From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Narrative Napalm: Malcolm Gladwell’s Apologia for American Butchery
Date May 28, 2021 12:00 AM
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[Portside typically aims at reviewing books offering a radical,
cogent POV. This is not the case for the book here, a political
slapdash whose trade-promoted author justifies if not glorifies mass
slaughter in promoting war aims and imperial ventures.]
[[link removed]]


[[link removed]]


Noah Kulwin
May 17, 2021
The Baffler [[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]

_ Portside typically aims at reviewing books offering a radical,
cogent POV. This is not the case for the book here, a political
slapdash whose trade-promoted author justifies if not glorifies mass
slaughter in promoting war aims and imperial ventures. _

An American propaganda leaflet dropped ahead of Curtis LeMay’s
firebomb campaign over Japan., Kelly Michals // The Baffler


    They empty the swimming-baths and lay out the dead.

    There are children who haven’t learnt to swim, bundled

    With budgerigars and tabbies under the stairs.

    Shockwaves are wrinkling the water that isn’t there.

    —Michael Longley,  “Blitz” (1987)

There are infinite kinds of irresponsible books that a
well-credentialed media insider can write.

First are the total farces of fact. These include former _New York
Times_ chief Jill Abramson’s mangling
[[link removed]] of
basic details about her subjects in her book on new media, or the time
that Naomi Wolf, once an adviser to Al Gore, learned on the air in
an interview
[[link removed]] with
the BBC that the thesis of her latest book was based on her complete
misreading of a nineteenth century legal definition.

A second variety of irresponsible books are those whose primary
purpose is to market their authors at the expense of humane and
rational thinking and behavior. For example, _The Problem From
Hell_ allowed Samantha Power to parlay her journalism into a Beltway
policy career as the human face of the American forever war
[[link removed]]. _Hillbilly
Elegy_’s J.D. Vance is reportedly preparing
[[link removed]] a
run for the Republican nomination for Senate in his home state of

And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral
sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm
Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, _The Bomber Mafia_,
is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by
arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in
the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe,
unequivocally safer.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the
Second World War
[[link removed]]
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company; 288 pages
April 27, 2021
Hardcover:  $29.00; E-book:  $14.95
ISBN-13: 9780316309851
ISBN-13: 9780316296939 

Little, Brown and Company
According to Gladwell himself, his latest book is “designed
[[link removed]] to be
heard (as well as read),” which depending on one’s interpretation
is either savvy marketing or a pre-emptive defense of the extreme
cringe on the page, peppered with asides like “That is _so_ Air
Force” or “And this is my favorite part.” _The Bomber
Mafia_ is adapted from a few episodes of Gladwell’s chart-topping
podcast, _Revisionist History_, and the book is relatively slim, with
a large typeface that—while certainly more accessible to the
sexagenarian-and-up titan-of-industry types with whom Gladwell loves
to consort—helps to give the impression that the book is meatier
stuff than it really is. Form imitating substance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s decades-long shtick has been to launder
contrarian thought and corporate banalities through his positions as a
staff writer at _The_ _New Yorker _and author at Little, Brown and
Company. These institutions’ disciplining effect on Gladwell’s
prose, getting his rambling mind to conform to clipped sentences and
staccato revelations, has belied his sly maliciousness and explosive
vacuity: the two primary qualities of Gladwell’s oeuvre.

_The Bomber Mafia_ is Gladwell’s sixth book since _The Tipping
Point_ (“what if the little things are the big things?”) was
published in 2000. His debut was followed by _Blink_ (“what if
your gut instinct was right?”) in 2005 and _David and
Goliath _(“what if the little guy was actually the big guy?”) in
2013, with other intellectually insignificant but commercially
successful literary endeavors in between. By now, the press cycle for
every Gladwell book release is familiar: experts and critics identify
logical flaws and factual errors, they are ignored, Gladwell sells a
zillion books, and the world gets indisputably dumber for it. His
podcast routinely ranks among Apple’s top 100, suggesting that his
reach has extended beyond his mammoth book sales for some time. 

Unfortunately, while Gladwell may no longer have the journalistic
cachet he once did, he is still immensely popular.

Ever the optimist, I hope that this time is different. Gladwell has
not, of late, made an appearance in the pages of _The New Yorker_,
though he retains the label of staff writer (surely a profitable
enterprise for both). His last piece in the magazine, published
[[link removed]] in January
2019, was a brief, favorable, and widely
[[link removed]] condemned
[[link removed]] review
[[link removed]] of _Tell
Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and
Violence_, the reefer madness book published by Alex Berenson, whom
Fox News later conscripted to star in two episodes of its short-lived
program COVID Contrarian. (Berenson is now merely a fixture on Tucker
Carlson’s program.)

Unfortunately, while Gladwell may no longer have the journalistic
cachet he once did, he is still immensely popular. _The Bomber
Mafia_ debuted at the number two spot on the _New York
Times_ bestseller list. The book has been praised by reviewers in
the _Wall Street Journal_
[[link removed]] and
the _Washington Post_
[[link removed]],
with only tepid criticism from venerated military whisperer Thomas E.
Ricks in the _New York Times_
[[link removed]],
who softens the meaningful part of his review by noting that Gladwell
is “a wonderful storyteller.” Although opinions vary on that
count, by taking up military history, Gladwell’s half-witted
didacticism threatens to convince millions of people that the only
solution to American butchery is to continue shelling out for sharper
and larger knives.

_The Bomber Mafia_ is the story of a group of hidden geniuses whom
Malcolm Gladwell discovered in plain sight, well-known and openly
influential American military officials whose careers began in the
interwar period and peaked from World War II into the early 1960s.
Although the phrase “Bomber Mafia” traditionally refers to the
pre-World War II staff and graduates of the Air Corps Tactical School,
Gladwell’s book expands the term to include both kooky tinkerers and
buttoned-down military men. Wild, far-seeing mavericks, they
understood that the possibilities of air power had only just been
breached. They were also, as Gladwell insists at various points,
typical Gladwellian protagonists: secluded oddballs whose technical
zealotry and shared mission gave them a sense of community that
propelled them beyond any station they could have achieved on their

The stakes of _The Bomber Mafia_ are no less than World War II and
life or death, and yet Gladwell’s narrative is transmitted as
seamlessly as the Wall Street or Silicon Valley koans that appear atop
LinkedIn profiles, Clubhouse accounts, and Substack missives. Even his
statements of objective fact are written to look like something an
HSBC junior analyst might tell himself after a bad quarterly review:
“Airmen do not typically concern themselves with land-based
disasters.” Gladwell has built a career out of making banality seem
fresh (“To teach people history we need more statues, not fewer,”
he recently explained to the _Times_), but the latest book is a
perhaps untested boundary of moral villainy for him. Drawing a false
distinction between the Bomber Mafia and the British and American
military leaders who preceded them allows Gladwell to make the case
that a few committed brainiacs developed a humane, “tactical” kind
of air power that has built the security of the world we live in

These were men who, as Gladwell himself likens to MLK, “had a
dream” that the skies were going to be the critical battlefield of
the future:

The dream that the airplane could revolutionize warfare was based on a
massive untested and unproven assumption: that somehow, someone at
some point would figure out how to aim a bomb from high in the sky
with something close to accuracy.

Gladwell identifies the dream-havers as a revolutionary cadre that
included Curtis LeMay, Harold Lee George, Ira Eaker, Carl Norden,
Donald Wilson, and Haywood Hansell, to name a few. Their individual
contributions range from developing an unwieldy first-effort at a bomb
sight (Norden) to successfully executing a firebombing strategy on
Japan (LeMay), which Gladwell and the military historians he cites
happily credit with ending World War II.

Let’s start with where Gladwell is on firm ground: the United States
was engaged in both World Wars and deployed aerial bombardment
strategies in both, but more so in the latter. Also, it’s true that
dropping a bomb without a good tool to see where you’re dropping it
is pretty hard: “A factory might be big and obvious up close, but
from that far up, it looks like a postage stamp,” Gladwell discerns
for the reader early on.

But as is typical with Gladwell’s books and with many historical
podcasts, interrogation of the actual historical record and
the _genuine_ moral dilemmas it poses—not the low-stakes bait that
he trots out as an MBA case study in War—is subordinated to fluffy
bullshit and biographical color. Carl Norden wouldn’t have called
himself a genius, Gladwell reports, quoting historian Stephen
McFarland, because God “invents” and humans “discover.” Curtis
LeMay “had a mind that moved only forward, never sideways.” “All
war is absurd,” begins one chapter, continuing that “for thousands
of years, human beings have chosen to settle their differences by
obliterating one another.”

Further typical of Gladwell is that what begins as treacly color
naturally takes on a malevolent hue. At one point, he expounds
credulously on the myth of the particular resilience of the British
people during the German “Blitz” bombing campaign of 1940–1941,
quoting the Army War College historian Tami Biddle’s line that a
“target state . . . finds ways of absorbing the punishment if it’s
really determined to.” For Gladwell, the indefatigable British
spirit explains British military intellectuals’ seemingly dogmatic
opposition to the Bomber Mafia’s “strategic bombing” mantra.

Yet, as the historian Richard Overy has noted
[[link removed]],
the British were not Supermen and -women. What Gladwell writes of
England—that the Blitz “did not crack their morale”—is a

Gladwell has built a career out of making banality seem fresh, but the
latest book is a perhaps untested boundary of moral villainy for him.

“Government researchers found that what people wanted most was sound
information, the promise of welfare and rehabilitation, and somewhere
to sleep. The sight of destroyed buildings, corpses and body parts was
utterly alien to daily life. The trauma this produced was largely
unrecorded, and certainly untreated,” Overy wrote in _The
Guardian_ last year. The one exception, according to Overy, was the
city of Hull, where case studies showed that “people developed
serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary soiling and
wetting, persistent crying, uncontrollable shaking, headaches and
chronic dizziness; men were found to indulge in heavy drinking and
smoking after a raid, and prone to developing peptic ulcers. One woman
was bombed out of three different houses, and watched the death of her
sister and her five children. Her symptoms indicated an exceptional
level of nervous collapse.”

“What actually happened?” Gladwell asks of the Blitz. “Not that
much! The panic never came,” he answers, before favorably referring
to an unnamed “British government film from 1940,” which is in
actuality the Academy Award-nominated propaganda short _London Can
Take It!_, now understood to be emblematic
[[link removed]] of
how the myth of the stoic Brit was manufactured.

Where the Bomber Mafia really rose to the occasion, in Gladwell’s
narrative, was in the waning days of the Pacific theater of World War
II. The book’s climax comes when General Haywood Hansell, an
advocate of a “strategic bombardment” strategy that had failed to
demolish Japan as the Allies had Germany, is relieved of his command
in the Pacific and replaced by LeMay in January, 1945. While both men
were members of the “Mafia,” LeMay believed in the power of
indiscriminate destruction over attempting precision strikes, which he
put into action by initiating the napalm “fire bomb” campaign of
Japan for which he became infamous. One mission—LeMay’s napalm
campaign over Tokyo on the night of March 10, 1945—killed as many as
100,000 people in a span of three hours.

What does Gladwell make of this legacy? “LeMay is someone you have
to work a little harder to understand,” he writes. Born in Ohio in
poverty and obscurity, LeMay’s brashness was unpleasant and his
means undeniably murderous, but they were justified by their ends.
Gladwell goes to great pains to portray Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay
as merely George Patton-like: a prima donna tactician with some
masculinity issues. In reality, LeMay bears a closer resemblance to
another iconic George C. Scott performance, one that LeMay directly
inspired: _Dr. Strangelove_’s General Buck Turgidson, who at every
turn attempts to force World War III and, at the movie’s close, when
global annihilation awaits, soberly warns of a “mineshaft gap”
between the United States and the Commies. That, as Gladwell might
phrase it, was the “real” Curtis LeMay: a violent reactionary who
was never killed or tried because he had the luck to wear the brass of
the correct country on his uniform. “I suppose if I had lost the
war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” LeMay once told
[[link removed]] an
Air Force cadet. “Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”

Gladwell maintains that it was the viciousness of LeMay’s Japanese
bombing campaign, itself only made possible because of the
philosophical and technical advances of the ersatz “Mafia” of his
book, that secured the end of World War II. “Curtis LeMay’s
approach,” he concludes, “brought everyone—Americans and
Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” And
don’t just take Gladwell’s word for it; as he notes, in 1964, the
Japanese government bestowed upon LeMay an honorific for rebuilding
the Japanese Air Force, and the Japanese premier stated that
“bygones are bygones.” Though Gladwell acknowledges this was
controversial (the premier dismissed “the objections of his
colleagues in the Japanese parliament” on awarding LeMay), he
downplays its sour legacy. The social historian Katusmoto Saotome,
considered the foremost Japanese chronicler of LeMay’s campaign of
destruction, told the _New York Times Magazine_ last year that he
couldn’t forgive his government for its “totally unacceptable”
honor of the American general who burnt miles and miles of Japan to a

A skeptical reader may wonder: Why would Malcolm Gladwell, who seems
to admire LeMay so much, talk at such great length about the lethality
of LeMay’s Japanese firebombing? The answer lies in what this story
leaves out. Mentioned only glancingly in Gladwell’s story are the
atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The omission allows for a stupid and
classically Gladwell argument: that indiscriminate firebombing brought
a swift end to the war, and its attendant philosophical innovations
continue to envelop us in a blanket of security that has not been
adequately appreciated.

While LeMay’s 1945 firebombing campaign was certainly
excessive—and represented the same base indifference to human life
that got Nazis strung up at Nuremberg—it did not end the war. The
Japanese were not solely holding out because their military men were
fanatical in ways that the Americans weren’t, as Gladwell seems to
suggest, citing Conrad Crane, an Army staff historian and hagiographer
of LeMay’s[1]
[[link removed]]; they
were holding out because they wanted better terms of surrender—terms
they had the prospect of negotiating with the Soviet Union.

The United States, having already developed an atomic weapon—and
having made the Soviet Union aware of it—decided to drop it as it
became clear the Soviet Union was readying to invade Japan. On August
6, the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later,
and mere hours after the Soviet Union formally declared war on the
morning of August 9, the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb on
Nagasaki. An estimated 210,000 people were killed, the majority of
them on the days of the bombings.

It was the detonation of _these_ bombs that forced the end of the
war. The Japanese unconditional surrender to the Americans was
announced on August 15 and formalized on the deck of the USS Missouri
on September 2. As historians like Martin Sherwin and Tsuyoshi
Hasegawa have pointed out, by dropping the bombs, the Truman
administration had kept the Communist threat out of Japan. Imperial
Japan was staunchly anticommunist, and under American post-war
dominion, the country would remain that way. But Gladwell is
unequipped to supply the necessary geopolitical context that could
meaningfully explain why the American government would force
an _unconditional_ surrender when the possibility of negotiation
remained totally live. 

“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war
criminal,” LeMay once told an Air Force cadet. “Fortunately, we
were on the winning side.”

Curtis LeMay, after the events of Gladwell’s book, was placed in
charge of the Strategic Air Command, which oversaw two legs of the
so-called “Nuclear Triad” and was thus responsible for the most
devastating weapons in America’s arsenal. At the height of the Cuban
Missile Crisis, LeMay insisted to Kennedy that _not _initiating the
first-ever nuclear exchange would be similar to appeasing the Nazis at
Munich. Closer to the timeline covered in _The Bomber Mafia_, LeMay
oversaw bombings in the Korean War, the fatality of which he later
gladly guessed
[[link removed]] at:
“Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20
percent of the population?” In 1968, he would join forces with
segregationist George Wallace as the vice-presidential candidate on
his “American Independent Party” ticket, a fact literally
relegated to a footnote in Gladwell’s book. This kind of omission is
par for the course in _The Bomber Mafia_. While Gladwell constantly
reminds the reader that the air force leadership was trying to wage
more effective wars so as to end _all_ wars, he cannot help but
shove under the rug that which is inconvenient.[2]
[[link removed]]

In Gladwell’s gloss, LeMay “won the battle” with the firebombing
of Tokyo, but it was the visionary Haywood Hansell who “won the
war,” as the U.S. government can now blow up pretty much anybody it
wants with extreme precision, in almost any conditions. “We can
admire Curtis LeMay, respect him, and try to understand his
choices,” he writes. “But Hansell is the one we give our hearts
to,” because:

We live in an era when new tools and technologies emerge every day.
But the only way those new technologies serve some higher purpose is
if a dedicated band of believers _insists _that they be used to that

The passive voice serves Gladwell well here, elevating mere
imprecision to the platitudinal level at which he so thrives; from
where, exactly, do “tools and technologies,” such as ballistic
nuclear missiles, “emerge”? As to how the protagonists of his
story reckon with their own destruction, Gladwell notes that “Curtis
LeMay put the bomb-damage photos of Schweinfurt and Regensburg [a
failed 1943 bombing campaign over Germany] in the foyer of his house
because he wanted to remind himself every day of how many of his men
were lost in the course of what he considered a fruitless mission.”

It’s at this point that Gladwell fleetingly acknowledges it would be
nice if the guy had been a little more caring, even if we do, in fact
gotta hand it to LeMay: “I would feel better about Curtis LeMay if
he had also hung the strike photos from the firebombing of Tokyo.”
This is truly a lesson for the McKinsey set and passive-income crowd
for whom _The Bomber Mafia_ is intended: doing bad things is fine,
so long as you privately feel bad about it.

_The Bomber Mafia_ concludes with a conversation among Gladwell,
then-Air Force chief of staff General David Goldfein, and other
cigar-chomping, brass-clad assholes. At the so-called “Air House,”
the Air Force chief’s residence across the Potomac from Washington,
Gladwell talks with them about how things have changed since the
1940s. It’s an opportunity to give the leading men of the American
military the floor, to explain why strategic bombing is the way of the
present and the future, and that we are fortunate not to have to make
the moral sacrifices that men like LeMay supposedly had to. By way of
example, one general recalls an instance in which his troops in
Afghanistan were under fire.

“So three different bombs land within twenty meters of this guy,
taking out three different buildings, and the guy survives with his
team,” the general tells Gladwell. “That’s how precise
precision-guided bombs can be.” Gladwell hastens to add that air
power like this shouldn’t be considered a panacea:

If your target is a single man inside a room, then you have to have
intelligence good enough to tell you that this is the man you want.
And when you have a way of hitting a man inside a room, then it
becomes awfully easy to decide to strike doesn’t it? They are all
worried about that fact: the cleaner and more precise a bomber gets,
the more tempting it is to use that bomber—even when you

And yet he declines to apply his own moral test to the present day,
instead choosing to end his book on the next page, leaving us to do
the work for him. The British advocacy group Action on Armed Violence
just this month estimated
[[link removed]] that
between 2016 and 2020 in Afghanistan, there were more than 2,100
civilians killed and 1,800 injured by air strikes; 37 percent of those
killed were children.

“Explaining the high numbers of child deaths requires context. As
foreign ground troop numbers have dwindled in Afghanistan, with a full
pull-out expected in September 2021, the NATO operation has become
increasingly reliant on US aerial operations, alongside their ally the
Afghan Air Force, in their fight against the Taliban,” the
organization’s press release states. “But this form of offensive,
especially when used in populated areas, has had devastating impacts
on Afghan civilians.”

The flap jacket of _The Bomber Mafia_, which will undoubtedly grace
the fingers of thousands of customers at Hudson News kiosks and Barnes
and Nobles around the country, claims that it is “a riveting tale of
persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.” How can
someone bother calculating that which he doesn’t even count?

[[link removed]] The
basis for Crane’s claim, Gladwell straightforwardly reports, is an
encounter with an unnamed “senior Japanese historian” who told
Crane, before a Japanese audience in a lecture hall in Tokyo, that
“in the end, we must thank you, Americans, for the firebombing and
the atomic bombs.”

[[link removed]] In
the months leading up to the dropping of “Fat Man” and “Little
Boy” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, LeMay publicly discussed the cities
marked for firebombing, which newspapers termed LeMay’s “death
list”—another detail that Gladwell leaves out. On the morning of
August 6, the day that Hiroshima was bombed, the United
Press reported
[[link removed]] that 580
bombers sent by LeMay had dropped “3,850 tons of fire and explosive
bombs on four more Japanese ‘death list’ cities.”

_[Noah Kulwin is a writer [[link removed]] and co-host of
the podcast Blowback [[link removed]]. He lives in Brooklyn.]_

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of interesting and unexpected left-wing political criticism, cultural
analysis, short stories, poems and art. We publish six print issues
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