Malcolm Gladwell on the Hard Decisions of War

Historians in the News
tags: military history, air power, World War 2, Air Force, Curtis LeMay, Tokyo firebombing

Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist, is the author of seven books, most recently First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.

A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
By Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” is a kind of love song to the United States Air Force, which is surprising, because it is the least romantic of our armed services, with leaders who focus on technology, not tradition. Also, the air arm tends to be regarded by the other services as suspiciously civilian-ish — as in the soldiers’ one-liner, “I have a lot of respect for the U.S. military, and also for the Air Force.” But in Gladwell’s deft hands, the Air Force generals of World War II come back to life as the stirring 20th-century equivalent of Adm. Horatio Nelson and his band of audacious captains from the age of fighting sail.

Here is Gladwell’s stunning description of a United States Air Force B-17 bomber being cut up on a run over Germany:

“One 20-millimeter cannon shell penetrated the right side of the airplane and exploded beneath the pilot, cutting one of the gunners in the leg. A second shell hit the radio compartment, cutting the legs of the radio operator off at the knees. He bled to death. A third hit the bombardier in the head and shoulder. A fourth shell hit the cockpit, taking out the plane’s hydraulic system. A fifth severed the rudder cables. A sixth hit the number 3 engine, setting it on fire. This was all in one plane. The pilot kept flying.”

The unexpected hero of Gladwell’s story is Curtis LeMay — yes, that one, the general who firebombed Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities and then, decades later, supposedly advocated bombing the Vietnamese back into the Stone Age. (Gladwell partly excuses this notorious phrase, saying it was likely the work of a ghostwriter.) The villain, or at least loser in this account, is another Air Force general, Haywood Hansell, who had tried to win the war in the Pacific through the precision-bombing of Japan. In Gladwell’s account, Hansell’s relatively more humane approach didn’t work. One historian tells the author that Hansell “was not the kind of man who was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people. He just didn’t have it. Didn’t have it in his soul.” After a few months in command of the B-29 raids on Japan, Hansell was dismissed and replaced by LeMay, who was told to come up with a new plan.

Read entire article at New York Times

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