A Bomb

The Bomber Mafia
By Malcolm Gladwell
Audiobook: 5 hours 14 minutes. Pushkin. $32 or 1 credit on Libro.fm.

I’ve enjoyed all the Malcolm Gladwell books I’ve ever read … until now. Maybe because this isn’t really a book at all — it’s a glorified podcast.

“The Bomber Mafia” just failed to interest me. Maybe it’s because this is very much focused on a particular episode of military history, and I’ve never really been a military history kind of guy, or maybe it’s because this is just really, really dry until around the final 30 minutes or so.

I was advised to get the audio version of this, and I’m sure glad I did. As much as I didn’t care for the book itself, I don’t think I would have even finished the print version. That’s because Gladwell has loaded this thing chock-a-block full of audio interviews, radio clips, sound effects, and more. Even then, Gladwell — who narrates this, as he does all his audiobooks — isn’t reading the book on audio, he’s performing aloud as he would in his podcast “Revisionist History.”

I can only imagine reading the print edition would be a somewhat frustrating experience if it reads anything like how the audiobook sounds. When you’re making something for audio, like a podcast, the words you say, the structure of your sentences, the general tone, are just going to be different than they would if you were putting them down to be published in a physical book.

Why this isn’t just a podcast is beyond me. First of all, this is only five hours and a bit, far too short for a book if you ask me, and again, probably a fifth of that is recorded interviews. Would you really want to read a book in which 20% consists of just transcripts of interviews and audio clips?

That said, it’s a pretty cool listening experience — because it was designed for audio. It was the content that left me wanting.

Despite its short length, there is just so much build-up here for what serves to be the book’s climax — the firebombing of Tokyo.

The two main players here are General Curtis LeMay and the man he’d replace as commander of bomber command in the Pacific Theater in the Second World War, General Haywood Hansell.

Hansell was a supporter of precision bombing campaigns, while LeMay was an advocate of what we might literally refer to as scorched earth tactics.

Bomb everything, indiscriminately. Men, women, and children. Armed combatants andcivilians.

Hence the firebombing of Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities.

LeMay comes off as a John Wayne figure of sorts. A cocksure gunslinger who takes the law into his own hands and guns down the bad guys — and their children.

Hansell is LeMay’s contemplative counterpart, endlessly debating the moral quandaries of an issue. Because he lacks LeMay’s flashiness and chutzpah he’s overshadowed by the latter and pushed into the shadows even though his influence and advocacy for precision bombing and fewer civilian casualties obviously won him the future.

Near the end, “The Bomber Mafia” poses its central question — is Curtis LeMay, the general who believed that the most humane response to war was to be as brutal as possible in the belief that such brutality would bring an earlier end to war, thus saving more lives, a war hero or a war criminal?

Whether in an effort to maintain his neutrality or because he’s genuinely unsure, Gladwell vacillates on the issue. He references a Japanese historian who states, quite interestingly, that were it not for LeMay, the Soviet Union would have invaded Japan followed by the US, leading to a Japan divided between American and Soviet control, much like Germany was for the second half of the century. In this historian’s mind, LeMay was responsible for ending the war earlier than it otherwise would have ended, sparing both American and Japanese lives.


I have no reason to doubt that this would have been the outcome. The problem is in then absolving LeMay for the death of so many hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Japanese civilians. The accounts of the firebombings across Japan that Gladwell includes here are terrifying … and morally grotesque.

Couldn’t any war criminal justify their brutality in this way? Couldn’t the Nazis have waved away their atrocities in much the same way?

If LeMay is a hero, where does the line between heroism and barbarism lie?

“The Bomber Mafia” would have made for a good podcast if it were around a third of the length. As it stands, it’s all far too much preamble leading up to one very interesting question.

3 thoughts on “A Bomb

  1. This is something of a departure from Gladwell’s usual kind of book isn’t it? I loved The Tipping Point and Outliers but found How to Talk to Strangers such a disappointment. He had one idea and just seemed to be repeating and repeating it


    1. I’m right there with you! The Tipping Point and Outliers are both classics. It seems he’s been deviating from that formula as of late, particularly this one. Just didn’t feel like a Gladwell book in any way.


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