What could be more American than the story of LeMay, a gruff, cigar-chewing Ohioan who made his way through the state university by working night shifts at a foundry? He was hardly a theorist, and especially not someone out to make war more humane. LeMay was instead, in the words of the military historian Conrad Crane, “the Air Force’s ultimate problem solver.” As Gladwell tells it, the practical problem was how to win the war as quickly as possible. LeMay’s solution was to saturate Tokyo with napalm bombs, killing as many as 100,000 people in about six hours, and then to go on and firebomb dozens of other Japanese cities, killing thousands upon thousands, sometimes when the target cities were of little or no military value. This ferocious approach may have helped end the war, but there is no question that it was horrible.
One of Gladwell’s skills is enabling us to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. To most people, a city park is a grace note, a green space that makes urban life more livable. To bombing experts, parks are nettlesome “firebreaks” that interfere with a target city’s combustibility. Randall Jarrell captured LeMay’s blithely brutal approach in two of the most memorable lines of 20th-century American poetry: “In bombers named for girls, we burned / The cities we had learned about in school.”
A novelty of this book is that Gladwell says it began as an audiobook and then became a written one, reversing the usual process. It is indeed a conversational work, almost garrulous at times, as when he reports that one psychologist “has a heartbreaking riff about what one member of a couple will often say when the other one dies — that some part of him or her has died along with the partner.” However, this chatty style also glides over some important historical questions.
Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller. When he is introducing characters and showing them in conflict, “The Bomber Mafia” is gripping. I enjoyed this short book thoroughly, and would have been happy if it had been twice as long. But when Gladwell leaps to provide superlative assessments, or draws broad lessons of history from isolated incidents, he makes me wary. Those large conclusions seemed unsubstantiated to me. Was Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, truly “responsible, more than anyone, for the extraordinary war machine that the United States built in the early years of the Second World War”? It certainly is arguable that others, like Gen. George C. Marshall, were just as important, but Gladwell simply tosses out the claim about Stimson and hurries on. Another example: Gladwell calls the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, 1945, “the longest night of the war.” This unfortunate phrase, this unproven superlative, is repeated in the book’s unwieldy subtitle. I immediately thought, Oh yeah? What about the sailor whose ship is torpedoed and who hangs from debris in the water with no chance of rescue? Or the soldier in a minefield whose buddy is bleeding to death? What of the infinitely long nights of millions of concentration camp prisoners?
Gladwell argues that LeMay’s savage firebombing campaign succeeded, and that, combined with the two atomic bombs that followed, shortened the war. “Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone — Americans and Japanese — back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible,” he writes. Had the war gone on longer, into the winter of 1945-46, he suggests, millions of Japanese could have died of starvation.