Narrative Napalm: Malcolm Gladwell's Apologia for American Butchery

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tags: war crimes, military history, book reviews, firebombing, World War 2, Curtis LeMay

THERE ARE INFINITE KINDS OF IRRESPONSIBLE BOOKS that a well-credentialed media insider can write.

First are the total farces of fact. These include former New York Times chief Jill Abramson’s mangling of basic details about her subjects in her book on new media, or the time that Naomi Wolf, once an adviser to Al Gore, learned on the air in an interview with the BBC that the thesis of her latest book was based on her complete misreading of a nineteenth century legal definition.

A second variety of irresponsible books are those whose primary purpose is to market their authors at the expense of humane and rational thinking and behavior. For example, The Problem From Hell allowed Samantha Power to parlay her journalism into a Beltway policy career as the human face of the American forever warHillbilly Elegy’s J.D. Vance is reportedly preparing a run for the Republican nomination for Senate in his home state of Ohio.

And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, The Bomber Mafia, is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer.

According to Gladwell himself, his latest book is “designed to be heard (as well as read),” which depending on one’s interpretation is either savvy marketing or a pre-emptive defense of the extreme cringe on the page, peppered with asides like “That is so Air Force” or “And this is my favorite part.” The Bomber Mafia is adapted from a few episodes of Gladwell’s chart-topping podcast, Revisionist History, and the book is relatively slim, with a large typeface that—while certainly more accessible to the sexagenarian-and-up titan-of-industry types with whom Gladwell loves to consort—helps to give the impression that the book is meatier stuff than it really is. Form imitating substance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s decades-long shtick has been to launder contrarian thought and corporate banalities through his positions as a staff writer at The New Yorker and author at Little, Brown and Company. These insitutitions’ disciplining effect on Gladwell’s prose, getting his rambling mind to conform to clipped sentences and staccato revelations, has belied his sly maliciousness and explosive vacuity: the two primary qualities of Gladwell’s oeuvre.

The Bomber Mafia is Gladwell’s sixth book since The Tipping Point (“what if the little things are the big things?”) was published in 2000. His debut was followed by Blink (“what if your gut instinct was right?”) in 2005 and David and Goliath (“what if the little guy was actually the big guy?”) in 2013, with other intellectually insignificant but commercially successful literary endeavors in between. By now, the press cycle for every Gladwell book release is familiar: experts and critics identify logical flaws and factual errors, they are ignored, Gladwell sells a zillion books, and the world gets indisputably dumber for it. His podcast routinely ranks among Apple’s top 100, suggesting that his reach has extended beyond his mammoth book sales for some time.


Gladwell maintains that it was the viciousness of LeMay’s Japanese bombing campaign, itself only made possible because of the philosophical and technical advances of the ersatz “Mafia” of his book, that secured the end of World War II. “Curtis LeMay’s approach,” he concludes, “brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” And don’t just take Gladwell’s word for it; as he notes, in 1964, the Japanese government bestowed upon LeMay an honorific for rebuilding the Japanese Air Force, and the Japanese premier stated that “bygones are bygones.” Though Gladwell acknowledges this was controversial (the premier dismissed “the objections of his colleagues in the Japanese parliament” on awarding LeMay), he downplays its sour legacy. The social historian Katusmoto Saotome, considered the foremost Japanese chronicler of LeMay’s campaign of destruction, told the New York Times Magazine last year that he couldn’t forgive his government for its “totally unacceptable” honor of the American general who burnt miles and miles of Japan to a crisp.

A skeptical reader may wonder: Why would Malcolm Gladwell, who seems to admire LeMay so much, talk at such great length about the lethality of LeMay’s Japanese firebombing? The answer lies in what this story leaves out. Mentioned only glancingly in Gladwell’s story are the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The omission allows for a stupid and classically Gladwell argument: that indiscriminate firebombing brought a swift end to the war, and its attendant philosophical innovations continue to envelop us in a blanket of security that has not been adequately appreciated.

While LeMay’s 1945 firebombing campaign was certainly excessive—and represented the same base indifference to human life that got Nazis strung up at Nuremberg—it did not end the war. The Japanese were not solely holding out because their military men were fanatical in ways that the Americans weren’t, as Gladwell seems to suggest, citing Conrad Crane, an Army staff historian and hagiographer of LeMay’s[1]; they were holding out because they wanted better terms of surrender—terms they had the prospect of negotiating with the Soviet Union.

The United States, having already developed an atomic weapon—and having made the Soviet Union aware of it—decided to drop it as it became clear the Soviet Union was readying to invade Japan. On August 6, the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, and mere hours after the Soviet Union formally declared war on the morning of August 9, the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. An estimated 210,000 people were killed, the majority of them on the days of the bombings.

Read entire article at The Baffler

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