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The Bomber Mafia
A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
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Dive into this “truly compelling” (Good Morning America) New York Times bestseller that explores how technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war—from the creator and host of the podcast Revisionist History.In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.
Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists, the “Bomber Mafia,” asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?
In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, whose brutal pragmatism and scorched-earth tactics in Japan cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion. In The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?”
Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the darkest night of World War II. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.
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As a little boy, lying in his bed, my father would hear the planes overhead. On their way in. Then, in the small hours of the morning, heading back to Germany. This was in England, in Kent, a few miles south and east of London. My father was born in 1934, which meant he was five when the Second World War broke out. Kent was called Bomb Alley by the British, because it was the English county that German warplanes would fly over on their way to London.
It was not uncommon, in those years, that if a bomber missed its target or had bombs left over, it would simply drop them anywhere on the return trip. One day, a stray bomb landed in my grandparents' back garden. It didn't explode. It just sat there, half buried in the ground—and I think it fair to say that if you were a five-year-old boy with an interest in things mechanical, a German bomb sitting unexploded in your backyard would have been just about the most extraordinary experience imaginable.
Not that my father described it that way. My dad was a mathematician. And an Englishman, which is to say that the language of emotion was not his first language. Rather, it was like Latin, or French—something one could study and understand but never fully master. No, that an unexploded German bomb in your backyard would be the most extraordinary experience imaginable for a five-year-old was my interpretation when my father told me the story of the bomb, when I was five years old.
That was in the late 1960s. We were living in England then, in Southampton. Reminders of what the country had gone through were still everywhere. If you went to London, you could still tell where the bombs had landed—wherever a hideous brutalist building had sprouted up on some centuries-old block.
BBC Radio was always on in our house, and in those days, it seemed like every second interview was with an old general or paratrooper or prisoner of war. The first short story I wrote as a kid was about the idea that Hitler was actually still alive and coming for England again. I sent it to my grandmother, the one in Kent who'd had the unexploded bomb in her back garden. When my mother heard about my story, she admonished me: someone who had lived through the war might not enjoy a plotline about Hitler's return.
My father once took me and my brothers to a beach overlooking the English Channel. We crawled together through the remnants of an old World War II fortification. I still remember the thrill of wondering whether we would come across some old bullets, or a shell casing, or even the skeleton of some long-lost German spy who'd washed up on shore.
I don't think we lose our childhood fascinations. I know I didn't. I always joke that if there's a novel with the word spy in it, I've read it. One day a few years back, I was looking at my bookshelves and realized—to my surprise—just how many nonfiction books about war I had accumulated. The big history bestsellers, but also the specialty histories. Out-of-print memoirs. Academic texts. And what aspect of war were most of those books about? Bombing. Air Power, by Stephen Budiansky. Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, by Tami Davis Biddle. Decision over Schweinfurt, by Thomas M. Coffey. Whole shelves of these histories.i
Usually when I start accumulating books like that it's because I want to write something about the subject. I have shelves of books on social psychology because I've made my living writing about social psychology. But I never really wrote much about war—especially not the Second World War or, more specifically, airpower. Just bits and pieces here and there.ii Why? I don't know. I imagine that a Freudian would have fun with that question. But maybe the simpler answer is that the more a subject matters to you, the harder it is to find a story you want to tell about it. The bar is higher. Which brings us to The Bomber Mafia, the book you are reading now. I'm happy to say that with The Bomber Mafia I've found a story worthy of my obsession.
One last thing—about the use of that last word, obsession. This book was written in service to my obsessions. But it is also a story about other people's obsessions, about one of the grandest obsessions of the twentieth century. I realize, when I look at the things I've written about or explored over the years, that I'm drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up everyday life and just zero in on one thing—the thing that fits the contours of his or her imagination. Obsessives lead us astray sometimes. Can't see the bigger picture. Serve not just the world's but also their own narrow interests. But I don't think we get progress or innovation or joy or beauty without obsessives.
When I was reporting this book, I had dinner with the then chief of staff of the US Air Force, David Goldfein. It was at the Air House, on the grounds of Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall, in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC—a grand Victorian on a street of grand Victorians where many of the country's top military brass live. After dinner, General Goldfein invited a group of his friends and colleagues—other senior Air Force officials—to join us. We sat in the general's backyard, five of us in total. They were almost all former military pilots. Many of their fathers had been military pilots. They were the modern-day equivalents of the people you are going to read about in this book. As the evening wore on, I began to notice something.
Air House is just down the road from Reagan National Airport. And every ten minutes or so, a plane would take off over our heads. Nothing fancy: standard commercial passenger planes, flying to Chicago or Tampa or Charlotte. And every time one of those planes flew overhead, the general and his comrades would all glance upward, just to take a look. They couldn't help themselves. Obsessives. My kind of people.
i I could go on. If, for example, you haven't read Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, then you're missing a real treat.
ii Airpower has been something I've explored in a number of episodes of my podcast, Revisionist History, including "Saigon 1965," "The Prime Minister and the Prof," and the eponymous series starting with "The Bomber Mafia" in season 5.
"This isn't working.
There was a time when the world's largest airport sat in the middle of the western Pacific, around 1,500 miles from the coast of Japan, on one of a cluster of small tropical islands known as the Marianas. Guam. Saipan. Tinian. The Marianas are the southern end of a largely submerged mountain range—the tips of volcanoes poking up through the deep ocean waters. For most of their history, the Marianas were too small to be of much interest or use to anyone in the wider world. Until the age of airpower, when all of a sudden they took on enormous importance.
The Marianas were in Japanese hands for most of the Second World War. But after a brutal campaign, they fell to the US military in the summer of 1944. Saipan was first, in July. Then Tinian and Guam, in August. When the Marines landed, the Seabees—the Navy's construction battalion—landed with them and set to work.
In just three months, an entire air base—Isely Field—was fully operational on Saipan. Then, on the island of Tinian, the largest airport in the world, North Field—8,500-foot runways, four of them. And following that, on Guam, what is now Andersen Air Force Base, the US Air Force's gateway to the Far East. Then came the planes.
Ronald Reagan narrated war films at the time, and one of those was devoted to the earliest missions of the B-29, known as the Superfortress. Reagan described the plane as one of the wonders of the world, a massive airship:
With 2,200 horsepower in each of four engines. With a fuel capacity equal to that of a railroad tank car. A tail that climbed two stories into the air. A body longer than a Corvette. Designed to carry more destruction and carry it higher, faster, farther than any bomber ever built before. And to complete this mission, that's exactly what she was going to have to do.
The B-29 could fly faster and higher than any other bomber in the world and, more crucially, farther than any other bomber. And that extended range—combined with the capture of the Marianas—meant that for the first time since the war in the Pacific began, US Army Air Forces were within striking distance of Japan. A special unit was created to handle the fleet of bombers now parked in the Marianas: the Twenty-First Bomber Command, under the leadership of a brilliant young general named Haywood Hansell.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Hansell launched attack after attack. Hundreds of B-29s skimmed over the Pacific waters, dropped their payloads on Japan, then turned back for the Marianas. As Hansell's airmen prepared to launch themselves at Tokyo, reporters and camera crews flew in from the mainland, recording the excitement for the folks back home.
Ronald Reagan again:
B-29s on Saipan were like artillery pointed at the heart of Japan…The Japs might just as well have tried to stop Niagara Falls. The Twenty-First Bomber Command was ready to hit its first target.
But then, on January 6, 1945, Hansell's commanding officer, General Lauris Norstad, arrived in the Marianas. Things were still pretty primitive on Guam: headquarters were just a bunch of metal Quonset huts on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Both men would have been exhausted, not just from the privations of the moment but also from the weight of their responsibilities.
I once read a passage by the Royal Air Force general Arthur Harris about what it meant to be an air commander in the Second World War:
I wonder if the frightful mental strain of commanding a large air force in war can ever be realized except by the very few who have experienced it. While a naval commander may at the most be required to conduct a major action once or twice in the whole course of the war, and an army commander is engaged in one battle say once in six months or, in exceptional circumstances, as often as once a month, the commander of a bomber force has to commit the whole of it every twenty-four hours…It is best to leave to the imagination what such a daily strain amounts to when continued over a period of years.
So there were Hansell and Norstad in Guam. Two war-weary airmen, facing what they hoped might be the war's final chapter. Hansell suggested a quick tour: Stand on the beach. Admire the brand-new runways, cut from the jungle. Chat about tactics, plans. Norstad said no. He had something more personal to discuss. And in a moment that would stay with Haywood Hansell for the rest of his life, Norstad turned to him: This isn't working. You're out.
"I thought the earth had fallen in—I was completely crushed." That's how, years later, Hansell described his feelings in that moment. Then Norstad delivered the second, deeper blow. He said, I'm replacing you with Curtis LeMay.
General Curtis Emerson LeMay, thirty-eight years of age, hero of the bombing campaigns over Germany. One of the most storied airmen of his generation. Hansell knew him well. They had served together in Europe. And Hansell understood immediately that this was not a standard leadership reshuffle. This was a rebuke, an about-face. An admission by Washington that everything Hansell had been doing was now considered wrong. Because Curtis LeMay was Haywood Hansell's antithesis.
Norstad offered that Hansell could stay on if he wished, to be LeMay's deputy, a notion Hansell considered so insulting that he could barely speak. Norstad told him he had ten days to finish up. Hansell walked around in a daze. On his last night in Guam, Hansell had a little more to drink than usual and sang for his men while a young colonel played the guitar: "Old pilots never die, never die, they just fly-y-y away-y-y-y."
When Curtis LeMay arrived for the changeover, he flew himself to the island in a B-29 bomber. "The Star Spangled Banner" was played. The airmen of the Twenty-First Bomber Command marched by for review. A public relations officer proposed a picture of the two of them to mark the moment. LeMay had a pipe in his mouth—he always had a pipe in his mouth—and didn't know what to do with it. He kept trying to put it in his pocket. "General," the aide said, "please let me hold your pipe while the picture is taken."
LeMay said, in a quiet voice, "Where do you want me to stand?" The cameras clicked and captured Hansell squinting off into the distance, LeMay looking down at the ground. Two men, anxious to be anywhere but in each other's company. And with that, it was over.
The Bomber Mafia is the story of that moment. What led up to it and what happened next—because that change of command reverberates to this day.
There is something that has always puzzled me about technological revolutions. Some new idea or innovation comes along, and it is obvious to all that it will upend our world. The internet. Social media. In previous generations, it was the telephone and the automobile. There's an expectation that because of this new invention, things will get better, more efficient, safer, richer, faster. Which they do, in some respects. But then things also, invariably, go sideways. At one moment, social media is being hailed as something that will allow ordinary citizens to upend tyranny. And then in the next moment, social media is feared as the platform that will allow citizens to tyrannize one another. The automobile was supposed to bring freedom and mobility, which it did for a while. But then millions of people found themselves living miles from their workplaces, trapped in endless traffic jams on epic commutes. How is it that, sometimes, for any number of unexpected and random reasons, technology slips away from its intended path?
The Bomber Mafia is a case study in how dreams go awry. And how, when some new, shiny idea drops down from the heavens, it does not land, softly, in our laps. It lands hard, on the ground, and shatters. The story I'm about to tell is not really a war story. Although it mostly takes place in wartime. It is the story of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer. A band of brothers in central Alabama. A British psychopath. Pyromaniacal chemists in a basement labs at Harvard. It's a story about the messiness of our intentions, because we always forget the mess when we look back.
And at the heart of it all are Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay, who squared off in the jungles of Guam. One was sent home. One stayed on, with a result that would lead to the darkest night of the Second World War. Consider their story and ask yourself—What would I have done? Which side would I have been on?
"Mr. Norden was content to pass his time in the shop."
Back when the war that would consume the world was a worry but not yet a fact, a remarkable man came to the attention of the US military.
His name was Carl L. Norden. Throughout his life, Norden shunned the limelight. He worked alone—sometimes returning to Europe during crucial periods to tinker and dream at his mother's kitchen table. He built a business with hundreds of employees. Then when the war was over, he left it all behind. There are no full-length biographies of Norden. No profile pieces.i No statues in his honor. Not in his native Holland; not in Switzerland, where he lived out his days; and not in downtown Manhattan, where he did his most important work. Norden influenced the course of a war and sparked a dream that would last the remainder of the century. It does not seem possible that someone could have left as much of a mark on his world as Norden did and then disappear from sight. Yet he did. In one 352-page technical book about Norden's invention, there is a single sentence devoted to him: "Mr. Norden was content to pass his time in the shop, which sometimes was an eighteen-hour day."
So before we start in on Norden's dream and its consequences—the effect Norden would have on an entire generation—let us start with Norden himself. I asked Professor Stephen L. McFarland, one of the few historians—maybe the only historian—who has really dug into the story of Carl Norden, why there's so little documentary record about the inventor. The professor replied that it is "primarily because he demanded absolute secrecy." He went on to describe the man: "Well, he was extremely prickly. His ego was greater than [that of] any person I've never met. And I said 'never met' because of course I never met Norden."
Norden was Dutch. He was born in what is now Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. He spent three years apprenticing in a Swiss machine shop, then got an engineering degree from Zurich's prestigious Federal Polytechnic School, where one of his classmates was Vladimir Lenin. Norden was trim, dapper. He wore a three-piece suit. Had short white hair with a little cowlick, a thriving mustache, and heavy-lidded eyes underwritten with deep lines, as if he hadn't slept in years. His nickname was Old Man Dynamite. He drank coffee by the gallon. Lived on steak.
As McFarland explained,
He truly believed in a very biological sense that sun created stupidity. And so you would never see him outside without a big hat on. His family always was forced to wear hats outside. He was, as a young boy, stationed in the Dutch East Indies, and yet he and his family always wore hats because the sun caused stupidity.
McFarland wrote that Norden "read Dickens avidly for revelations on the lives of the disadvantaged and Thoreau for the discussion of the simple life." He hated paying taxes. He thought Franklin Roosevelt was the devil.
McFarland described how cranky Norden could be:
There's a famous story where he was looking over a technician's shoulder and the technician got a little bit nervous and tried to strike up a conversation, looking at him and saying, "Perhaps you could explain why we're making this part this way." And Norden screamed at the top of his lungs at him, after he yanked the cigar out of his mouth, and said, "There's a hundred thousand reasons why I designed that part that way. And none of it is your damn business." So that's how he treated all his employees. He was truly an Old Man Dynamite.
McFarland went on to explain Norden's perfectionism:
Expense didn't matter—it was "Make it as perfect as possible." I'd seen how engineers know what they know and how they do what they do, but all of them talked about the importance of studying what had been done before. Norden's attitude was, "I don't want to hear about it." All he wanted was blank sheets of paper, a pencil, and a couple of engineering books that were filled with formulas about how to calculate certain mathematical problems. He was a true believer in blank slate, and this reveals his ego. He said, "I don't want to know the mistakes other people made. I don't want to know what they did right. I'm going to develop what's right myself."
What was Carl Norden developing on his blank sheets of paper? A bombsight. A bombsight is not something that anyone uses anymore—not in the age of radar and GPS—but for the better part of the last century, bombsights were matters of great importance. Let me go further, because there is a real risk here of understatement. If you were to have made a list in, say, the early years of the twentieth century of the ten biggest unsolved technological problems of the next half century, what would have been on that list? Well, some things are obvious. Vaccines were desperately needed to prevent childhood diseases—measles, mumps. Better agricultural fertilizers were needed to help prevent famine. Huge parts of the world could be made more productive with affordable, convenient air-conditioning. A car cheap enough for a working-class family to afford. I could go on. But somewhere on that list would be a military question—namely, is there a more accurate way to drop a bomb from an airplane?
Now, why does that problem belong on the same list as vaccines and fertilizers and air-conditioning? Because early in the twentieth century, the world went through World War I, in which thirty-seven million people were wounded or killed. Thirty-seven million. There were over a million casualties in the Battle of the Somme, a single battle that had no discernible point or impact on the course of the war. For those who lived through it, World War I was a deeply traumatic experience.
So what could be done? A small group of people came to believe that the only realistic solution was for armies to change the way they fought wars. To learn to fight—if this doesn't sound like too much of an oxymoron—better wars. And the people who made the argument for better wars were pilots. Airmen. People obsessed with one of the newest and most exciting technological achievements of that era—the airplane.
Airplanes made their first big appearance in World War I. I'm sure you've seen pictures of those early planes. Plywood, fabric, metal, and rubber. Two wings, upper and lower, connected by struts. One seat. A machine gun facing forward, synchronized to fire through the propeller. They resembled something that came in the mail to be assembled in a garage. The most famous of World War I fighter planes was the Sopwith Camel. (That's the one that Snoopy flew in the old Peanuts comic strip.) It was a mess. "In the hands of a novice," the aviation writer Robert Jackson says, "it displayed vicious characteristics that could make it a killer." Meaning a killer of the pilot flying it, not the enemy under attack. But a new generation of pilots looked at these contraptions and said, Something like this can make all that deadly, wasteful, pointless conflict on the ground obsolete. What if we just fought wars from the air?
One of those airmen was a man named Donald Wilson. He served in the First World War and remembered the fear that had gripped his fellow soldiers.
As he recounted in an oral history in 1975:
One fellow killed himself and chose our mess hall as the place to do it. Put his mouth over the muzzle of his rifle and pulled the trigger. And another man while we were in the trenches shot himself in the leg. So those people must have magnified their ideas of the great danger. But I think by and large, the most of us just didn't realize what we were getting into.
Wilson started flying in the 1920s and ended up as a general in the Second World War. I ran across a memoir that Wilson self-published in the 1970s. It's called Wooing Peponi, and it looks like a high school yearbook. It goes on forever. And right in the middle, Wilson has this strangely riveting passage about the conclusion he came to in his first years of flying: "Then out of nowhere a vision evolved. As in later years, in entirely different context, Martin Luther King said, in a moving speech, 'I had a dream.'"
Wilson is comparing his vision of the promise of airpower to the most iconic moment in the civil rights movement. And then he borrows King's rhetorical pattern as well:
I had a dream…that nations fought each other in order to dictate terms and not to prove supremacy of arms, as military tradition insisted. I had a dream that important nations, the likely adversaries, were industrialized and dependent upon smooth operation of organized and mutually sustaining elements. I had a dream that the new and coming air capability could destroy a limited number of targets within this web of interdependent features of the modern nation. I had a dream that such destruction and the possibility of more of the same, would cause the victim to sue for peace.
In every way, this passage is audacious. There were so few military pilots in the United States back in those days that they all knew each other. It was like a club. A band of zealots. And Wilson said this tiny club with its ramshackle flying machines could reinvent war.
"I had a dream that such destruction and the possibility of more of the same, would cause the victim to sue for peace"? That means he believed that planes could win wars all by themselves. They could swoop down and bomb select targets and bring the enemy to its knees without the slaughter of millions on a battlefield.
- “Gripping… Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller… in [his] deft hands, the Air Force generals of World War II come back to life… I enjoyed this short book thoroughly, and would have been happy if it had been twice as long.”—Thomas E. Ricks, New York Times Book Review
- “A thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times... Gladwell’s easy conversational style works well… and his admiration for the Bomber Mafia shines through. His portraits of individuals are compelling."—Diana Preston, Washington Post
- “Truly compelling… written in New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell's characteristic approachable, story-telling style.”—Zibby Owens, Good Morning America
- "A riveting tale of persistence, obsession, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war... The Bomber Mafia looks at one of the greatest moral challenges of the Second World War."—Michael Lewis, Against the Rules
- “Malcolm Gladwell is a one-in-a-generation kind of writer… He has an uncanny way of finding the story within the story and pointing out the important lessons often hiding in plain sight.”—Bryan Elliott, Inc.com
- “Excellent revisionist history… another Gladwell everything-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong page-turner.”—Kirkus (starred review)
- “[A] brilliantly told parable… As ever with Gladwell… the story boils down to people at moments of crisis… books and parables alike rely on their narrative as much as their message. And for a book that is not a war story, this one is brilliantly, brilliantly told.”—James McConnachie, Sunday Times (UK)
- “A ruminative, anecdotal account of what led up to the deadliest air raid of WWII… Gladwell provides plenty of colorful details and poses intriguing questions about the morality of warfare… fans will savor the insights into ‘how technology slips away from its intended path.’”—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 27, 2021
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown and Company