Another major legacy of the United States to discuss on July 4 is our national love for grifters who exist primarily to tell rich white people that they are better than everyone else, that they deserve everything they have, and that they are special. There are all sorts of people through our history that have done this–from the pedophile minister Horatio Alger to JD Vance, a whole industry has existed that has made the right grifters a lot of money for a long time. The mainstream media has always hoovered this up because its practitioners fundamentally believe all this hogwash too.
This leads us to the modern master of grifting while being a fundamental moron: Malcolm Gladwell. His entire career is being the person speaking to New Gilded Age elites about how they are so special. And he has made a ton of cash on this. Endless New Yorker articles leading up to his ridiculous Outliers book, the Bible of New Gilded Age specialocity for the rich. Bill Simmons constantly talking about his greatness (talk about two overrated peas in one overrated pod). And hey, Joe Paterno, really he was an OK guy and what’s a little child rape when you can have a dominant defense? His defense of Jeffery Toobin was…something. I could go on. He gets million plus dollar advances for this crap. And that includes his attempt to enter into the pop history–a book on the American firebombing of Japan. Not surprisingly, it sounds terrible.
What such a bad book can do though is provide an opportunity for one of the finest art forms in American letters: the hate review. I love hate reviews. They make me happy inside. They really fit my personality. And so I highly enjoyed this David Fedman and Cary Karacas hate review of Gladwell’s new book. Here’s some highlights for your July 4:
THERE’S A RICH IRONY that Malcolm Gladwell’s new book is spun off from episodes of his Revisionist History podcast. Ostensibly a meditation on the morality of bombing civilians during World War II, The Bomber Mafia is anything but revisionist. It’s indeed hard to imagine a more conventional account of the air war against Japan. In the questions it asks, the sources it uses, and the voices it amplifies, The Bomber Mafia offers an account virtually indistinguishable from the consensus position on the firebombings of urban Japan. It takes some of the most oft-repeated fallacies about the shift to area bombing and wraps them in a shiny new package.
Sounds like everything else Gladwell has written.
The only issue is that Gladwell’s account doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny. As a piece of writing, The Bomber Mafia is engaging. As a work of history, it borders on reckless. Setting aside the numerous errors of fact  and interpretation, Gladwell consistently cherry-picks from the historical record. Wittingly or not, he 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. Gladwell mistakes practicality for dogma, projecting onto his subjects a high-minded morality that was not really there. The result is an account that fundamentally misrepresents the process through which the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the United States government rationalized the destruction of entire cities and their civilian inhabitants.
Owing to his celebrity stature, Gladwell is one of the few writers in the United States able to put the firebombings of urban Japan on the map of public consciousness. A steady string of books about these incendiary raids have appeared in print, yet this is the first in the 76 years since the end of World War II to receive significant attention from major media. And judging by some high-profile early reviews, readers appear more than willing to uncritically accept his account. Gladwell, in this sense, stands to leave an indelible imprint on American public memory — weak to begin with — of the incendiary bombing campaign and its legacies.
The Bomber Mafia is not so much a “case study in how dreams go awry,” as Gladwell claims, as a case study in how narratives of this incendiary campaign sidestep unsettling moral questions about the deliberate targeting of civilians. It pins responsibility for the destruction of 64 cities on one man, thereby absolving the AAF and, by extension, the American government. By the same token, it entirely overlooks the years-long process through which American war planners reduced Japanese cities in all their complexity to “industrial systems” populated exclusively by “skilled workers.” Rather than carefully consider the eroding ethical constraints governing what constitutes a legitimate target, Gladwell gives us a morality play. With its “great man” framing, exclusion of Japanese perspectives, and counterfactual justifications, it tells a story seemingly designed to soothe the American conscience.
Making a ton of money by giving Americans an excuse to have a clean conscious while focusing on GREAT MEN? Check!
Gladwell pays no heed to these tensions and contradictions. Focused myopically on the Bomber Mafia, he instead charts the rise of a supposedly distinctive American doctrine of air power, one that eschewed the barbarism of other countries. If American exceptionalism has an air power equivalent, this would be it. In actuality, the School’s approach to bombing blended many different doctrines. At the same time that Hansell was studying precision bombing, other airmen were immersing themselves in target systems theory — the notion that “in order to destroy anything it is necessary to destroy everything.” In Italy, Giulio Douhet advocated directly targeting civilians as a way to quickly terrorize the state into submission. In Britain, Hugh Trenchard advocated attacking “worker morale” as much as the factories themselves. These ideas also had a profound impact on American air power strategists.
One would never know this from reading Gladwell’s account, which completely ignores these competing visions of air power and their transnational dimensions. The reader is accordingly left with the false impression that the moral case for precision bombing carried the day, when the reality is far messier and more interesting.
Then it gets pretty good.
As befits his black-and-white framing, Gladwell organizes The Bomber Mafia in two parts — “The Dream” and “The Temptation.” Sandwiched between the two, however, is an author’s note, “a story from closer to the present.” That story relates Gladwell’s research trip to Tokyo, where he pays a visit to the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, a museum dedicated to remembering the firebombings that killed well over 100,000 people in the city.
Sitting in the back of a taxi, Gladwell is surprised to find himself being taken far from the heart of Tokyo. Upon his arrival, he discovers not some grand structure but something reminiscent of a “medical office building” tucked away in an unremarkable neighborhood. “Why is it on a side street?” Gladwell asks. The answer, he suggests, lies in the chapters ahead, in the story of LeMay’s embrace of incendiary tactics in the Pacific.
The answer, in reality, lies in the history of air raid survivors and their postwar crusade for remembrance. It’s no accident that the museum sits in the very heart of the neighborhoods targeted for destruction in March 1945 — the Shitamachi (the Low City), the densely packed, working-class district that had long tantalized American air power strategists.
The Center is a site of local as much as national memory, a reminder that not all Tokyoites suffered equally. Area bombing, after all, is not nearly as indiscriminate as its name suggests. From the beginning, war planners set out to concentrate their payloads in the densest, most flammable — and thus usually poorest — parts of urban Japan, giving rise to a particular social geography of incendiary destruction.
These details are either lost on Gladwell or of little use to his teleological account. What does he describe upon setting foot in this solemn space, a site dedicated to the very subject of his book? Himself. His expectations, his impressions, his feelings.
Ha ha ha ha. What is more New Gilded Age than exploring the past to make yourself feel good on your own personal journey to Enlightenment?
What do we get when we finally encounter a Japanese perspective? An expression of gratitude for the raids that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and wiped out over a quarter of housing in the country. “In the end, we must thank you, Americans, for the firebombing and the atomic bombs,” states an unnamed Japanese academic at a conference in Tokyo. Of the millions of Japanese impacted by the firebombings, we hear from a sum total of one, who just so happens to tell an American audience exactly what they want to hear.
Had he spoken with Kiyooka Michiko (whose testimony he includes in the audiobook version), he certainly would have heard something different. He would have heard of decades of trauma; of disdain for the Japanese government’s failure to take responsibility for their own lies and deception; of solidarity with civilians bombed in Vietnam and Syria. Had he sat down with Saotome Katsumoto, a leading figure in the campaign to create the museum Gladwell visited, he would have heard not only of the horrors of that evening but also the decades of government silence on the topic. Had he had just one conversation with any of the survivors who lost families, friends, and neighborhoods, in short, he would have discovered a sense of the magnitude of human tragedy on the ground.
What we get instead is a lionization of LeMay. LeMay’s approach, Gladwell tells us, “brought everyone — Americans and Japanese — back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.” Perhaps without realizing it, Gladwell here perpetuates the position of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative ruling coalition that has long suggested that these “sacrifices” were essential to righting Japan’s course and giving rise to the country’s economic prosperity. Much as Gladwell carries water for the official AAF position, so does he lend credence to the narrative preferred by the Japanese government. Never mind that the LDP has been led by many of the very people (once designated Class A war criminals) who plunged Japan into its calamitous war. Never mind that most survivors would beg to differ. Gladwell is perfectly content to parrot this interpretation.
Let’s completely ignore the Japanese and instead lionize Curtis LeMay!!! Amazing. Except it’s not. It’s exactly what the people who love Gladwell want to read. War. Great Men. American exceptionalism. Perfect.
I have no doubt Farley can speak more to the debates around the air campaign against Japan, a topic about which I know little. But what I can speak to is that Malcolm Gladwell is a bumbling fool who also perfectly represents millions of other bumbling fools in the modern United States.