By Jack M. ’23
Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” is a fascinating story of morality, innovation, and confrontation centered on the ideological clash between the U.S. Generals Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. Hansell and LeMay are names you might recognize were you to have taken Ms. Healy’s or Mr. Holubar’s Modern European History classes. This book brings to life a morally gray conflict concerning civilian and military bombings, with vivid anecdotes on a wide variety of captivating subjects.
Gladwell’s account is also an unwitting but fitting homage to Crystal’s integrated curriculum. “The Bomber Mafia” ties together many of the themes, subjects, and personalities that have been prevalent throughout Crystal’s sophomore curriculum this semester, including a reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-5,” which is the final book being read in English II with Ms. Fawcett, Ms. Miller, and Mr. Huntoon. Throughout this spring, Crystal sophomores have explored the morality of war through the poetry of Solmaz Sharif and Brian Turner, and the writings of Elie Weisel, Victor Frankl, and Kurt Vonnegut. As such, the recent publication of “The Bomber Mafia” offers a convenient, approachable, and timely opportunity to apply the lessons of Modern European History and English II to what will surely be a smash-hit this summer. After only a month on the shelves, Gladwell’s book was already #2 on the New York Times Best Sellers list last week.
From the work of the reclusive Dutchman, Carl Norden, who spent his life pursuing the development of a bombsight that Gladwell describes as “one of the most powerful dreams in the history of warfare… to make war almost bloodless,” to the influence of the jet stream and Himalayan mountain range on the bombings of Japan, Gladwell covers a lot of territory in a short span, only 200 pages.
The book is centered on two diametrically opposed characters, those of Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. Hansell, a general officer in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during the war, was one of the key proponents of the idea of daytime precision bombings. His idea was centered on the Air Force’s newfound ability to accurately bomb military targets rather than civilian ones, which the Norden bombsight allowed. Hansell’s intention, while certainly more humane, fell short of its lofty goal (one could say it missed its target) and was overshadowed by that of Curtis LeMay. LeMay, a general at the time who later became the USAAF Chief of Staff, espoused a policy of savage carpet bombing, in which aerial armadas were sent to rain heedless fire upon unprotected civilians. According to Gladwell, LeMay currently ranks fifth on the list of “people in the 20th century who killed the most civilians” behind Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot (not the most esteemed company), yet Gladwell lays out a convincing case that LeMay’s actions, while drastic, also helped hasten the end of World War II and actually saved lives.
While the book sidesteps critical historical events, including perhaps the most well-known bombings of the war, those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, “The Bomber Mafia” distills large and complex historical events into one neatly wrapped package, and is clearly the result of Gladwell’s self-described “obsession” with this particular aspect of the war.
It is evident that “The Bomber Mafia” was designed for its original format, that of an audiobook on Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast, which ironically, once again, ties well with Crystal’s integrated sophomore curriculum, especially the Missing Modernist project from Modern European History earlier this year. Gladwell’s audiobook (approximately 4 hours long) is a work of art. Its interweaving of the historical narrative from its print sibling with archival clips, audio soundbites, and music is innovative and thrilling – ideal for a lazy summer afternoon.
Both the book and audiobook successfully and deftly paint a harrowing picture of the choices, confrontations, and regrets haunting Gladwell’s titular “Bomber Mafia.” Both works are highly recommended for anyone interested in previewing or delving deeper into many of the themes covered during Crystal’s esteemed sophomore History and English teacher’s lessons on WWII, and the moral dilemmas therein.