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

(New York: Little Brown, 2021), 240

Do the ends justify the means? The Pacific campaign against Japan at the end of World War II is a case study in the ago-old question which Gladwell illustrates through the experiences of two American USAAF generals, Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. They would give different answers.

The book takes its name from a group of forward thinking American air theorists who in the 1920's and 1930's saw the potential (but yet unrealized) power of exclusive air war with bombing of key military targets. They believed this precision bombing could replace the mass destruction of armies as seen in World War I with targeted destruction of military equipment and infrastructure, and thus lessen the inhumanity of warfare.

Carl Norden advanced the technology required for this vision with his Norden bombsight. Norden’s Christianity provided the moral backdrop for his work, which he believed could make war less devastating. Instead of massive armies clashing on the battlefield, an adversary could be rendered unable to wage war with precision strikes on the industrial plants supplying their war effort with a commensurate reduction in the loss of life.

General Hansell never lost his faith in precision bombing. But as commander of XXI Bomber Command in charge of the American bombing offensive against Japan, he ran into difficulties with this strategy. Not only did the weather keep his B-29s grounded for much of the time, the jetstream prevented the bombs from hitting their targets.

As 1944 turned into 1945 he was faced with a period of temptation that Gladwell likens to Jesus' temptation in the desert (cf. Lk-04). Scientists at Harvard had developed napalm which would solve his inability to strike the Japanese but compromise his commitment to the Bomber Mafia's principles of precision bombing.

Unable to justify the use of napalm, the resolute Hansell was relieved of command and replaced with Curtis LeMay. After running up against the same challenges, LeMay crafted a new strategy of nighttime, low altitude, incendiary bombing with napalm. In the first of these raids, LeMay attacked Tokyo and destroyed over 16 square miles of the city and killed one hundred thousand people, mostly civilians. Before the war ended LeMay had burned over sixty Japanese cities killing upwards of five hundred thousand with the same technique, all to shorten the war and save lives.

So who was right? Hansell in his belief in precision bombing to target industrial and military targets, the ineffectiveness of which may have prolonged the war and required a bloody invasion of Japan? Or LeMay who did everything he could—including burning Japanese cities to the ground—to end the war as quickly as possible? Gladwell says that LeMay won the battle, but Hansell won the war. The Japanese even awarded LeMay the Order of the Rising Sun, and historians agree that many more lives would have been lost in an allied invasion of Japan and or from starvation had the war carried into the winter of 1945.

The Bomber Mafia's vision of precision bombing has been fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams. Today a B-2 flying at 40,000 feet can drop a precision-guided bomb to target not just a single building, but a single room in a building. And a UAV piloted by someone sitting halfway around the world can fire a missile and hit a vehicle. The tactics and technology have changed, but the question remains: Do the ends justify the means?

Topic: World War II, End justifies the means

Source: Mrs. R


  • Don Quixote (Hansell's favorite book)
  • Documentary: The Fog of War
  • Film: Twelve O'Clock High

Created: 2021-09-10
Updated: 2023-01-23-Mon