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

3 May

Admittedly owing in large part to the Alabama connection to the story contained in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, I chose to listen to the audiobook a few weeks ago. I did it with some hesitation on two counts. One, Gladwell is not a historian by trade, and I was aware that there has been some minor criticism of his book by experts in World War II military history. Two, the production was not the audio version of a book, but rather an original audio recording arranged as an audiobook by an author who is as famous for his podcasts as writing. Still, I found The Bomber Mafia to be one of the most unique and entertaining listens I have run across.

The book seeks to highlight the early advocates of the type of aerial warfare that has today become so commonplace we sometimes forget how revolutionary it was when first suggested. Relying on high level, precision, daylight bombing rather than large bodies of troops as a way to avoid casualties and collateral damage, this type of bombing was nothing but a fantasy prior to the second World War owing to technological limitations. Yet, as Gladwell shows, the idea was formulated even before the technology of the day caught up with the proposition by a small group of army officers in the 1930s at what is now Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery. Shocked by the useless carnage exhibited in World War I and convinced aviation had untapped potential, these men sought a way to better utilize emerging technologies in that sector to meet military goals previously only ground forces could achieve. So radical was the proposal, though, and so preposterous did the concept of precision bombing seem at the time, that the advocates of the idea, including key players in the book Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell, that they were at first sidelined and deemed crazy. Their argument quite literally threatened their careers. The “Bomber Mafia,” as they became known in some circles, was anything but a compliment, in other words.

Author Malcom Gladwell is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including The Tipping Point and Outliers. He weaves a good story in The Bomber Mafia, in synopsis highlighting the irony of the fact that after finally embracing the concept that high-level precision bombing the technique actually facilitated the very type of destruction it alleged to avoid.  Gladwell points to the firebombing of Japanese cities in the closing days of World War II as the most glaring case in point. His is a philosophical approach, seeming to argue as much for the uncontrollable violence inherent in war and the hubris involved in assuming it can be minimized than crafting a solid military history. Hence some military historians have taken him to task.

Regardless  of the details about some of the historical decisions it sheds light on—and about which I have no expertise—I must nonetheless admit The Bomber Mafia is thoroughly entertaining. It sounds more like the audio track to a documentary than a traditional audiobook, mixing in dramatic background music, the sounds of aircraft engines and explosions, and numerous short segments of decades-old interviews with many of the very people on whom the book focuses. Gladwell speaks in a conversational tone throughout, less narrating than exploring and developing his subject. Perhaps, as I have noted some scholars have suggested, Gladwell overlooks how the course of the larger war influenced the developments in the Pacific Theater he draws so much attention to in the book. And he probably does rely on more secondary sources than a more academic analysis might, but this is a little hard to discern in an audiobook format.

What I can say without hesitation is that this is one of the few audiobooks I have listened to that was engrossing from beginning to end, and seemed to end all too soon. It made me think about a subject I had not before pondered and I felt like I gained new insight as a result.


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