An integral part of the human spirit is the striving to do things better. This is the essence of technology and innovation. We look at something and put in extra work now to try to save ourselves work in the future. Making the wheel was probably difficult, but cars would be awkward without it. Edison famously went through thousands of materials in order to arrive at the one that made the first light bulb.
In “The Bomber Mafia,” Malcom Gladwell tells the story of a group of men who dreamed of doing war better. Following World War I, a bunch of pilots put their heads together and thought about how to win a war without causing millions of casualties. They theorized that if bombs were applied with precision at key industrial and military targets, a nation could be crippled without a massive land battle.
The dream of theirs had the possibility to become reality due to a new invention which had just experienced a leap in feasibility, a bomb sight. Planes during World War I were unreliable and computers nonexistent. Dropping a bomb from a plane then was pure guesswork due to the multitude of physical forces working against bombardiers trying to actively aim a bomb from a plane thousands of feet in the air.
But there was a new one on the market which accounted for speed, altitude, air direction/velocity, and even the rotation of the Earth. The manufacturer claimed they could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 40,000 feet. To say that this excited the pilots would be an understatement. Soon they became fanatical about the idea and earned the derisive nickname, “The Bomber Mafia,” which they embraced.
With the onset of World War II, the Bomber Mafia finally got to try their new toy out ... and it didn’t work nearly as well as hoped. It turns out that Europe is cloudy, clouds are opaque and bomb sights don’t see through opaque things. This and a number of reasons led to embarrassing statistics where thousands of bombs were dropped and 18 hit. A factory that was supposed to be erased was only diminished in capacity and fully operational again in weeks.
But the Mafia didn’t give up. They believed with enough practice they could get it to work. When they tried it out in Japan, it was even worse. Eventually the military lost patience and replaced the chief disciple of precision bombing with a man his opposite, practical to the core.
He was the first one to give a new invention a try, Napalm. Napalm was highly effective when used indiscriminately against a country whose infrastructure was wood. The first airstrike against Tokyo burned 16 square miles, and most of the people in it, to ash (for comparison, Manhattan’s metro is 18.88 square miles according to Wikipedia.)
So, was it worth it? Precision bombing was inflicting no meaningful, or in many cases, any damage on the Japanese and was costing American lives and planes every time it was tried. The fire bombing of Japan was so effective that the man behind it was of the opinion that the nuclear bombs were superfluous. They made a land invasion of Japan, which may have cost a million lives or more in total, unnecessary.
These are the questions of “The Bomber Mafia.” Who is more admirable: the man who dreams and fails or the man who succeeds by the necessary means? Does war change the answer to this question? Gladwell teases all this out in a fantastic and short book that I can’t recommend enough. It is, in turns, funny, powerful, depressing and even horrifying. War is complicated and the morality behind it even more so.
As far as authors go, Malcom Gladwell is a household name, and rightfully so. His writings are smart, snappy and insightful. I find him as consistent as David McCullough. This book is no different and is distinctly his.
Douglas MacArthur said, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Is there? If you want to really confront that question, pick up “The Bomber Mafia.”
Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.