Malcolm Gladwell Makes His Best Book in Years, ‘The Bomber Mafia’ – 03/21/2022 – Illustrated

Bold generalizations from disparate data are often at the heart of Canadian Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction bestsellers. In his latest book, however, he drops his successful formula to tell a single story, at first glance a simple military-technological footnote from World War II.

The result is undeniably fresh, perhaps his best work in the last ten years. The work was born as an audiobook and only later passed to the traditional format, but there is no sign of a lack of fluidity when it is read in the paper version – Gladwell’s old narrative security remains untouched in both mediums.

“The Bomber Mafia” investigates the birth of precision air strikes — what would culminate in the “smart bombs” and deadly drones of the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the point of view of this third decade of the 21st century, the irony is cruel, but the fact is that the creators of the concept, in the 1930s and 1940s, seemed genuinely interested in saving lives. Serious.

That’s what was on the minds of people like the Dutch-born American inventor Carl Norden, who died in 1965. Eccentric, perfectionist and devout Christian, he was responsible for creating the bomber sight that bore his name.

The contraption, which weighed 25 kilograms and included a complicated bearing system that made it one of the first analog computers in history, would be able to “hit a barrel of pickles” [com o avião voando] at 9,000 meters altitude”, they said at the time.

Until then, it was an unthinkable level of precision. The aeronautical technology of the first decades of the last century simply could not take into account factors such as altitude, wind speed and the movement of the Earth to allow bombs dropped by planes to hit only the targets selected by military strategists.

Without any reliable method of aiming, the warlike usefulness of aircraft was limited to reconnaissance missions, individual duels between skilled pilots — or else to terror campaigns, in which bombers were used to destroy cities and the civilian population indiscriminately.

It was against this that the mafia of the book’s title – a group of young aviators in the US Army (the Air Force, as an independent institution, did not yet exist) – rose up. They came to conceive of air raids as a relatively less bloody method of winning wars, as the 1930s drew to a close and the shadow of a new world conflict, associated with the rise of Nazism and Fascism, grew in Europe.

The visionaries of the so-called bomber mafia saw modern warfare through an essentially industrial prism, with an eye on the input chains that turned the enemy’s war gears. After all, they reasoned, it is not possible to maintain an offensive without fuel to supply the tanks, or without metals to replace the shells of armored vehicles that are being shot down in combat.

So if there were a way to directly decapitate the enemy’s vital weapons production centers, the war would be won without the need to decimate soldiers with bayonets or entire cities with cannons and bombardments. When World War II broke out, and the United States, after a few years of hesitation, ended up entering the conflict, the sights developed by Norden seemed like a golden opportunity to put this into practice.

As almost everyone knows, however, in practice the theory is different. Norden’s super-aim never even came close to hitting the pickle keg.

To try to put into practice the concept of precision air warfare in Europe, American officers had to face resistance from their British allies, whose command advocated the indiscriminate destruction of German cities as a way of breaking enemy morale.

(Another cruel irony here is that Nazi Germany had tried to apply the same strategy, unsuccessfully, in their air raids on the UK years earlier, but the British seemed to believe that what hadn’t worked for them would be enough to break the Germans.)

Even losing a colossal proportion of their bombers, American aviation leaders barely scratched the vital centers of the German war effort. The situation became even worse when the stubborn and idealistic Brigadier General Haywood Hansell Junior decided to apply the same approach to the attempt to attack Japan, the German ally in the Pacific, directly.

Added to the logistical nightmare of reaching the Japanese islands after flying thousands of kilometers across the ocean was a hitherto unknown detail of the workings of the atmosphere. It was the presence of one of the so-called jet streams – an “Amazon” of air circulating at 100 kilometers per hour and at altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 meters – just over the area of ​​Japan considered a priority for precision bombing.

Result – the super aim, once again, proved useless. Hansell Junior was replaced by a ruthlessly pragmatic officer, Major Curtis LeMay, and the bombings of Japan turned into a classic campaign of terror, fueled by another recent invention — a gooey explosive dubbed napalm.

Not to mention that the book lacks a great unifying thesis, as in other works by the journalist (the importance of the instinctive and momentary decision in “Blink”; the little things that make a big difference in “O Ponto de Virada”), reading “The Bomber Mafia” also brings a great lesson, albeit implicit – and even more solid than that of the previous volumes.

It is the idea that the only law of human history is the law of unintended consequences. Innovative organizations and technologies tend to unleash forces that are difficult to control, whose effects can be very different from, or even opposite to, those imagined by their creators. Bearing this in mind may be a great way to prevent our species from continuing to find itself in dead ends that no one had been able to imagine before.

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