The debate | opinion
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia and James M. Scott’s Black Snow continue the debate about US military action at the end of World War II.
A residential area of Tokyo destroyed after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Last year, Malcom Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia” examined what the author called “the darkest night of World War II” – the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, in which more than 100,000 Japanese citizens, mostly civilians, were killed. Gladwell tries to make sense of what he saw as an unnecessarily destructive attack on the city by framing the story around the careers of two US Air Force Generals: Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. Gladwell grudgingly admires and respects LeMay, who led the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese population centers, but admits his “heart” is with Hansell, who argued against carpet bombing of cities and for more precise bombing of military targets.
Recently, author James M. Scott’s “Black Snow” offered a slightly different take on the Tokyo arson attack. Scott sympathizes far more with LeMay for doing what was necessary to win the war against a hostile regime that has repeatedly sacrificed the lives of its soldiers and citizens in a vain attempt to avoid surrender, and that has previously promoted and supported mass atrocities in China, Philippines, Burma and other places occupied by the Japanese army. Scott regards LeMay as one of the great commanders of World War II, who approached his mission with unsentimental realism. LeMay understood, as even Gladwell admits, that Hansell’s precision bombing was a fantasy – the technology of the time and the air environment over Japan (fog, winds, cloud cover, jet stream) simply did not allow for it. And he also understood that daylight bombing raids – which could contribute to accuracy – were very costly for US airmen.
Both Gladwell and Scott recount the horror and terror caused by the use of incendiary bombs in the air raids on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. On March 9 and 10, 1945, LeMay’s aviators destroyed 16 square miles of Tokyo, including more than 250,000 homes (making more than a million people homeless). Military and industrial targets were destroyed, but so were schools and hospitals. Tokyo’s residents were burned and scalded by what one survivor described as a “blazing hell” and what a US aviator described as a “sea of flames, a mass of roaring fire that seemed to blanket the city like a boiling cauldron.”
LeMay’s planes bombed 65 more cities in Japan – and still Japan’s leaders would not capitulate. It took two atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the Asian War to finally persuade a reluctant Emperor and his government to authorize Japan’s surrender.
While acknowledging that “LeMay won the war,” Gladwell nonetheless writes that it is “Hansell’s memory … that moves us.” Scott will have none of it. LeMay’s tactics won the war. In the gruesome calculation of total war, the bombing (including the atomic bombs) that killed over a quarter of a million people saved millions of Japanese lives and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s Main Islands.
Gladwell concludes that Hansell, not LeMay, “provides us with a model of what it means to be moral in our model world.” Scott quotes LeMay as telling his men, “Leave the fame, the fake heroics, and the sentimentality to the actors and sobbing sisters.” War, LeMay believed, was simple: “You have to kill people, and when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.” Ironically, the Japanese government awarded LeMay the Order of Merit, First Class, of the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun in 1964 for his assistance with the Japanese air defense program.