History at 30,000 Feet: Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia”

An American bomber over Osaka in 1945. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Just one month before the Imperial Japanese Army’s attack on Nanjing (Nanking), where a large number of non-combatants were killed in the now infamous 1937 massacre, a Japanese corporal named Hamazaki Tomizō wrote in his war diary: “Look upon the land and the sea, Chiang Kai-shek, you did not know the resolve of the Imperial Army and defied us! Now we’re closing in around your neck …” In the months leading up to the assault on the Chinese capital, Japanese soldiers whipped themselves in to a righteous anger about their enemies. Why wouldn’t they surrender? Japanese troops had been ordered by the emperor to “strike a great blow” against the Chinese Nationalist regime in Nanjing, and soldiers widely believed that they could break the morale of the Chinese in a widespread campaign of terror, thereby hastening the end of the war and saving Japanese lives. The Chinese Nationalist government never surrendered, even after eight long years of brutalization and occupation. The parallels between the Japanese imperialist war in China and the justifications and decision-making described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia are unsettling.

Gladwell’s argument is as simple as it is frustrating. He posits that during the war the US bomber command faced a choice between precision bombing and mass terror bombing. To dramatize this conflict, he narrows his gaze exclusively to General Haywood Hansell and his peers (the so-called “Bomber Mafia”), who advocated for precision, and Curtis Le May, who supported mass bombing. LeMay replaced Hansell and oversaw a firebombing campaign that incinerated vast areas of urban Japan in order to break the morale of the Japanese and force them to surrender. Even the “hard choice” to purposefully kill civilians was supposedly for the best, as it shortened the war and “brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” Gladwell’s book is a history written from 30,000 feet, and miles away from the violence. He is fascinated by US airmen and their quest to improve the technology of bombing in order to win the war through unconventional thinking and determination. What happened to the victims of the “longest night of World War II,” is of little concern for Gladwell.

Gladwell’s book is a myth that American have told themselves about a complex and deeply problematic history. Even long time soldiers often questioned the value of wartime tactics or war itself. As Lieutenant General Sasaki Tōichi, who commanded a regiment in Nanjing during the massacre, wrote in his diary, “What are we fighting for? What’s the point? Can anyone ever really win a war?” Myth-makers rarely engage in serious interrogation of the assumptions behind convenient stories. Gladwell’s book recycles an argument as old as air power itself, stating that, by killing vulnerable people, we can end a conflict quickly. In effect, however, we are not saving lives overall, but our own lives. In any case, by listening to the targets of the Allied air war, we can see that this assertion is not straightforward and, in the end, may be immoral. But ignoring the civilian impacts is not a problem unique to Gladwell’s book, as it affects the historians we all read on the history of WWII.

Aerial bombing was long thought of as a form of psychological warfare. Airman across all belligerent nations believed genuinely in the value of shock theory (and airmen, as “shock and awe” bombing campaigns from Baghdad to Gaza show, still do). Even before WWII, colonial powers across the globe, the Japanese included, conducted terror campaigns from the air against both “natives” and fellow Europeans. Air power advocates insisted that by subjecting civilians to overwhelming firepower, one could cause a collapse like that of Germany in 1919. Both German psychiatrists and air war theorists in the interwar period made such connections between WWI shell shock and Germany’s capitulation. Bombing the worker, as Sheldon Garon pointed out, was in theory going to radicalize him, and turn him against his government. Thus, air forces would be aimed at the poor and urban districts, killing those who could not evacuate, with the hope of fomenting revolution. As Richard Overy showed in The Bombing War, however, the process toward area bombing in WWII was gradual, and rooted in the experience of the Royal Air Force, America’s ally and chief interlocutor in air strategy.

As Gladwell points out, the attempt to break the will of the enemy by mass killing was truly put to the test in WWII, and many were eager to “prove” it worked, from US strategists to Nazi doctors. In an interview with the Third Reich’s Health Leader (Reichsgesundheitsfuehrer) Leonardo Conti, American interviewers referred to the bombing campaign as a “war of vegetative neuroses.” Conti agreed. He added “this was the greatest effect of the air war on the people. The increase in all these neurogenic conditions is the greatest and most debilitating effect. It created unseen enemy in our midst. An enemy that undermined every individual effort to the total war.” A Japanese psychiatrist, quoted in a postwar report, described a similar situation to the German one, “the [people] lost their grip on reality and in many cases became quite apathetic. They were dazed and this feeling has persisted up to the present.” Psychologically damaged people, the logic went, cannot fight, do not show for work, and radiate disquiet and misery, thus lowering morale. And it was this outcome that was what the WWII bombers fleets were hoping to affect: a form of psychological warfare via napalm.

family leaving Tokyo after an air raid, 1945. Source: Asahi News.

The impact of bombing, however, becomes increasingly unclear the closer we examine civilian experiences, which is perhaps why the myth-makers of the bombing war rarely wish to engage with them. A central approach of Gladwell’s book is to present the story of aerial bombing as a concatenation of decisions made by well-intentioned American staff officers, inventors, and other “obsessive” wonks. He is aware, however, that the US armed forces were already testing napalm on model Japanese homes well before the putative turning point at which Curtis LeMay pivots the American air assault towards “dehousing workers.” Furthermore, why did the American government and mass media, as John W. Dower argued so persuasively in War without Mercy, spend so much effort dehumanizing Japanese people if the point of burning their cities was to “save lives”? Gladwell occasionally acknowledges this problem throughout his book, discussing for example bomber pilots’ disgust at the smell of burning human flesh while flying low over target cities—but these are ephemeral concerns in a book otherwise focused on the genius of the bomber command. Other historians will get into the weeds of why some of Gladwell’s arguments about the “bomber mafia” are factually wrong. What we want to emphasize is what is lost when we argue history from above, trapped in a kind of bell jar of strategic debate, to discuss a war that ultimately targeted those below.

First, by listening to survivors we learn that victims of air raids were caught in a deadly cycle of increasing anger and violence. Air raids did not subjugate Japanese people (unless they were dead). Ishikawa Chieko, a student drafted into the labor corps of military factory, committed herself to the war effort as US bombers attacked her hometown of Chiba:

We got off at Soga station at 9:05am at the main entrance. The women workers all lined up to greet us. Incidentally, the other day a group of B-29s flew over just as we were setting off on parade. We’re going to build planes to nail those bastard B-29s.

American military leaders must have had some inkling of the fact that attacking civilians triggered outrage, because German terror bombing had already inspired desire for retaliation across Britain. Birmingham war diarist Bertram Elwood wrote:

[I have] a full knowledge of what bombing means. I know what a terrible, filthy weapon it is. … I have picked up bodies and bits of bodies whilst the bombs are still falling. I have seen little children laid out in a row, their faces dumbly turned to the cold light of the moon; or cuddling each other, mute in death. I have seen all these things and I still say—bomb the Germans; bomb them hard; bomb them indiscriminately. I say this not out of hatred or revenge but because I think it will help shorten the war.

The impact of the air attacks was therefore not necessarily to shorten the war and save lives, but in many cases to increase the desire to kill other people.

Second, by eliminating the voices of those who experienced the air raids, we lose sight of how awful the “good war” really was. In Gladwell’s book, he seemed most out of sorts in the Tokyo Air Raid Museum, where he did not engage with a single survivor’s account; he seemed lost in translation, wondering why there was no equivalent of the British Imperial War Museum in Japan. Consequently, like many foreign observers, Gladwell errs in assuming there is no war remembrance culture in Japan. In fact, Japanese people published en masse wartime diaries and later memoirs describing how terrible wartime losses were—and they wrote in much greater volume and detail than in Britain or the United States. Like many who suffered at the hands of the air strategists whom Gladwell finds so captivating, Mochizuki Masako, a 36 year old housewife in Tokyo’s Honjō Ward, wrote how she had to locate her relatives among the dead:

The army was piling the bodies on top of each other, one by one, in the bed of a truck. I looked at each corpse’s face as I walked by and—at the very bottom—there was my sister and [my niece] Noriko … My sister had kneeled down and put her left hand over Noriko’s face, which was turned up to the sky, and had wrapped her right hand around the girl’s back, leaving the two locked in an embrace. For some reason, their hair was not burned; their hairstyles, gold fillings, and kimono inside their thighs were all fine … the flesh inside their thighs was still pink … We could only hold each other and say, “Why, why, why did this happen to them?” and then fall silent, crying, unable to leave them.

In Gladwell’s restricted story of the bombing war as a tale of disruptors and eccentrics, the consequences of their actions are blithely dismissed, whether it is intentional or not. Japanese citizens struggled with the fact that the techniques and technologies of war had changed, turning cities into nightmarish landscapes, as recorded by Yoshida Takeshi, who had been a 6th grade schoolboy at the time:

The bodies I saw [in one neighbourhood] were not burned. The clothes had been blown off by wind from the bombs, but their skin had not been burned. I thought they looked like dolls. In [another neighbourhood], the corpses were totally black. They didn’t look like people—more like figures sculpted from ash. The internal organs, however, came bursting from inside the ash raw and bloody.

The firebombing was so extensive that urban residents saw rats scrambling over the power lines on the streets, and other refugees’ trouser legs were black with clinging insects escaping the heat. Streets melted and bricks burned. After watching the northern city of Aomori being totally destroyed in a single attack, Narita Kazuko remembered the “horrible smell [of corpses] that came down to Namioka town [15 miles away], and the disgust I can feel even to this day.” Again, this was not just a Japanese experience: in Coventry, one survivor recalled that the entire city smelled of Corrider lime: “It was evidently some form of disinfectant,” he wrote, “because of the deaths and the rats.” If we force ourselves to confront the reality of an air war on the ground, Gladwell’s obsessives are less like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and bear a more uncomfortable resemblance to some of the worst war criminals of the twentieth century.

Third, willful ignorance about the impact on civilians reinforces the view that their stories are irrelevant to the history of WWII, which exacerbates the marginalization of bombing victims. For years after the war, many families refused to speak about their losses, which permitted the proliferation of histories about the war in which victims were merely background noise. But the problem of survivor silence may be even more acute in countries like Britain, where the celebration of the “Blitz spirit” by writers like Gladwell have unwittingly contributed to a veil of silence around wartime suffering. Patricia Bovill, who was only six years old during the November 1940 Hull blitz, remembered being buried alive, rescued, and then vomiting over her pyjamas in the hospital, while her parents were killed instantly in the air raid. Even more painful, however, was her grandparents’ refusal to help her know her parents. “I would like my children to know more about their grandparents,” she wrote after the war, “but my grandparents were devastated by it and couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it.” Like many others through the years, Gladwell finds himself besotted with what Angus Calder called the “myth of the Blitz,” in which the British people faced bombing with steely fortitude—and here writers almost invariably confuse “Britain” with the wartime government’s propaganda about London. Another unintended consequence of marginalizing survivors’ voices is that we throw away the most important lessons learned during WWII. Yamaki Mikiko, as a young woman, saw off pilots to almost certain demise in the Philippines and Okinawa. Like many survivors, Mikiko came to see their complicity in the war’s brutality, and the inevitable end toward which the myth-makers and propagandists were leading us: “War is death. There is no such thing as a ‘valuable death’, a ‘pointless death’, an enemy’s death, or an ally’s death. War is simply murder, for some reason or another.”

In an effort to counter the terrifying effects of bombing, the Germans, Japanese, and the British all made extraordinary efforts to evacuate and shelter bombed populations. The Gestapo, the Kenpeitai, and British domestic intelligence constantly monitored civilian morale. Civil Defense officials in all countries expected massive numbers of psychiatric casualties and much civil unrest. In 1938, British experts predicted an “aerial holocaust, [which] it was assumed would not only kill civilians; it would also send them mad.” Japan was no exception. Following the 1924 Kanto earthquake, Japanese military authorities dreaded and planned for such a collapse, though they convinced themselves that superior Japanese “spirit” would prevent “Western diseases” like war neurosis. Gladwell noted such fears but dismissed them out of hand, writing that the hospitals stayed empty. The reason for British psychiatric hospitals’ low admission rates had more to do with them being staffed by older WWI doctors who had little patience for “histrionics”. Gladwell nevertheless puts more faith in wartime British propaganda films and myths about the “Blitz spirit” than historical accounts. This dismissal is more than just a sleight of hand. Gladwell ignores the enormous suffering wrought by the bombs and opts instead for a triumphalist view, where the post-war’s peace and prosperity was a happy outcome of area bombing.

As soon as Japan surrendered, US survey teams belonging to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), fanned out in jeeps across the devastated country to “prove” that their bombing campaign saved lives by killing civilians. Walking in pairs or alone, armed often only with a pen and a clipboard, they went among the ruins and, using bilingual forms, asked people about their experience of being bombed. This surreal scene encapsulates much of the hubris and folly of the bombing campaign and its aftermath. Brazenly walking about asking bombing victims how they felt about the experience resembled a strange kind of customer satisfaction survey. The USSBS morale surveys were part of a larger effort to evaluate the impact of the fire raids and atomic bombings on the ground. The teams included engineers, medical doctors and other specialists, but by far, the largest contingent that was sent to Japan was the morale unit. The evaluation of enemy morale was supposed to be a part of a science-based assessment of one of the more amorphous and deadly ideas that drove total war in the 20th century: that bombs from the air could break the enemy’s “will to fight.”

Destroying wills meant destroying minds. One psychologist noted that “the people of the bombed areas are highly sensitive to all flashes of light and all types of sounds. Such a condition may be said to be a manifestation of the most primitive form of fear. To give instances: they are frightened by noises from radio, the whistle of trains, the roar of our own planes, the sparks from trolleys, etc.” Another wrote, approvingly, “Whenever a plane was seen after that, people would rush into their shelters. They went in and out so much they did not have time to eat. They were so nervous they could not work.” When speaking to post-war American surveyors, Japanese citizens did not articulate any hatred for their former enemies, but they also expressed little surprise about the price of American air strategy. One survivor told an interviewer, noting his lack of shock at American conduct, “I had heard that Americans were brutal because they took lunches to view lynching at which whites poured gasoline over Negroes who had attacked white women.” In one of the USSBS interviews, a survivor told psychologist Alexander Leighton, “if there is such a thing as ghosts, why don’t they haunt the Americans,” to which Leighton added, “perhaps they do.”

The ghosts did haunt some Americans, but they do not seem to haunt Gladwell. This is because he did not look for them. In The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell declares that “United States and Japan probably had less contact with each other and knew less about each other than any two wartime combatants in history.” This is manifestly untrue, but it may be safe to say that Gladwell does not know Japan, and did not seem to try to be informed about the country and its historical experience of the war in any meaningful way. The Japanese have no central memorials or Imperial war museums, but neither do the Germans. The Central Memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship, the Berlin Neue Wache, is nothing like the spaces in Washington or London. Perhaps it is because the Japanese do not remember the war—but this is only believable to someone who is completely unaware of Japan’s peace museum culture, which is more extensive than any country in the West. In fact, the museums, archives, and records of Japan’s experience are absent because it has little to do with the meetings of generals and inventors whom Gladwell is so enamored by.

So why discuss the horrors of the air war at all? Because Gladwell really aspires his book to be about morality. He wants to show that he does care for the terrible price paid by innocent civilians, but in the book, all he manages to offer are gestures of concern. The book is really about his boyish fascination with the machines of war and the men who handle them in difficult times. To obfuscate the moral quandaries of the air war, Gladwell resurrects the questionable argument of the bombing campaign ending the war and preventing the US invasion of Japan, but the Soviet invasion of Manchuria—a much more plausible explanation for the surrender—is not mentioned. Whether the indiscriminate, systematic mass killing of non-combatants was justified in order to stop Nazism and Japanese imperialism is a debate that will never end, particularly in America. But looking away from the non-combatants whom the US armed forces killed is not a responsible way to have that debate.

It is astonishing that we can still write books about the efficacy of bombing without ever reading the accounts of those who experienced it. Perhaps we are afraid of what we will find. One does not exorcise our ghosts writing books like Gladwell’s. Gladwell does not look at the dead, and many of his readers will happy to look away with him, and celebrate the genius of the air forces, even if celebrating the genius of German or Japanese air forces is profoundly disturbing. These cognitive dissonances can only be maintained through the power of myth. On 11 November 1941, Bristol blitz survivor V.A. Maund went to the cinema to see a film called “One Night in Lisbon,” which was a pro-British US film starring Fred MacMurray. Bristol had already been burned by German firebombing, which included the destruction of her local library and other landmarks. “An American idea of a London air raid,” she wrote in her diary, “is funny to those who have experienced the real thing. May they always be able to keep their illusions.”

Aaron William Moore is the Handa Chair of Japanese-Chinese Relations at the University of Edinburgh. His book Bombing the City, examines civilian accounts of WWII air raids in Britain and Japan. Ran Zwigenberg is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His book Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture, analyzes comparatively the historical memories of the Atomic Bombings of Japan and the Holocaust.