Review: The Bomber Mafia

Historians in the News
tags: military history, Malcolm Gladwell, Bombing, World War 2, air war

Paul Ham is the author of Hiroshima Nagasaki (HarperCollins), which is being made into a six-part television series by a British-Australian production team.

The Bomber Mafia
Malcolm Gladwell
Allen Lane, $35

In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell does for the Pacific War what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did for the Manson murders: he’s given us a hero and a happy ending. The trouble is, where Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time satirised America’s infantile longing for happy endings, Gladwell sincerely seems to believe his ending happened.

That is, he believes the slaughter by US bombers of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people forced Tokyo to surrender by breaking their will to fight. In his mind, the saturation bombing of the Japanese was not only justifiable, it was also commendable.

Gladwell prefers game-changers and maverick “geniuses” as his heroes. Step forward General Curtis LeMay, who, as leader of 21st Bomber Command, oversaw the deliberate firebombing of Japanese cities.

Of this man Gladwell writes with a reverence verging on awe: “There was nothing LeMay could not do if he put his mind to it,” Gladwell swoons. No doubt LeMay displayed great courage as a bomber pilot over Germany and, for a few months in 1945, god-like powers over the life or death of tens of millions of Japanese people.

In 1945 LeMay made biblically clear how he meant to use that power: he would burn Japan to a crisp. On the night of March 9-10, a wave of B-29 bombers dropped half a million incendiaries on working-class suburbs of east Tokyo. The canisters burst on impact, hurling globules of proto-napalm in every direction, creating huge firestorms that crinkled paper homes and scorched human flesh to the bone: 90,000-100,000 people were killed that night, in the most lethal three hours in the history of human conflict. By July 1945 LeMay had done the same to more than 60 Japanese cities, preferring windy nights, he said, the better to bellow the firestorms (LeMay went on to champion the use of napalm in the Vietnam War, before the weapon was banned). By August 1945, LeMay’s bombers had asphyxiated, crushed or burnt to death 333,000 people and wounded 473,000, many hideously scarred. Most were elderly people, women and children.

It was all absolutely necessary, Gladwell smilingly assures us (Gladwell’s prose is always smiling), because it hastened the end of the war and probably saved more lives than LeMay killed etc.
This conclusion is not merely wrong: it is a complete misreading of history – Japanese history. Gladwell cites not one Japanese war-time source, leaving the reader to assume that Tokyo begged to surrender in the face of LeMay’s hurricane of fire.

They didn’t. 

Read entire article at Sydney Morning Herald

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