“The Bomber Mafia dreamed of bombing with extreme precision. Every part has come true ‘


Over a year and a half ago, the bestselling Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell visited a small museum resembling a dentist’s office in Japan which was dedicated to a night during WWII when the US Air Force bombed Tokyo and over 80,000 people were killed. Moved, Gladwell decided to retrace America’s footsteps until the night of March 9, 1945. He spoke to Aries of Sharmila Ganesan about his latest book “The Bomber Mafia”, which explores the intersection of technology, war and its morality:

Who was the bomber mafia? Would you describe them as outliers?

The Bomber Mafia were a group of young US Air Force pilots, based in central Alabama in the mid-1930s. They believed high-flying bombers and precise bombs dropped could transform warfare. modern. Were they outliers? I think so a lot. An outlier is someone who stands apart from their peers – by trying something unusual. The dream of the Bomber Mafia was completely at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the military of the time.

The book delves into the psyches of two generals, one who wanted to limit casualties using precision bombing and the other who set Tokyo on fire. What intrigued you about them and why did you avoid taking sides?

The book is organized around two men – Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell. Hansell was the spiritual leader of the Bomber Mafia, a dreamer who believed technology could reinvent war. LeMay was the opposite: a cold-blooded realist who thought the Bomber Mafia were hopeless romantics. They hated each other. It’s rare that you can find a story where the two central characters represent such diametrically opposed points of view. And they were such colorful personalities too. Why did I avoid taking sides? Because I can see the logic of their two positions. My heart was with Hansell. My head was with LeMay.

LeMay’s army was stationed near Calcutta. So they had to fly over the Himalayas?

Yes. It was one of the most absurd ideas of war. Until Guam was captured by the US military in mid-1944, the US Air Force had no clear way of reaching Japan. The best they could find was to station a fleet of bombers in Calcutta. The B-29s would then fly over the Himalayas to a small base in China, where they would refuel, and go to Japan. Every part of this idea was absurd, especially the crossing of the Himalayas. Many planes might just complete this first half of the trip. And the amount of fuel it took to cross the mountain range left little for the second half of the mission in Japan.

The development of Norden sights gave pilots the ability to aim at specific targets. Why does the world know so little about its inventor Carl Norden?

Honestly, I do not know. Norden’s crusade to build an analog computer to solve the bomb-dropping problem with precision was one of the most expensive and beloved science projects of the war. He was a real genius. But he was also very shy of publicity, and that may explain why he has been virtually ignored by historians.

Would it be fair to see surgical strikes as a modern take on this historic effort to marry technology and morality?

Absolutely. The Bomber Mafia dreamed of how bombs could be dropped with pinpoint precision. The technology just wasn’t there in the 1940s to make this vision a reality. But they were absolutely right to believe that this is the direction bombing should and would take for the rest of the 20th century. Today every part of the Bomber Mafia dream has come true.

You first wrote it as an audiobook. Has the format changed your writing style?

The format absolutely changes the way I write, because voice and sound are so much more emotional and intimate than the printed word.

Was it your childhood obsession with war fiction that inspired you to write about the technology used in WWII?

My father grew up in England during WWII. As a child, he slept under his bed, as German bombers flew over their path to bomb London. I grew up with his war stories.

Revolutions, you said, are group activities that require conversation. Does that mean you are not a fan of remote working?

I hate telecommuting. This makes creative collaboration almost impossible. And it’s especially difficult for young people, who need face-to-face interaction to acquire the kind of soft skills that ensure long-term professional excellence.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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