Narrative Napalm: Malcolm Gladwell’s Apologia for American Butchery
Portside Date:
Author: Noah Kulwin
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The Baffler

    They empty the swimming-baths and lay out the dead.

    There are children who haven’t learnt to swim, bundled

    With budgerigars and tabbies under the stairs.

    Shockwaves are wrinkling the water that isn’t there.

    —Michael Longley,  “Blitz” (1987)

There are infinite kinds of irresponsible books that a well-credentialed media insider can write.

First are the total farces of fact. These include former New York Times chief Jill Abramson’s mangling of basic details about her subjects in her book on new media, or the time that Naomi Wolf, once an adviser to Al Gore, learned on the air in an interview with the BBC that the thesis of her latest book was based on her complete misreading of a nineteenth century legal definition.

A second variety of irresponsible books are those whose primary purpose is to market their authors at the expense of humane and rational thinking and behavior. For example, The Problem From Hell allowed Samantha Power to parlay her journalism into a Beltway policy career as the human face of the American forever warHillbilly Elegy’s J.D. Vance is reportedly preparing a run for the Republican nomination for Senate in his home state of Ohio.

And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, The Bomber Mafia, is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company; 288 pages
April 27, 2021
Hardcover:  $29.00; E-book:  $14.95
ISBN-13: 9780316309851
ISBN-13: 9780316296939 

Little, Brown and Company

According to Gladwell himself, his latest book is “designed to be heard (as well as read),” which depending on one’s interpretation is either savvy marketing or a pre-emptive defense of the extreme cringe on the page, peppered with asides like “That is so Air Force” or “And this is my favorite part.” The Bomber Mafia is adapted from a few episodes of Gladwell’s chart-topping podcast, Revisionist History, and the book is relatively slim, with a large typeface that—while certainly more accessible to the sexagenarian-and-up titan-of-industry types with whom Gladwell loves to consort—helps to give the impression that the book is meatier stuff than it really is. Form imitating substance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s decades-long shtick has been to launder contrarian thought and corporate banalities through his positions as a staff writer at The New Yorker and author at Little, Brown and Company. These institutions’ disciplining effect on Gladwell’s prose, getting his rambling mind to conform to clipped sentences and staccato revelations, has belied his sly maliciousness and explosive vacuity: the two primary qualities of Gladwell’s oeuvre.

The Bomber Mafia is Gladwell’s sixth book since The Tipping Point (“what if the little things are the big things?”) was published in 2000. His debut was followed by Blink (“what if your gut instinct was right?”) in 2005 and David and Goliath (“what if the little guy was actually the big guy?”) in 2013, with other intellectually insignificant but commercially successful literary endeavors in between. By now, the press cycle for every Gladwell book release is familiar: experts and critics identify logical flaws and factual errors, they are ignored, Gladwell sells a zillion books, and the world gets indisputably dumber for it. His podcast routinely ranks among Apple’s top 100, suggesting that his reach has extended beyond his mammoth book sales for some time. 

Ever the optimist, I hope that this time is different. Gladwell has not, of late, made an appearance in the pages of The New Yorker, though he retains the label of staff writer (surely a profitable enterprise for both). His last piece in the magazine, published in January 2019, was a brief, favorable, and widely condemned review of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, the reefer madness book published by Alex Berenson, whom Fox News later conscripted to star in two episodes of its short-lived program COVID Contrarian. (Berenson is now merely a fixture on Tucker Carlson’s program.)

Unfortunately, while Gladwell may no longer have the journalistic cachet he once did, he is still immensely popular. The Bomber Mafia debuted at the number two spot on the New York Times bestseller list. The book has been praised by reviewers in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, with only tepid criticism from venerated military whisperer Thomas E. Ricks in the New York Times, who softens the meaningful part of his review by noting that Gladwell is “a wonderful storyteller.” Although opinions vary on that count, by taking up military history, Gladwell’s half-witted didacticism threatens to convince millions of people that the only solution to American butchery is to continue shelling out for sharper and larger knives.

The Bomber Mafia is the story of a group of hidden geniuses whom Malcolm Gladwell discovered in plain sight, well-known and openly influential American military officials whose careers began in the interwar period and peaked from World War II into the early 1960s. Although the phrase “Bomber Mafia” traditionally refers to the pre-World War II staff and graduates of the Air Corps Tactical School, Gladwell’s book expands the term to include both kooky tinkerers and buttoned-down military men. Wild, far-seeing mavericks, they understood that the possibilities of air power had only just been breached. They were also, as Gladwell insists at various points, typical Gladwellian protagonists: secluded oddballs whose technical zealotry and shared mission gave them a sense of community that propelled them beyond any station they could have achieved on their own.

The stakes of The Bomber Mafia are no less than World War II and life or death, and yet Gladwell’s narrative is transmitted as seamlessly as the Wall Street or Silicon Valley koans that appear atop LinkedIn profiles, Clubhouse accounts, and Substack missives. Even his statements of objective fact are written to look like something an HSBC junior analyst might tell himself after a bad quarterly review: “Airmen do not typically concern themselves with land-based disasters.” Gladwell has built a career out of making banality seem fresh (“To teach people history we need more statues, not fewer,” he recently explained to the Times), but the latest book is a perhaps untested boundary of moral villainy for him. Drawing a false distinction between the Bomber Mafia and the British and American military leaders who preceded them allows Gladwell to make the case that a few committed brainiacs developed a humane, “tactical” kind of air power that has built the security of the world we live in today.

These were men who, as Gladwell himself likens to MLK, “had a dream” that the skies were going to be the critical battlefield of the future:

The dream that the airplane could revolutionize warfare was based on a massive untested and unproven assumption: that somehow, someone at some point would figure out how to aim a bomb from high in the sky with something close to accuracy.

Gladwell identifies the dream-havers as a revolutionary cadre that included Curtis LeMay, Harold Lee George, Ira Eaker, Carl Norden, Donald Wilson, and Haywood Hansell, to name a few. Their individual contributions range from developing an unwieldy first-effort at a bomb sight (Norden) to successfully executing a firebombing strategy on Japan (LeMay), which Gladwell and the military historians he cites happily credit with ending World War II.

Let’s start with where Gladwell is on firm ground: the United States was engaged in both World Wars and deployed aerial bombardment strategies in both, but more so in the latter. Also, it’s true that dropping a bomb without a good tool to see where you’re dropping it is pretty hard: “A factory might be big and obvious up close, but from that far up, it looks like a postage stamp,” Gladwell discerns for the reader early on.

But as is typical with Gladwell’s books and with many historical podcasts, interrogation of the actual historical record and the genuine moral dilemmas it poses—not the low-stakes bait that he trots out as an MBA case study in War—is subordinated to fluffy bullshit and biographical color. Carl Norden wouldn’t have called himself a genius, Gladwell reports, quoting historian Stephen McFarland, because God “invents” and humans “discover.” Curtis LeMay “had a mind that moved only forward, never sideways.” “All war is absurd,” begins one chapter, continuing that “for thousands of years, human beings have chosen to settle their differences by obliterating one another.”

Further typical of Gladwell is that what begins as treacly color naturally takes on a malevolent hue. At one point, he expounds credulously on the myth of the particular resilience of the British people during the German “Blitz” bombing campaign of 1940–1941, quoting the Army War College historian Tami Biddle’s line that a “target state . . . finds ways of absorbing the punishment if it’s really determined to.” For Gladwell, the indefatigable British spirit explains British military intellectuals’ seemingly dogmatic opposition to the Bomber Mafia’s “strategic bombing” mantra.

Yet, as the historian Richard Overy has noted, the British were not Supermen and -women. What Gladwell writes of England—that the Blitz “did not crack their morale”—is a fiction. 

“Government researchers found that what people wanted most was sound information, the promise of welfare and rehabilitation, and somewhere to sleep. The sight of destroyed buildings, corpses and body parts was utterly alien to daily life. The trauma this produced was largely unrecorded, and certainly untreated,” Overy wrote in The Guardian last year. The one exception, according to Overy, was the city of Hull, where case studies showed that “people developed serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary soiling and wetting, persistent crying, uncontrollable shaking, headaches and chronic dizziness; men were found to indulge in heavy drinking and smoking after a raid, and prone to developing peptic ulcers. One woman was bombed out of three different houses, and watched the death of her sister and her five children. Her symptoms indicated an exceptional level of nervous collapse.”

“What actually happened?” Gladwell asks of the Blitz. “Not that much! The panic never came,” he answers, before favorably referring to an unnamed “British government film from 1940,” which is in actuality the Academy Award-nominated propaganda short London Can Take It!, now understood to be emblematic of how the myth of the stoic Brit was manufactured.

Where the Bomber Mafia really rose to the occasion, in Gladwell’s narrative, was in the waning days of the Pacific theater of World War II. The book’s climax comes when General Haywood Hansell, an advocate of a “strategic bombardment” strategy that had failed to demolish Japan as the Allies had Germany, is relieved of his command in the Pacific and replaced by LeMay in January, 1945. While both men were members of the “Mafia,” LeMay believed in the power of indiscriminate destruction over attempting precision strikes, which he put into action by initiating the napalm “fire bomb” campaign of Japan for which he became infamous. One mission—LeMay’s napalm campaign over Tokyo on the night of March 10, 1945—killed as many as 100,000 people in a span of three hours.

What does Gladwell make of this legacy? “LeMay is someone you have to work a little harder to understand,” he writes. Born in Ohio in poverty and obscurity, LeMay’s brashness was unpleasant and his means undeniably murderous, but they were justified by their ends. Gladwell goes to great pains to portray Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay as merely George Patton-like: a prima donna tactician with some masculinity issues. In reality, LeMay bears a closer resemblance to another iconic George C. Scott performance, one that LeMay directly inspired: Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson, who at every turn attempts to force World War III and, at the movie’s close, when global annihilation awaits, soberly warns of a “mineshaft gap” between the United States and the Commies. That, as Gladwell might phrase it, was the “real” Curtis LeMay: a violent reactionary who was never killed or tried because he had the luck to wear the brass of the correct country on his uniform. “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” LeMay once told an Air Force cadet. “Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”

Gladwell maintains that it was the viciousness of LeMay’s Japanese bombing campaign, itself only made possible because of the philosophical and technical advances of the ersatz “Mafia” of his book, that secured the end of World War II. “Curtis LeMay’s approach,” he concludes, “brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” And don’t just take Gladwell’s word for it; as he notes, in 1964, the Japanese government bestowed upon LeMay an honorific for rebuilding the Japanese Air Force, and the Japanese premier stated that “bygones are bygones.” Though Gladwell acknowledges this was controversial (the premier dismissed “the objections of his colleagues in the Japanese parliament” on awarding LeMay), he downplays its sour legacy. The social historian Katusmoto Saotome, considered the foremost Japanese chronicler of LeMay’s campaign of destruction, told the New York Times Magazine last year that he couldn’t forgive his government for its “totally unacceptable” honor of the American general who burnt miles and miles of Japan to a crisp.

A skeptical reader may wonder: Why would Malcolm Gladwell, who seems to admire LeMay so much, talk at such great length about the lethality of LeMay’s Japanese firebombing? The answer lies in what this story leaves out. Mentioned only glancingly in Gladwell’s story are the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The omission allows for a stupid and classically Gladwell argument: that indiscriminate firebombing brought a swift end to the war, and its attendant philosophical innovations continue to envelop us in a blanket of security that has not been adequately appreciated.

While LeMay’s 1945 firebombing campaign was certainly excessive—and represented the same base indifference to human life that got Nazis strung up at Nuremberg—it did not end the war. The Japanese were not solely holding out because their military men were fanatical in ways that the Americans weren’t, as Gladwell seems to suggest, citing Conrad Crane, an Army staff historian and hagiographer of LeMay’s[1]; they were holding out because they wanted better terms of surrender—terms they had the prospect of negotiating with the Soviet Union.

The United States, having already developed an atomic weapon—and having made the Soviet Union aware of it—decided to drop it as it became clear the Soviet Union was readying to invade Japan. On August 6, the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, and mere hours after the Soviet Union formally declared war on the morning of August 9, the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. An estimated 210,000 people were killed, the majority of them on the days of the bombings.

It was the detonation of these bombs that forced the end of the war. The Japanese unconditional surrender to the Americans was announced on August 15 and formalized on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2. As historians like Martin Sherwin and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa have pointed out, by dropping the bombs, the Truman administration had kept the Communist threat out of Japan. Imperial Japan was staunchly anticommunist, and under American post-war dominion, the country would remain that way. But Gladwell is unequipped to supply the necessary geopolitical context that could meaningfully explain why the American government would force an unconditional surrender when the possibility of negotiation remained totally live. 

Curtis LeMay, after the events of Gladwell’s book, was placed in charge of the Strategic Air Command, which oversaw two legs of the so-called “Nuclear Triad” and was thus responsible for the most devastating weapons in America’s arsenal. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay insisted to Kennedy that not initiating the first-ever nuclear exchange would be similar to appeasing the Nazis at Munich. Closer to the timeline covered in The Bomber Mafia, LeMay oversaw bombings in the Korean War, the fatality of which he later gladly guessed at: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population?” In 1968, he would join forces with segregationist George Wallace as the vice-presidential candidate on his “American Independent Party” ticket, a fact literally relegated to a footnote in Gladwell’s book. This kind of omission is par for the course in The Bomber Mafia. While Gladwell constantly reminds the reader that the air force leadership was trying to wage more effective wars so as to end all wars, he cannot help but shove under the rug that which is inconvenient.[2]

In Gladwell’s gloss, LeMay “won the battle” with the firebombing of Tokyo, but it was the visionary Haywood Hansell who “won the war,” as the U.S. government can now blow up pretty much anybody it wants with extreme precision, in almost any conditions. “We can admire Curtis LeMay, respect him, and try to understand his choices,” he writes. “But Hansell is the one we give our hearts to,” because:

We live in an era when new tools and technologies emerge every day. But the only way those new technologies serve some higher purpose is if a dedicated band of believers insists that they be used to that purpose.

The passive voice serves Gladwell well here, elevating mere imprecision to the platitudinal level at which he so thrives; from where, exactly, do “tools and technologies,” such as ballistic nuclear missiles, “emerge”? As to how the protagonists of his story reckon with their own destruction, Gladwell notes that “Curtis LeMay put the bomb-damage photos of Schweinfurt and Regensburg [a failed 1943 bombing campaign over Germany] in the foyer of his house because he wanted to remind himself every day of how many of his men were lost in the course of what he considered a fruitless mission.”

It’s at this point that Gladwell fleetingly acknowledges it would be nice if the guy had been a little more caring, even if we do, in fact gotta hand it to LeMay: “I would feel better about Curtis LeMay if he had also hung the strike photos from the firebombing of Tokyo.” This is truly a lesson for the McKinsey set and passive-income crowd for whom The Bomber Mafia is intended: doing bad things is fine, so long as you privately feel bad about it.

The Bomber Mafia concludes with a conversation among Gladwell, then-Air Force chief of staff General David Goldfein, and other cigar-chomping, brass-clad assholes. At the so-called “Air House,” the Air Force chief’s residence across the Potomac from Washington, Gladwell talks with them about how things have changed since the 1940s. It’s an opportunity to give the leading men of the American military the floor, to explain why strategic bombing is the way of the present and the future, and that we are fortunate not to have to make the moral sacrifices that men like LeMay supposedly had to. By way of example, one general recalls an instance in which his troops in Afghanistan were under fire.

“So three different bombs land within twenty meters of this guy, taking out three different buildings, and the guy survives with his team,” the general tells Gladwell. “That’s how precise precision-guided bombs can be.” Gladwell hastens to add that air power like this shouldn’t be considered a panacea:

If your target is a single man inside a room, then you have to have intelligence good enough to tell you that this is the man you want. And when you have a way of hitting a man inside a room, then it becomes awfully easy to decide to strike doesn’t it? They are all worried about that fact: the cleaner and more precise a bomber gets, the more tempting it is to use that bomber—even when you shouldn’t.

And yet he declines to apply his own moral test to the present day, instead choosing to end his book on the next page, leaving us to do the work for him. The British advocacy group Action on Armed Violence just this month estimated that between 2016 and 2020 in Afghanistan, there were more than 2,100 civilians killed and 1,800 injured by air strikes; 37 percent of those killed were children.

“Explaining the high numbers of child deaths requires context. As foreign ground troop numbers have dwindled in Afghanistan, with a full pull-out expected in September 2021, the NATO operation has become increasingly reliant on US aerial operations, alongside their ally the Afghan Air Force, in their fight against the Taliban,” the organization’s press release states. “But this form of offensive, especially when used in populated areas, has had devastating impacts on Afghan civilians.”

The flap jacket of The Bomber Mafia, which will undoubtedly grace the fingers of thousands of customers at Hudson News kiosks and Barnes and Nobles around the country, claims that it is “a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.” How can someone bother calculating that which he doesn’t even count?

[1] The basis for Crane’s claim, Gladwell straightforwardly reports, is an encounter with an unnamed “senior Japanese historian” who told Crane, before a Japanese audience in a lecture hall in Tokyo, that “in the end, we must thank you, Americans, for the firebombing and the atomic bombs.”

[2] In the months leading up to the dropping of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, LeMay publicly discussed the cities marked for firebombing, which newspapers termed LeMay’s “death list”—another detail that Gladwell leaves out. On the morning of August 6, the day that Hiroshima was bombed, the United Press reported that 580 bombers sent by LeMay had dropped “3,850 tons of fire and explosive bombs on four more Japanese ‘death list’ cities.”

[Noah Kulwin is a writer and co-host of the podcast Blowback. He lives in Brooklyn.]

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