The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

Author:Malcolm Gladwell
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2021-04-27T00:00:00+00:00

Chapter Six

“It would be suicide, boys, suicide.”


All war is absurd. For thousands of years, human beings have chosen to settle their differences by obliterating one another. And when we are not obliterating one another, we spend an enormous amount of time and attention coming up with better ways to obliterate one another the next time around. It’s all a little strange, if you think about it.

Nonetheless, even within that general category of absurd, there is a continuum. The war that was fought in Europe at least resembled previous wars. It was absurd in a familiar way: neighbor against neighbor. The D-day landing required a short trip across the English Channel. People can swim the English Channel. On the ground, troops marched, holding rifles. They fired big pieces of artillery. Give Napoleon one week of training, and he probably could have managed the Allied push across Europe as well as any general from the twentieth century.

But the Pacific theater? It was on the other end of the war-absurdity continuum.

The United States and Japan probably had less contact with each other and knew less about each other than any two wartime combatants in history. More importantly, they were as far apart geographically as any two combatants in history. The Pacific war was, by definition, a sea war—and, as the conflict grew more intense, an air war. But the sheer scale of the Pacific battleground made it the kind of air war that no one had fought before.

For example, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the workhorse of the US Army Air Forces was the B-17 bomber, also known as the Flying Fortress. That’s what LeMay and Ira Eaker and Hansell were using in Europe. The Flying Fortress had a range of roughly two thousand miles—one thousand miles out and one thousand miles back. In January of 1944, you couldn’t find an air base controlled by the Allies within a thousand miles of Tokyo. Australia is more than four thousand miles from Japan. Hawaii is just as far. The Philippines made the most sense on paper, but the Philippines had been captured by the Japanese and weren’t fully recaptured until late in 1945. In any case, Manila was still 1,800 miles from Tokyo.

If you were the United States and you wanted to drop bombs on Japan, how would you do it? Solving that problem took the better part of the war. The first step was building the B-29 Superfortress, the greatest bomber ever built, with an effective range of more than three thousand miles.

The next step was capturing a string of three tiny islands in the middle of the western Pacific: Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. They were the Mariana Islands, controlled by the Japanese. The Marianas were 1,500 miles across the water from Tokyo—the closest possible spot where you could build a runway. If you could put a fleet of B-29s on the Marianas, you could bomb Japan. The Japanese knew that, too, which led to another absurd moment: some


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