What We're Reading (or listening to): Alumna Rebekah Edwards

The Bomber Mafia: A Made-for-Audio War Story about more than War

Modern warfare. How did humanity get from the engrained trenches of The Great War to the surgically precise bombing of the last decade?  As a student of history, this question always intrigued me. In the matter of barely one hundred years, people went from fighting tooth and nail for inches of territory in a field to soldiers in shipping containers in the American desert remote controlling missles to the Middle East. While, yes, this is a bit of gross oversimplification and clearly not the only form of modern engagement, this is still a true depiction of the contrast in warfare strategies. Technological advances and discoveries have paved the way to making these developments happen, but where did it all begin and why? The Bomber Mafia, in part, is a story of how warfare became modern. While it may be easy to assemble a montage of technological advances and discoveries in the last century, Malcolm Gladwell is going to propose a few distinguishable pivotal moments and people who, amid a backdrop of evolving society, changed the way wars are fought. 

One of those people is Carl Lukas Norden and his pivotal moment was the invention of the Norden Bombsight. A bombsight, as the name somewhat implies, was a computerized system used in planes to help pilots and bombardiers calculate and discharge their loads - bombs - more accurately. Before the bombsight, bombing was a crapshoot; you would line yourself up as best you can, huck, and pray (a strategy that worked [well enough] for the British). While today a bombsight seems like a rudimentary piece of equipment to use, in the second world war, this device - Gladwell emphatically stresses - was completely revolutionary. Gladwell places this invention up there with radio, internet, and the automobile, inventions that our lives completely depend upon today. The bombsight was so revolutionary (not to mention expensive) that airmen who were downed or stranded were sworn to protect this invention with their lives. (You may recall from the popular novel and later film Unbroken about World War II the bombardier in the Pacific, Louie Zamperini, was interrogated for this very information by the Japanese before being sent to a POW camp in mainland Japan). Norden began developing this tool as a reaction to the needless waste of The Great War. The idea was: if only our weapons were more precise, we could inflict less casualties and less undue strife. But, Norden scholars maintain that he was a man of principles (if not faith) and created this device to make a more humane war. 

But, alas, as Gladwell goes on, it becomes clear that technological advances aren’t made in a vacuum. There are players and investors with motives and deadlines in all facets of life and Norden’s invention was no exception. Even with the precision his bombsight was able to provide in World War II, it still was not enough: the war still dragged on, lives were still being lost, and victories weren’t being won. Leadership changed in the Pacific (the theatre pioneering the use of the Bombsight), pressure was increasing from our European allies, and tactics became more aggressive. The Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb project) was progressing and prestigious academic institutions (read: Harvard) were rolling out experiments and tests of noxious incendiaries (read: Napalm). Norden may have wanted a more humane war, but there were many influential players who wanted a finished war. The bombsight would go on to be used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima and, most notoriously in the Vietnam war, the bombsight would be used to drop napalm. 

It is this intersection that intrigues me so much and that Gladwell succinctly recounts: the good man with a good idea caught in a system bigger and more powerful than himself. As I was re-listening to the audiobook, preparing myself for this little review, I came across the following line in the prologue: “The Bomber Mafia is a case study in how dreams go ary.” As Gladwell later says, it’s not really a story about war, although the circumstances of the book are shaped and propelled by it. It’s a story about people, people in a changing society, and people in a changing society where wars won’t end in a draw despite the best of our intentions. And all of this is tied up in a compelling, at times entertaining, at times harrowing, written-for-audio book. It’s worth the listen.