The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
In The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, Malcolm Gladwell, author of New York Times best sellers including Talking to Strangers and host of the podcast Revisionist History, uses original interviews, archival footage, and his trademark insight to weave together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in Central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard. As listeners hear these stories unfurl, Gladwell examines one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.
Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists had a different view. This “Bomber Mafia” asked: What if precision bombing could, just by taking out critical choke points - industrial or transportation hubs - cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?
In Revisionist History, Gladwell reexamines moments from the past and asks whether we got it right the first time. In The Bomber Mafia, he employs all the production techniques that make Revisionist History so engaging, stepping back from the bombing of Tokyo, the deadliest night of the war, and asking, “Was it worth it?” The attack was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, whose brutal pragmatism and scorched-earth tactics in Japan cost thousands of civilian lives but may have spared more by averting a planned US invasion.
Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. As a key member of the Bomber Mafia, Hansell’s theories of precision bombing had been foiled by bad weather and human error. When he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the darkest night of World War II.
The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.
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|Listening Length||5 hours and 14 minutes|
|Audible.com Release Date||April 27, 2021|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #434 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#1 in Air Forces Military History
#1 in Military Aviation History (Books)
#1 in Aeronautics & Astronautics (Audible Books & Originals)
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The basic thesis of the book can be summed up in a few short sentences: During World War 2, there was a group of air force officers led by Haywood Hansell called the Bomber Mafia who thought that they could bomb cities "more morally" through daytime precision bombing; they were hedging their bets on a revolutionary invention, the Norden bombsight, that allowed bombardiers to pinpoint targets from 15,000 feet. In reality, the philosophy failed miserably because the bombsight was less than perfect under real conditions, because even with the bombsight the bombs were not that precise, and most crucially because in Japan, the hitherto undiscovered jet stream which buffeted airplanes with 120 knot winds basically made it impossible for the B-29s to stabilize and successfully bomb their targets.
Enter Curtis LeMay, the ruthless air force general who took the B-29 down to 5000 feet to avoid the jet stream, ripped most of the guns out and instead of precision bombs, used incendiary bombs with napalm at night to burn down large built up civilian areas of Japanese with horrific casualties, the most famous incident of course being the March 1945 strategic bombing of Tokyo that killed over 100,000 people.
Gladwell tells these stories and others like the invention of napalm and the man behind the Norden bombsight well, if all too briefly, but the core message in the book is that the switch from precision bombing by Hansell which failed to strategic bombing by LeMay which presumably worked was the linchpin air strategy of the war. This message is a highly incomplete and gross oversimplification. The fact of the matter is that strategic bombing did very little damage to morale and production until very late in the war. And while strategic bombing in Japan was more successful, the bombing in Europe did not work until the bombers were accompanied by long-range P-51 Mustang fighters, and even then its impact on shortening the war was dubious. Even in Japan, strategic bombing could have been hobbled had the Japanese had better fighter defenses the way the Germans did. The Germans used a novel method of firing called "Schräge Musik" that allowed their fighters to shoot at the British Lancaster bombers vertically - if the Japanese had used such tactics they would likely have been devastating to LeMay's strategy. Even from a civilian standpoint, the strategic bombing of Dresden and Hamburg did little to curb either morale or production. But in talking only about Tokyo and not Dresden or Hamburg, only about Japan and not Europe, Gladwell leaves the impression that strategic bombing was pretty much foolproof and always worked. These omissions are especially puzzling since he does discuss the lack of effectiveness of the bombing of civilians in London during The Blitz.
There are very few references in this short book - Gladwell seems obsessed with quoting two historians named Tami Biddle and Stephen McFarland for most of the discussion. These are fine historians, but the superficial treatment is especially jarring because strategic bombing has been written about extensively during the last several decades by historians like Richard Overy and Paul Kennedy. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Patrick Blackett wrote about the mistaken assumptions about strategic bombing way back in the 1950s. I would also recommend physicist Freeman Dyson's essays on the part he himself played in strategic bombing during the war that really drives home how boneheaded the method was. But Gladwell quotes none of these sources, instead just focusing on Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay as if they and their thoughts on the matter were the only things that counted.
Perhaps worst of all, the complex moral consequences of LeMay's argument and strategic bombing in general are completely sidelined except for a short postscript in which he discusses how precision bombing has gotten so much better (except in that case the moral consequences have also gotten more complex, precisely because it's become easier). Strategic bombing was wasteful and morally bad because it cost both pilot and civilian lives in World War 2, and it was even more militarily wasteful and morally repugnant in later conflicts like Vietnam and Cambodia. LeMay generally receives a very favorable treatment and there are copious quotes from him, but interestingly the one quote which is missing is one which might have shed a different perspective - this is his quote after the war that he would have been hanged as a war criminal had the Allies lost.
I really wish this book were better, given Gladwell's fine storytelling skills which can draw the reader in. As it stands it's slim pickings, a couple of anecdotes and stories compressed as a grand philosophical message in 150 pages that leaves the reader completely unsatisfied. If you are really interested in the topic of bombing during WW2, look at other sources
This book centers on the Bomber Mafia, a group of aviators who developed a theory, widely shared, that war could be conducted by way of air combat with little need for the widespread bloody trench warfare and death of emblematic of WW I. To the extent that there can be hope for a civilized war, these folks had it. And it was shared by all of the allies prior to and at the outset of WWII. Civillians should not and would not be warred upon unless they were actually combatants or working in war related industries. Wars would be brief as the winner would be the one to first stop the enemy's capacity to make war by eliminating a needed resource. The British tried it, so did the Americans and the conclusion drawn by the war's leaders was that it did not work. The shift was made from bombing the producers of resources to bombing the populations of the countries themselves.
This story has been told very well in a number of books and documentaries. Bombing Germany a documentary shown frequently on PBS comes to mind. Most of the many books on the Eight Airforce also do. Most recently, Twilight of the Gods by Ian Tolland did a masterful job in recounting the same events at the center of this book.
Gladwell's effort looks and reads like a paper typed at the last minute by a highschool student . The book is slim, the type looks like it was set for someone with impaired vision. Large numbers of long quotes from very few sources predominate. Professor Tami Biddle is cited 8 times in the index and most of those represent paragraphs in a book which is 206 pages long. I honestly think she should be listed as co-author.
Last but not least, Gladwell comes to a simplistic conclusion about a complex subject still argued about today. Do not buy this book.
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This has been a hotly contested matter of debate for nearly 70 years and its not one that will likely ever be settled. The fact is that all war is immoral and should always be a last resort of men to resolve their differences but when a nation such as Germany or Japan commit themselves to total war at any cost, they are the ones that put their populations at risk. To suggest that relying on military commanders who are more guided by idealism but yet never accomplish any military objectives whatsoever is preferable to another commander who is willing to take risks and do what needs to be done to bring a terrible war to a conclusion as quickly as possible, is a rather absurd argument and yet Gladwell attempts to do that here and to not much effect in my view.
And despite all the criticism of Curtis Lemay in this book, I dont see the one criticism that he deserves which was his advice in how to handle the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where in fact if JFK had taken Lemays guidance there is a good chance none of his would be here today to write about it. That is the one stain on Lemays reputation, not his decision to firebomb Tokyo or other Japanese cities in March, 1945 bearing fully in mind that it took nearly five more months and two more atomic bombs before the Japanese surrendered. Such was the diabolical nature of the enemy and their failure to see the writing on the wall. The real villains in this story are the Axis leaders that willingly subjected their populations to this suffering simply because it was preferable to see their nation extinguished entirely in defeat than accept an honorable surrender and survival.
It really educated me about things I was unaware of. As time goes on, I am learning more and more about a very important time in the past century that took place just before I was born….and all of those horrible events shaped our futures in one way or another.
Very well written..very articulate and yes, even entertaining if one can look at wartime events in that sort of way. Discovering things about some very important people in world history was ,I must say, fascinating.