"The Bomber Mafia"| Reviewed by William Winkler
Most Americans who know anything of the history of World War II believe that the war against Japan was brought to an end by the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell tells a different story.
In the years leading up to World War II a small group of military strategists (the Bomber Mafia) in the newly formed Army Air Corps developed a new way of looking at warfare. Given the vast, and mostly futile, loss of human life in the trenches of World War I, these strategists felt that by destroying, from the air, an enemy’s technical ability to wage war, a conflict could be ended quicker and more humanely.
Their belief rested on the parallel development of more powerful, better armored aircraft and the Norden bombsight, an analog-computer driven device that gave bombardiers a degree of precision previously thought impossible. These factors led to the Mafia’s creation of tenets of aerial bomb warfare, tenets that stated:
· Because of improvements in armoring and weaponry, the bomber will always get through.
· Since the bomber is unstoppable, it is possible to bomb by daylight.
· If the target is visible, bombsight-assisted precision bombing is possible
· With bombsight-assisted precision bombing, high-altitude bombing is preferable.
In theory these principles should have reduced the nighttime bombing of Germany by Britain’s Royal Air Force to irrelevance. In real life the strategy cost more American lives and aircraft over Germany than was deemed acceptable, and the United States joined the RAF in nighttime saturation bombing, culminating in the needless demolition of Dresden, in southern Germany in February 1945.
Until his transfer to the Pacific theater in 1944, General Curtis LeMay had overseen the U.S. swing from daytime precision to nighttime saturation bombing in Europe. Upon his arrival in the South Pacific he implemented low-level saturation bombing raids against dozens of Japanese cities, large and small, using incendiary devices to create firestorms that resulted in the deaths of an estimated half, to one million civilians.
LeMay’s bombers continued to incinerate Japanese cities for a week after the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, until the day the Japanese officially capitulated. LeMay always said that the atomic bombs were superfluous, that the battle had already been won. The humanitarian tenets of the Bomber Mafia had been swept away in a sea of fire, only to be resurrected in more recent times by advancing technology and superior weaponry.
Gladwell’s book, occasionally chatty in tone, is thoroughly researched and includes frequent citations from those involved in the ideological struggles and those who participated in the warfare itself. Those interested in recent American history will find it a brief, illuminating read.