How do you end a war as quickly as possible with minimal casualties? During WWII, an elite group of US fighter pilots—the Bomber Mafia—believed they held the answer: by precision-bombing key infrastructure. This strategy was a radical departure from the standard practice at the time of intentionally bombing civilians and city centers. The Bomber Mafia were revolutionaries, but their story isn’t one of unambiguous success. Much of their story is about failure—personal and technological. In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell draws out specific moments of suspense as the ill-fated fighter pilots struggle at every turn.
Gladwell’s characteristic “let’s-get-excited-about-this-together!” style serves the topic well. Europe is being destroyed. The Nazis are invading. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. What is the Bomber Mafia going to do about it? The elements of suspense may keep the reader turning pages, but The Bomber Mafia also succeeds as a reflection on the moral dilemmas of war. The leading figures are larger-than-life war heroes, but Gladwell emphasizes their humanity, particularly in terms of the aftermath of war atrocities.
The final chapters of the book focus on the U.S. bombing raids on Japan. Even before we dropped the nuclear bombs, our air force devastated Japanese cities with napalm firebombs, killing countless civilians. How could they justify such monstrous acts? In context, Gladwell’s book raises possibly an even more consequential question: how different would history have been if the Bomber Mafia had succeeded in their original goal?
Peter Clarke is the author of The Singularity Survival Guide and the editor-in-chief of Jokes Literary Review. See: petermclarke.com.