There are three very good reasons why theoretical arguments and ideological dilemmas are worth discussing in-depth and at length: (a) these arguments impact the lives of millions of people in the real world; (b) your and my wealth & wellbeing can hinge on which side of the argument we take; and (c) events in the real world can be a misleading indicator for very long periods of time regarding which side will ultimately prevail in such arguments.
Since in our line of work we are party to such arguments which have a profound impact on our clients’ networth, we find it very interesting to read about such epic debates in a field utterly different from ours. That’s exactly what master storyteller Malcolm Gladwell does in his 2021 book ‘The Bomber Mafia’. The book is actually the write up of a part of Gladwell’s superhit podcast series ‘Revisionist History’. You can finish the book on a weekend afternoon and if you don’t walk away from the read feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed, you can write to the bookworms at Marcellus seeking ‘paisa vasool’ for the cover price.
At the heart of the book is a century long debate in the American and British military establishment regarding how air power should be used to win wars. On the side of the ‘Bomber Mafia’ is a cerebral fighter pilot called Haywood Hansell. His view as far back as the 1930s is that precision bombing of strategically important targets is way forward. He and the rest of the Bomber Mafia (i.e. like minded fighter pilots) believe that bombing cities and countries indiscriminately not only leads to needless loss of life, it also doesn’t serve the purpose of winning wars expeditiously.
For most of the length of the book, Hansell and Bomber Mafia seem to be losing the argument to more aggressive military men like Winston Churchill, his right hand man, the British hero Arthur Harris, and the main protagonist of this book, a brilliantly effective American air commander named Curtis LeMay.
Gladwell is at his lucid best as he explains how ambitious, driven pilots like LeMay lose faith in the Bomber Mafia’s doctrine during the air war over Germany at the height of World War II. The book is spellbinding in explaining how LeMay then crafts his brutally effective doctrine when the air war moves to Japan in the climatic stages of World War II. The closing pages of the book has Gladwell discussing with the great and the good of the US Air Force how over the past 30 years precision bombing has become the dominant mode of attack.
Gladwell’s New Yorker writing skill can be seen in its full glory in this book as he moves effortlessly between giving commentary on the great airwars of World War II to explaining the technical nuances of why precision bombing is a tricky task. As the review of the book in the New Yorker says, “Here is Gladwell’s stunning description of a United States Air Force B-17 bomber being cut up on a run over Germany:
“One 20-millimeter cannon shell penetrated the right side of the airplane and exploded beneath the pilot, cutting one of the gunners in the leg. A second shell hit the radio compartment, cutting the legs of the radio operator off at the knees. He bled to death. A third hit the bombardier in the head and shoulder. A fourth shell hit the cockpit, taking out the plane’s hydraulic system. A fifth severed the rudder cables. A sixth hit the number 3 engine, setting it on fire. This was all in one plane. The pilot kept flying.””
Thomas Ricks’ superb review of the book in the New Yorker ends with a haunting question – one that we hope never has to be answered: “Gladwell argues that LeMay’s savage firebombing campaign succeeded, and that, combined with the two atomic bombs that followed, shortened the war…
Yet he also concludes that in the long run, in the years that followed, the idealistic Hansell was right to believe that an air campaign based on precision strikes was possible. So, he asserts, “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.” The evidence for this, of course, is the ability of today’s “stealthy” radar-evading bombers to drop ordnance from great heights and have them guided to precise points on a given target …
But I don’t think the ghost of LeMay can be put to rest so easily. The American military’s precise new way of information-based warfare so far has been tested only in relatively small and short bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, the gunboat wars of our time. Precision-guided munitions are hugely expensive, and the stockpiles of them are surprisingly small. What would happen with bombing in a really big war remains to be seen.”

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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

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