The Bomber Mafia

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is a 2021 book by Malcolm Gladwell that examines the US Bomber Mafia of World War II, which advocated precision aerial bombing as a means to win a war. Gladwell stated the audiobook for The Bomber Mafia came about as an expansion of material from his podcast Revisionist History, and that the print book originated from the audiobook. The book follows the Bomber Mafia, especially Major General Haywood S. Hansell, and the development of a high-altitude precision aerial bombardment strategy in World War II as a means to limit casualties. After difficulties in applying the Bomber Mafia's theoretical strategy, Major General Hansell was replaced by Major General Curtis LeMay, who utilized tactical changes such as attacking Japanese population centers with napalm to ensure a Japanese surrender. Upon release, The Bomber Mafia was met with mixed reviews, with reviewers praising its audiobook version but criticizing the book for a lack of accuracy and for being light on details.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
The Bomber Mafia.jpg
Hardcover edition
AuthorMalcolm Gladwell
CountryUnited States
SubjectThe Bomber Mafia
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Publication date
April 27, 2021
Media typeprint, audiobook, e-book
Preceded byTalking to Strangers 


The author of the book is Malcolm Gladwell, an English-born Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker.[1][2][3] In 2016, Gladwell started Revisionist History, a history-focused podcast that "re-examines something from the past – an event, a person, an idea, even a song – and asks whether we got it right the first time".[4] He devoted four episodes of the fifth season of Revisionist History to air power in World War II, and stated the audiobook served as an expansion of material from the podcast. The Bomber Mafia began as an audiobook, and later transitioned into a print book.[5][6]


The book follows the story of the Bomber Mafia, a group of American military officers, especially Major General Haywood S. Hansell, as they developed a military doctrine of daylight strategic bombing as a means to defeat an enemy with precision high-altitude aerial bombardment.[7] This could lead to a minimum of war-time casualties with new technology such as the Norden bombsight.[8] In that regard, this was at odds with Britain's Royal Air Force' doctrine of area bombing under the command of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris.[9]

When the United States entered World War II, the Bomber Mafia's doctrine proved of little military use and costly in implementation with the realities of current technology under real-world combat conditions.[10] This especially applied with the aerial bombardment of Japan where previously unaccounted atmospheric conditions such as the jet stream seriously interfered with operations under Hansell's command.[11] The book examines Hansell's replacement by Major General Curtis LeMay,[12] who implemented a series of tactical changes such as ordering bombing at a dramatically lower altitude to avoid the jet stream, removal of most of the bombers' defensive weaponry to increase bomb payload and wholesale nighttime fire bombing with incendiaries like napalm to devastate many of the population centers of Japan.[13] The result furthered the Allies' military objectives leading to Japan's surrender, such as with the Bombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945 with Operation Meetinghouse.[14]

After the 1991 Gulf War, David L. Goldfein states that by then bombs could hit, with precision, a specific wing of a building.[15] At the time the book was released, a modern B-2 Stealth Bomber could approach a target without being detected on radar from 40,000 feet in altitude. The book concludes that "LeMay won the battle. [...] Hansell won the war".[16]


The book was met with mixed reviews upon release, with four mixed reviews, one positive review, three pan reviews, and two rave reviews as of November 14, 2021 according to review aggregator Book Marks.[17] In The Wall Street Journal, Yale professor Paul Kennedy praised the audiobook version of The Bomber Mafia as "remarkable" and a "work of art"; similarly, in The Times, reviewer Gerard DeGroot said "The Bomber Mafia remind[ed] [him] of a really good podcast – a fascinating story is appealingly delivered", and historian Diana Preston of The Washington Post called the audiobook "innovative" for its inclusion of archival clips, music, and sound effects.[18][19][20] James McConnachie of The Times stated "for a book that is not a war story, this one is brilliantly, brilliantly told".[21] In The New York Times Book Review, Thomas E. Ricks called the book "a conversational work" which he enjoyed, but noted that "when Gladwell leaps to provide superlative assessments, or draws broad lessons of history from isolated incidents, he makes me wary".[22] Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, professors David Fedman and Cary Karacas state "[a]s a piece of writing, The Bomber Mafia is engaging. As a work of history, it borders on reckless".[23]

Several reviewers criticized the book for its accuracy, and for being light on details. Kennedy stated there were "gaps in [Gladwell's] account", and cites the RAF Bomber Command's attempt at careful bombing as an example.[18] In The Daily Telegraph, military historian Saul David called the book "error prone" and "bedevilled by the same oversimplification of the world into a single Big Idea that is characteristic of his other work", and gave the book two out of five stars.[24] DeGroot said "the subject demands more depth than this volume provides", and stated Gladwell boiled down the bombing strategy's evolution to personality clashes between Hansell and LeMay while ignoring other major factors, such as how the morality and acceptance of bombing evolved.[19] Publishers Weekly stated "this history feels more tossed off than fully fledged", though Gladwell "provide[d] plenty of colorful details and pose[d] intriguing questions about the morality of warfare".[25] Professors Fedman and Karacas stated that errors "pile up to the point where it becomes clear that a book that has received so much attention ought to have received more fact-checking".[23]

Writing for The Baffler, Noah Kulwin criticized the book as "an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer" and stated "by taking up military history, Gladwell's half-witted didacticism threatens to convince millions of people that the only solution to American butchery is to continue shelling out for sharper and larger knives."[26] Fedman and Karacas state "[w]ittingly or not, [Gladwell] omits or downplays evidence that undermines the very premise of the book. Hansell was not the moral opposite of LeMay. To frame the book in this simplistic binary is to misconstrue the doctrines of both precision and area bombing".[23]

A reviewer in Kirkus Reviews stated Gladwell "[delivered] a fairly flattering portrait of LeMay".[27] Ricks calls LeMay an "unexpected hero" of the story,[22] while McConnachie cites Hansell as Gladwell's hero.[21] The book debuted and peaked at number two on The New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover nonfiction on May 16, 2021.[28]


  1. ^ Colville, Robert (December 17, 2008). "Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – review". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on February 25, 2021.
  2. ^ "Malcolm Gladwell (Journalist)". Faces of America. PBS. January 4, 2010. Archived from the original on January 24, 2021. Retrieved May 23, 2021.
  3. ^ Zengerle, Jason (November 7, 2008). "Geek Pop Star". New York Magazine. Archived from the original on May 12, 2021.
  4. ^ Hess, Amanda (December 15, 2017). "You Know Your History? These Podcasts Aren't So Sure". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 27, 2021.
  5. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 209
  6. ^ "Presenting: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell". Revisionist History. April 27, 2021. Archived from the original on May 5, 2021. Those of you who are devoted Revisionist History listeners will remember that last season I did four episodes on the firebombing of Tokyo at the end of the Second World War... I've taken that little kernel from last season, and built an entirely new audiobook around it.
  7. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 37
  8. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 29
  9. ^ Gladwell 2021, pp. 55–60
  10. ^ Gladwell 2021, pp. 102–107
  11. ^ Gladwell 2021, pp. 139–143
  12. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 167
  13. ^ Gladwell 2021, pp. 170–173
  14. ^ Gladwell 2021, pp. 180–184; 196–198
  15. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 204
  16. ^ Gladwell 2021, p. 206
  17. ^ "The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War". Book Marks. Retrieved May 4, 2021.
  18. ^ a b Kennedy, Paul (April 30, 2021). "'The Bomber Mafia' Review: Architects of a Firestorm". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on May 21, 2021.
  19. ^ a b DeGroot, Gerard (April 22, 2021). "The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell review – why 'precision bombing' is an utter delusion". The Times. Archived from the original on May 17, 2021.
  20. ^ Preston, Diana (April 23, 2021). "Wrestling with the strategy – and morality – of the firebombing of Japan". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 21, 2021.
  21. ^ a b McConnachie, James (April 18, 2021). "The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell, review – the Outliers author on the morality of war". The Times. Archived from the original on May 17, 2021.
  22. ^ a b Ricks, Thomas E. (April 25, 2021). "Malcolm Gladwell on the Hard Decisions of War". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 17, 2021.
  23. ^ a b c Fedman, David; Karacas, Cary (June 12, 2021). "When Pop History Bombs: A Response to Malcolm Gladwell's Love Letter to American Air Power". Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived from the original on June 18, 2021.
  24. ^ David, Saul (April 25, 2021). "Malcolm Gladwell's The Bomber Mafia is misleading history-lite". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 8, 2021.
  25. ^ "The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War". Publishers Weekly. Archived from the original on April 28, 2021.
  26. ^ Kulwin, Noah (May 17, 2021). "Narrative Napalm". The Baffler. Archived from the original on May 21, 2021. Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  27. ^ "The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War". Kirkus Reviews. March 10, 2021. Archived from the original on May 6, 2021.
  28. ^ "Hardcover Nonfiction – May 16, 2021". The New York Times. May 16, 2021. Archived from the original on May 21, 2021.


  • Gladwell, Malcolm (2021). The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-29661-8.