Ronald Kidd - May 29, 2021

Capsule Review

I’ve tried reading Malcolm Gladwell books several times and found them mildly interesting but not compelling. That changed with his most recent work, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War. It combined three of my favorite things: history, science, and storytelling.

Note that I called this his most recent “work,” not book. The Bomber Mafia, it turns out, started as a series of episodes on Gladwell’s “Revisionist History,” a podcast in which he revisits past events and asks whether historians got them right the first time. Gladwell and his audio production company, Pushkin Industries, have combined these episodes into an audio book that I literally could not put down.

You can read the book, by the way, but it’s simply a transcript of the audio program, without the wonderful sound effects, original music, and Gladwell’s mesmerizing narration.

Listening to the narration is like climbing into Malcolm Gladwell’s brain. We witness him pondering, asking questions, formulating ideas, and arriving at startling new answers. Gladwell’s great gift, it seems to me, is curiosity, and it winds like a golden thread through this story.

The story is about a small group of pilots and planners in the Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force) who dreamed of inventing a new, cleaner, less murderous warfare through precision bombing. In World War II, over the skies of Europe and the Pacific, the vision of this “Bomber Mafia” collided with the stark realities of war and lost, leading most notably to the brutal destruction of Dresden and the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the results of which are shown here.

Gladwell introduces us to the hopeful, idealistic Bomber Mafia and recounts their battle with the greatest bomber of them all, General Curtis LeMay, who did whatever was needed to win. (In Vietnam, he doubled down on this strategy and lost.)

It’s an unlikely topic for a story, but Gladwell succeeds brilliantly. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to investigate his podcast and other audio books.

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