The Bomber Mafia Summary

The Bomber Mafia Summary and Review |  Malcolm Gladwell

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About Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, pop sociologist, and The New York Times bestselling author, was born on September 3, 1963, in England. Soon, his family moved to rural regions of Canada where he discovered a profound interest in history. Following his dream, he received a history degree at the University of Toronto in 1984. In the mid-1980s, he moved to New York where he worked as a journalist for the Washington Post and later headed the local bureau of the newspaper. Since 1996, he has been a staff member of The New Yorker Magazine. 

Along with his journalistic career, Malcolm Gladwell is a founder and owner of Pushkin Industries, a company that produces podcasts and audio books. Its best-known podcasts include Revisionist History, Broken Record, and Solvable. One episode of Revisionist History was dedicated to WWII events that inspired Gladwell to pen The Bomber Mafia. Gladwell’s body of work as an author includes six New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, David and Goliath, as well as Talking to Strangers. 


March 9, 1945, the Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific… More than 300 US Army Air Forces bombers take off and head north-west with a single purpose – attack Japan’s capital, Tokyo. Heavily loaded with lethal cargo, they reach their destination in three hours to unleash a firestorm over a predominantly wooden city center. Their target included not only industrial facilities, but also dwellings of regular townspeople. ‘The longest night’ in the Second World War, as the author calls it, took the lives of more than 100,000 civilians and razed most of Tokyo to the ground.

The Bomber Mafia takes readers through one of the most ethically questionable episodes of modern warfare. Additionally, the author also focuses on the events that preceded the bombing, as well as the people and technological discoveries that made it possible. He also touches on the moral aspect of the indiscriminating bombing strategy and raises the question: “Was it worth it?”

Bomber Mafia 

Bombers played a minor role in the First World War. However, in the period between wars, the great minds of warfare realized they were a tool to win wars. The Bomber Mafia offers the story of an eponymous group of ambitious and influential officers formed at Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field. They attempted to explore the viability of strategic bombings engaging in the latest military development, the Norden bombsight. The invention of Dutch engineer Karl Norden made it possible to hit a target the size of a barrel from a six-mile altitude. It paved the way for precision bombing of strategic targets. Along with that, Norden bombsight allowed minimizing the number of civilian casualties.

Even before the United States entered the war, the Bomber Mafia identified strategic ‘choke points’, which were supposed to disrupt an opponent’s war-making capabilities. The list of targets included plants, factories, military bases, airports, oil refineries, etc. A tactic created by precision bombing enthusiasts later became a game plan for the first daytime bombing mission of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force.

Precision vs Area Bombing 

Although precision bombing found numerous supporters due to its humanitarian nature, many officers were not impressed with its capabilities. Instead of daytime bombing, they advocated ‘morale’ nighttime raids. One of the ardent supporters of the carpet-bombing was Col. Curtis LeMay. As commander of the Regensburg attacks, he got to implement the Norden bombsight during the Regensburg attacks in Germany. However, the new technology promoted by “swivel-chair target analysts” didn’t strike his fancy. The colonel pinpointed major flaws in the strategic bombing. First of all, it was difficult to execute. In addition, sightings became impossible in bad weather because targets were barely discernible. He deemed his mission unsuccessful since it resulted in massive aircraft losses. 

LeMay’s distrust of tactical innovation eventually led to one of the most tragic episodes in the history of world wars. 

General Haywood Hansell, a spokesman for precision bombing as well as a member of the Bomber Mafia, could have changed the course of history. He believed in the power of aviation technology and was one of those who endorsed bombsight. As the head of the U.S. bomber unit in England, he was responsible for the implementation of the Norden bombsight in airstrikes targeting German industrial sites. Due to his experience and humanitarian approach to air raids, he was appointed the commander of the B-29 Superfortress airbase located on the Mariana Islands. The unit’s goal was to destroy Japan’s military infrastructure prior to a large-scale land invasion.

Unfortunately, Hansell’s plans to effectively use the Norden bombsight went to waste. Although early attempts to reach Japan proved possible, the bombers faced destabilizing winds that later became known as jet streams. On top of that, his unit faced various issues with the B-29 bombers themselves. Poor quality and design imperfections led to frequent breakdowns. Plus, when carrying a load, they needed a strong wind to take off. Given the challenging mission conditions, Hansell hesitated to take action when he was ordered to drop bombs on Nagoya.

Hansell’s disobedience led to the appearance of Curtis LeMay, by then a general, at the Mariana Islands airbase. He took command and immersed himself in eliminating the causes that inhibited Japan-bound air raids. For example, he ordered the gun crews to remain at the base to make more room for deadly cargo. Besides that, the pilots discovered that they could avoid jet streams if they kept an altitude of about 5,000 feet. Overall, the author describes LeMay as the “ultimate problem solver”. He compares him with a bulldog who finds a target and removes any obstacles on his way toward achieving it. Gladwell admires LeMay’s rational mind, but he questions his methods deprived of self-doubt whatsoever.

While the Japan bombing plans were in their preparatory stages, scientists at Harvard University created another intimidating weapon, napalm. Burning at a temperature of 1000 degrees, it was able to make hell on earth and effectively incinerate targets. Napalm-loaded bombs embarked on their deadly journey to the Mariana Islands at the end of 1944. A few months later, on March 9, 1945, the first of them landed in Tokyo.

In total, General Curtis LeMay’s bombs devastated 67 Japanese cities. The last air attack happened 8 days after the Hiroshima atomic strike.

Difficult Times, Difficult Choices

The Bomber Mafia is not only a retelling of history, it is an attempt to induce a thought “What would I do in this situation?” Without trying to justify General LeMay’s actions, it leads us to understand that at times, the end justifies the means. If we were living in a parallel reality where precision bombing was carried out, wouldn’t this have resulted in more Allied casualties during the invasion of Japan? Sometimes, tough times force us to make tough decisions.

Review, Analysis and Rating

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War examines the technological, practical, and moral aspects of aerial bombing. The book allows us to look at the participants and events of the worst night of the Second World War from a different angle. The author focuses both on the technologies that have opened up new vistas of warfare (like napalm and bombsight) and the people behind morally controversial decisions. 

StoryShots Rating: 4.4/5

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