The renegade WW2 pilots who tried to end war as we know it
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Much has been written about World War II in the seven and a half decades since it ended in 1945. But as writer Malcolm Gladwell shows with his new book “The Bomber Mafia,” some incredible stories and perspectives have been largely forgotten.
A group of pilots, led by Brigadier General Haywood Hansell, earned the derogatory nickname Bomber Mafia because of a not-widely-shared dream that they could use a few strategic bombings to lower the death toll and have a “clean” war.
“But that’s not what war ever is,” says Gladwell. “It never has that kind of fairy tale ending.” A few failed attempts led to a changing of the guard, the invention of napalm, and a summer of attacks on Japanese cities that Gladwell says was at “a scale of destruction almost unmatched in human history.”
Malcolm Gladwell is bestselling author and host of the Revisionist History podcast. His latest book, “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” tells the story of a group of pilots with an idea that, had it succeeded, would have reinvented warfare as we know it
Read Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” at https://amzn.to/3gUrhmf
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Anyone who came home from the trenches of World War I came home permanently traumatized. The war was mindlessly brutal. There were battles in the First World War where hundreds of thousands of people, there was a battle in the First World War where a million men died. That experience could not be repeated. On the eve of the Second World War, there’s a remarkable group of pilots who thought they could reinvent warfare and make war a more humane exercise, a kind of clean war. But that’s not what war ever is. It never has that kind of fairytale ending.
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. I am a writer, host of the podcast “Revisionist History,” and the author of the new book “The Bomber Mafia.”
The story of the Bomber Mafia begins with a group of renegade pilots in central Alabama in the 1930s. They have become convinced that new technology, this new class of bombers, can make it possible to conduct a war where only a handful of people were killed. This is something that no one else in the military thought was even a remotely good idea. The term, “the Bomber Mafia,” was not intended to be a compliment. They would always joke that if the people back in Washington knew what they were doing, they would all be fired.
The radical notion at the heart of the Bomber Mafia’s dream was that if they were able to drop bombs with precision, no other part of the modern military machine would be necessary. You wouldn’t need a Navy. You wouldn’t need Marines. You wouldn’t need infantry. You wouldn’t need tanks. You wouldn’t need Jeeps. You wouldn’t need anything except a select group of bombers from 20,000 feet. Their approach was based on the idea that there were a handful of targets that the enemy had, which if you destroyed them, the war would be over. They famously did an exercise where they said, what would it take to cripple New York City? And their answer was 14 bombs. Take out the power plants, the aqueducts, the bridges. No water, no power, no access to the mainland. It’s over. They felt that idea could be used against any enemy. And the idea that you would have to destroy entire cities in order to subdue your enemy was something they thought ought to be a thing of the past.
Haywood Hansell was the leader of the Bomber Mafia, and he was a Southern romantic. He was the latest in a long line of Southern military men. He would sing show tunes to his men as he returned home from bombing missions over Europe. Haywood Hansell was one of the rising stars in the Air Corps during the Second World War. Hansell managed to convince the military leadership that they should follow his dream. And so he goes to Europe, and they try to conduct a bombing campaign of Germany along Bomber Mafia lines. Let’s be as strategic and surgical and sparing as possible in our use of air power. It doesn’t work. Then he convinces them to try that same strategy as the air war shifts to Japan in 1944. And it doesn’t work. He tries and tries and tries, and he ultimately fails. And he’s told in no uncertain terms, “It’s over.” He’s fired. His nemesis, a hard-bitten, unsentimental, ruthless realist named Curtis LeMay is going to…
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