contends to be an authority on but in reality has little more (maybe less?) knowledge of than that of a middle school student. I loathe to even call The Bomber Mafia a history book. At best (and if I feel extremely generous) it is a story from history but the depth of research is, well frankly, I think the author would be out of his depth in a puddle. Almost all the sources cited are secondary or even tertiary. More than a few quotes are from history professors and what they think in interviews. There is
almost no original critical thought here. Reading The Bomber Mafia is very much akin to reading a Wikipedia compilation.
When reading The Bomber Mafia you first have to get past the word “absurd.” The author repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, tell us that “war is absurd” or such and such a situation was “absurd” or a persons actions were “absurd.” Fine, Malcom, I get that you have an opinion. Sometimes I even agree with your opinion. But I want to read the facts and make a judgement for myself. Not here!
Oh yeah. Then you have the hyperbole of The Bomber Mafia:
If you were the United States and you wanted to drop bombs on Japan, how would you do it? Solving that problem took the better part of the war. The first step was building the B-29 Superfortress, the greatest bomber ever built, with an effective range of more than three thousand miles.The Bomber Mafia, p. 125
“Greatest bomber ever built.” This must be the “revisionist” history part and where I missed the memo. Given Malcom’s apparent coziness with current(ish) US Air Force senior brass, it becomes obvious somebody drank the Billy Mitchell/Douhet-laced punch.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and the point where I totally wanted to forget ever reading The Bomber Mafia was in the discussion of B-29 operations in the Marianas. Read this paragraph and tell me what you think:
The sole thing the Marianas had going for them was that they were within range of Japan. But even that was an exaggeration. The truth is that they were within range only under perfect conditions. To reach Japan, a B-29 first needed to be loaded up with twenty thousand pounds of extra fuel. And because that made the plane dangerously overweight, each B-29 also needed a ferocious tailwind to lift it off the runway. This was as crazy a situation as anyone faced throughout the whole war.The Bomber Mafia, p. 128
A tailwind? To reduce take-off distance? Really? Let’s just skip all those fundamental of flight, shall we? The flow of air over wings has nothing, nothing I tell you, to do with generating lift, eh?
The Bomber Mafia is three stories; the story of General Hansell, the story of Curtis Le May, and the story of Malcolm Gladwell traveling the globe and rubbing elbows while “researching” the other two. Unfortunately, Malcom shines no new light on the first two and is insufferable in the third. Do yourself a favor and just stay away from The Bomber Mafia. The angst isn’t worth it.
For a very enjoyable literary takedown of The Bomber Mafia, see “Narrative Napalm” from The Baffler that has wonderful passages like this:
And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, The Bomber Mafia, is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer.Noah Kulwin, “Narative Napalm”