Remembering one of the most controversial stories of World War II

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The author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell at his office in Hudson, New York, June 24, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Writing beautiful books on horrifying themes is a rare art, and one which is usually best left for the great novelists. That has not deterred the polymathic Malcolm Gladwell from seeking to make his new work of narrative history — which was created primarily as an elegantly produced audiobook but is also being published as a printed volume — engage with one of the most upsetting episodes of World War II.اضافة اعلان

Near the end of the conflict, the Allied forces began firebombing the cities of Japan, when the populations of the home islands had no chance of protecting themselves against death from the air. The carpet-bombing of cities was a morally repugnant form of warfare, which was to tarnish the reputations of the US Army Air Force, and in Europe, RAF Bomber Command. No military leaders had planned on such a strategy before the war, but the choice was forced upon Allied air commanders by the exigencies of conflict, the weather, and technical setbacks.

Among those air commanders, none embraced the switch to the daylight hammering of the enemy’s cities more willingly and determinedly than the obsessive, pathologically driven Ohioan Curtis LeMay.

If Gladwell’s tale is a tragedy, as it surely is, Gen. LeMay is its villain. The author begins with one set of American airmen — the “Bomber Mafia” of the title: officers of the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama, who thought that by use of a super-complicated special bombsight, they could achieve morally appropriate pinpoint attacks on enemy targets. Yet his story is dominated by the figure of LeMay and his harrowing firebombing of Japan’s cities.

Before one goes further into Gladwell’s audio narration, or the printed book (which is simply the text of his spoken version), it is useful to recall two compelling questions asked about “Just War” by St Augustine, 1,500 years before World War II. Was the conflict a morally just one — a war against evil, a war fought against an attacker? And was the fighting being pursued in a morally proportionate and discriminate way? By the 1930s, the coming of air power — of machines capable of inflicting great damage from a distance upon the enemy nation at home — complicated the matter profoundly.

The morality air war was on the minds of many intelligent officers in the 1920s, all of whom were convinced that their impressive new machines could render obsolete both land power (sluggish and bloody, as the fighting from 1914 to 1918 had shown) and sea power (slow and ineffectual) by delivering a decisive blow from the air.

Still, as a small bunch of airmen hashed out strategies at their Maxwell headquarters during the 1930s, they had to be careful with the terrifying new weapons of war at their disposal. Soon, they would be flying the powerful B-17 airplanes that could carry tonnes of bombs high in the sky and right over enemy factories, harbors, and cities.

Cover of “The Bomber Mafia”

This book tells the story of what happened when that dream was put to the test. “The Bomber Mafia” follows the stories of a reclusive Dutch genius and his homemade computer, Winston Churchill's forbidding best friend, a team of pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard, a brilliant pilot who sang vaudeville tunes to his crew, and the bomber commander, Curtis Emerson LeMay, who would order the bloodiest attack of World War II.

In this tale of innovation and obsession, Gladwell asks: What happens when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? And what is the price of progress? 

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of six international bestsellers. He is the host of the podcast “Revisionist History,” a staff writer at The New Yorker, and cofounder of the audio company Pushkin Industries. He graduated from the University of Toronto, Trinity College, with a degree in history. Gladwell was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. He lives in New York.

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