The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wrestling with the strategy — and morality — of the firebombing of Japan

Only scattered concrete buildings remained in an industrial section of Tokyo after a U.S. firebombing campaign in March 1945. The American munitions incinerated the wooden homes of working-class civilians and killed 100,000 people. (AP Photo)

An earlier version of this review on one occasion mistakenly referred to B-29 Superfortresses as B-52s. The review also said, based on information in the book, that the B-29s needed a strong tail wind to take off. Head winds -- not tail winds -- are useful for lift during takeoff. The text has been corrected.

On the night of March 9, 1945, more than 300 U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress bombers took off from rudimentary airfields in the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, retaken from the Japanese the previous summer. Their mission was to attack a 12-square-mile sector of central Tokyo containing the highly flammable, densely packed wooden dwellings of thousands of working-class families as well as industrial and commercial buildings. During the three-hour raid their bombs ignited a firestorm that was so intense it killed 100,000 people and sent up a glow that was visible 150 miles away. When the returning B-29s touched down, teams fumigated them to dissipate the smell of burning flesh. In “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War,” Malcolm Gladwell takes readers on the journey that led to that attack — the “longest night” of the subtitle. Along the way, he signposts both the technological developments enabling the raid and the underlying strategic and moral judgments.

Gladwell, a staff writer at the New Yorker, usually writes on social psychology — previous books include “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know” and “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” His interest in air power began as a child when his English father recounted the roar of Luftwaffe planes overhead during their attacks on London. Gladwell’s particular fascination is with the “Bomber Mafia,” an influential group of officers at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Alabama.

They advocated precision bombing as a more morally defensible way to destroy an enemy’s fighting capability, rather than indiscriminate area bombing with its inevitable civilian death toll. Dutch engineer Carl Norden’s invention of a bombsight that could supposedly enable a bombardier to drop a missile into a pickle barrel from six miles up had made precision bombing possible. In the summer of 1941 the Bomber Mafia identified strategic “choke points” — power plants, oil refineries, aircraft factories — to be attacked should the United States enter the war. After Pearl Harbor their plan provided the template for the first daylight, high-altitude precision bombing missions of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force, stationed in England.

Britain’s Bomber Command was, however, unimpressed by the Norden bombsight and, after its own failed attempts to hit industrial and port targets, skeptical about precision bombing. Instead its controversial head, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, advocated nighttime “area” or “morale bombing.” Though the Blitz had not broken Londoners’ spirit, Harris maintained that Germans were “a different breed.” The arrival in England of Ira Eaker — a member of the Bomber Mafia — to command the Eighth Army Air Force highlighted the divide between strategic and area bombing proponents. Curiously, perhaps, he and Harris became good friends even though Eaker considered Harris’s approach morally dubious.

Eaker asked his protege, Haywood Hansell, to propose how to validate high-altitude, daytime precision bombing, leading, in August 1943, to U.S. planes attacking industrial plants in Schweinfurt and Regensburg in Bavaria. Col. Curtis LeMay commanded the Regensburg attacks. The raids resulted in large aircraft losses and highlighted defects in the Norden bombsight — it was complex to operate and, being dependent on visual target sighting, ineffective in bad weather. LeMay became convinced that precision bombing was an illusory product of “swivel-chair target analysts.”

In 1944, Hansell was appointed to head the new force of B-29 Superfortresses based in the Marianas and tasked with destroying Japan’s military capability in preparation for a land invasion. Conditions proved challenging. The new planes, rushed into service, frequently broke down and when heavily loaded needed a strong wind to take off. Although early raids proved that the Japanese homeland could be reached, they failed to hit their targets as problems persisted with the Norden bombsight. Even more seriously, as pilots approached Mount Fuji at altitude, they encountered the destabilizing winds of the yet-to-be-named jet stream.

Meanwhile, as Gladwell describes, Harvard scientists had developed a new weapon: napalm, capable of burning at 1,000 degrees in a sticky, fiery, spreading mass. In late 1944, thousands of bombs packed with napalm reached the Marianas. Ordered to firebomb Nagoya, a dubious Hansell procrastinated and was unceremoniously replaced by LeMay. The new arrival hurled himself into solving the technical problems of firebombing Japanese cities. To allow the planes to carry as much napalm as possible, he decided that most of the gun crews would stay behind. To avoid the jet stream, the B-29s would fly at only 5,000 feet. On March 9, 1945, his planes attacked Tokyo. They subsequently firebombed 67 Japanese cities — the last on Aug. 14, eight days after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima.

“The Bomber Mafia” is an innovative audio book with music, sound effects and archival clips as well as a paperback. Gladwell’s easy conversational style works well in both formats, and his admiration for the Bomber Mafia shines through. His portraits of individuals are compelling — Norden, the prickly, egotistical perfectionist; LeMay, the “ultimate problem solver,” a “bulldog” incapable of self-doubt; and Hansell, LeMay’s antithesis, a true Southern aristocrat. Sometimes, however, his descriptions lack nuance, such as when he simply dismisses Bomber Harris as a “psychopath.”

Gladwell does not explore how racial attitudes influenced the bombing of Japan. Hansell noted “a universal feeling” among U.S. forces that the Japanese were “subhuman.” Adm. William Halsey described the Japanese as “yellow monkeys.” LeMay himself — a future running mate, as Gladwell notes, of segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace — recalled: “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at the time. . . . I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” Neither does Gladwell, who briefly discusses the February 1945 bombing of Dresden, address the extent to which the American and British bombing strategy in Europe was influenced by the need to convince Stalin that his Western allies were doing all they could to support Soviet troops who were suffering heavy losses as they advanced west.

Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.

The Bomber Mafia

A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown. 240 pp. $27