The Best—or Worst—Wrong Answer

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By now we all probably know about the “trolley problem,” but if you haven’t heard of it, or simply need a refresher, you can read about it here. In any case, the trolley problem is a classic moral dilemma in which you, playing the role of the bystander, are forced to choose an action (or lack thereof) that will lead to death, regardless of the choice you decide.


These types of dilemmas and prompts are not only great for a good conversation around the dinner table, or at happy hour, but they also make for one great book. In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell not only sticks to one singular narrative, which is very un-Gladwellian, but he also addresses the moral dilemma of war and how one group of men sought to fight it.


The Bomber Mafia focuses on a group of Air Corps men dubbed as the “bomber mafia” who aimed, pun intended, to revolutionize how wars were fought through technological advances in airplanes and the invention of the bomb sight. This group was driven by a singular moral focus: to not make World War II as catastrophic as World War I.


It wasn’t until the Pittsburgh flood of 1936 that the bomber mafia found their guiding light. Much like the rest of the city of Pittsburgh, a factory, which produced a part for airplane propellers, was overwhelmed by the water and had to shut down. This affected the entire country and all parties in need of this one airplane part as the factory could no longer produce them. This was the bomber mafia’s light bulb moment...


💡 If we could take out a country’s manufacturing plant or distribution hub, we could win the war while limiting civilian casualties.


The Air Corps men eventually dubbed factories, manufacturing plants, and other physical buildings with means of creating weapons, parts, or ammunition, “choke points.” With effective and precise bombing, thanks to the Norden Bombsight, they could not only win the war, but revolutionize how wars were to be fought in the future all in an effort to save lives (as ironic as that sounds).


Up until this point the US Army saw airplanes, and the Air Corps, as a means to support ground troops by clearing out heavy artillery for ground troops’ advancement, not as an end to attack Germany or Japan directly to win the war. But nevertheless, their number was called upon to test their theory of precision bombing of “choke points” in Germany. Unfortunately, the bomber mafia had very little proven and sustained success, mainly attributed to cloudy weather—you can’t bomb what you can’t see.


They did, however, get another chance in the Pacific theater when they were tasked with bombing parts of Japan, namely Tokyo. This time, jet streams of extremely high powered wind, kept the bomber mafia from not only getting to the remote island, but severely limited them from dropping bombs precisely from that altitude.


By this time of the war, there was intense pressure from the United States government to not only win the war, but to do so quickly. The existing commanding officer, Haywood Hansell who sincerely believed in precision bombing and was the current “head” of the bomber mafia, was replaced with General Curtis LeMay who was brought in to continue the fight against Japan. But, much like Hansell, LeMay was experiencing the same issues with the jet streams, rendering any type of precision bombing ineffective.


Behind the scenes, during both the European and Pacific theater, was a group of scientists working on a new development: a bomb at Harvard University which would later be called Napalm. LeMay caught wind of this new incendiary bomb that could ignite cities and engulf them in flames. Eager to prove himself and to end the war quickly, General Curtis LeMay elected to fly his air fleet loaded with Napalm directly at Tokyo. Keep in mind that LeMay had ties to the bomber mafia and wanted to win wars quickly, to limit the casualties.


But in one fell swoop, everything the bomber mafia fought for was eradicated in a single night. This attack, called Operating Meetinghouse, was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history, killing more than 100,000 civilians, displacing another 1,000,000, while burning over 10,000 acres (which, for reference, is just less than half of the city of Milwaukee’s land area). Japan would eventually surrender six months later.


General Curtis LeMay would eventually be awarded one of the highest medals one can earn from the Japanese government nearly 20 years after the bombing raid, namely because he helped end the war quickly and limited the total number of casualties—some estimations have that number in the millions.


Now, if you are like me, you are absolutely fuming. How could you fire bomb a city, particularly parts of it that are densely populated knowing full well the number of estimated casualties from doing so, let alone win a medal from the very country you bombed?!


The book came to an end with no conclusion, nor input from Malcolm Gladwell condoning or condemning the bombing of Tokyo. This left me in a tizzy, because throughout all of his other books, he has some take, typically siding with morality. This time, however, the reader got nothing. It wasn’t until I had time to digest the book after having read it that I began to see Malcolm’s take, which was admittedly opaque and difficult for me to see at first.


I want you to think back to the trolley problem for a second. In both scenarios there will be at least one casualty...so what is the right thing to do? My reasoning for including this at the start of this post is that in war there are no right answers.


There are the best wrong answers and the worst wrong answers.


No matter how you slice it, the two men outlined above were going to be responsible for taking human lives. It was just a matter of how they were going to do it and how many they'd take. This was the guiding light of the bomber mafia...lives would be lost, but they could win the war “morally” (this time in quotes for you to ponder what its meaning really is).


With precision bombing not working back in World War II, LeMay had a choice to make. Drag the war out and watch millions of lives be lost...or fire bomb Tokyo. In hindsight, seeing the total number of casualties that incurred as a direct result of bombing Japan, while not seeing the “what if” scenario, it’s difficult to say what the best wrong answer is.


No matter your stance on war, or its morality (not the moral dilemma), I hope you can attempt to understand the conundrum these officers were in and the one Malcolm subtly portrays in his book:


Keep pushing for fruitless efforts of precision bombing to win the war at tremendous financial expense while millions could lose their lives, or fire bomb cities while watching countless number of lives, buildings, and homes burn to the ground in an effort to end the war quickly to save lives.


Like the trolley problem, the men in The Bomber Mafia, didn’t have an alternative choice. Even if they had, who’s to say someone else wouldn’t have stepped in to do their job. Nevertheless, this book makes you think deeply about morality and how to fight for it, even if that fight is literal.

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