When Pop History Bombs: A Response to Malcolm Gladwell’s Love Letter to American Air Power

By David Fedman, Cary KaracasJune 12, 2021

When Pop History Bombs: A Response to Malcolm Gladwell’s Love Letter to American Air Power

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell

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.

The Bomber Mafia turns on a dramatic day in January 1945, when two protagonists “[square] off in the jungles of Guam.” Waiting on the tarmac as a B-29 bomber approaches for landing is Haywood Hansell, a career soldier unshakable in his faith in precision bombing, a man unwilling to bend his morals to the pressures of war. Stepping off the plane moments later is Curtis LeMay, his replacement. A ruthless pragmatist and brilliant tactician, LeMay has arrived to achieve what Hansell could not: bring the war in the Pacific to an end, even if it means destroying by fire every Japanese city, large and small. The Bomber Mafia, writes Gladwell, “is the story of that moment. What led up to it and what happened next — because that change of command reverberates to this day.”

Though the book takes many detours, all roads lead back to Hansell, LeMay, and their competing visions of air power — two men, face-to-face, presiding over a turning point of the Pacific War. Their meeting has all the hallmarks of a pivotal scene in a Hollywood film.

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 [1] 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.


At the heart of Gladwell’s account sits a tight-knit group of officers who taught in the 1930s at the Air Corps Tactical School — what he calls “the Bomber Mafia,” but who referred to themselves simply as “the School.” What this group lacked in numbers it made up for in faith in their dream for the future of American air power: high-altitude daylight precision bombing. Steadfast in their conviction that rapid technological advancements would enable bombers to “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel at 30,000 feet,” these men, according to Gladwell, called for more humane approach to air power. The School, we’re told, was composed of “idealistic strategists” who wanted to make war less lethal, who wanted to make “a moral argument about how to wage war.”

In sharp contrast to area bombing proponents such as Arthur “Bomber” Harris, air marshall of Britain’s Royal Air Force, these visionaries were unwilling to cause mass suffering. They wouldn’t aim for whole cities but for strategic industrial or military sites that would cripple the country and force it to sue for peace. “The genius of the Bomber Mafia,” writes Gladwell, was to say, “We don’t have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better.”

It’s a nice premise. And it helps to explain the supposed aberration on Guam. LeMay, following in the footsteps of that “psychopath” Harris, as Gladwell calls him, would lay entire Japanese cities to waste with incendiary bombs.

There’s just one catch to Gladwell’s portrayal of the School and its moral creed: it’s embellished at every turn. The School didn’t promote precision bombing out of some lofty ethical argument about humane warfare. They did so because they were convinced that, of all the strategies available to them, pinpointing key industries was the most effective means to dismantle the enemy state’s war economy. As they saw it, bombs did the most damage when they fell on vital lifelines that supported the “National Economic Structure.” With memories of trench warfare still fresh in their minds, many strategists saw air power as a new means to avoid protracted wars of attrition. The ultimate goal of precision bombing was to achieve suffering on two fronts at once: to cripple industrial production and, by destroying critical infrastructure, to unleash hardship on civilians who would in turn force their leaders to capitulate. The idea, as Michael Sherry has put it, was to attack “the enemy population indirectly, by disrupting and starving it rather than by blasting and burning.”

What motivated Hansell and other air power proponents, then, was less a moral crusade than a strategic outlook. In their public statements and lectures, the School may have played up the humanitarian aspects of their position. In briefings, studies, and planning documents, however, they were fixated on the practical exigencies of winning future wars. When the countries responsible for civilian bombings in Ethiopia, Spain, and China weren’t met with the international opprobrium many in the School were expecting, cracks in these principles only grew.

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.

The omission of Billy Mitchell — arguably the godfather of the Bomber Mafia — from this account is telling. A World War I fighter pilot and early leader of the United States’s fledgling air corps unit, Mitchell saw air power as the decisive factor in all future wars. Monomaniacal in his promotion of the Air Service, he did not rule out using bombers to “intimidate the civilian population” and to attack them directly “in rare instances.” He also saw war clouds gathering over the Pacific. Writing in 1924 that “the white and yellow races will be brought into armed conflict,” Mitchell warned of looming hostilities with Japan.

Lucky for us, he suggested, Japan’s cities comprise “the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen.” As evidence, he cited the conflagrations that had engulfed Tokyo and nearby Yokohama following the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. A few years later, Mitchell expanded on the theme, noting that “an air offensive against Japan itself would be decisive because all Japanese cities are congested and easily located. In general, their structure is of paper or wood or other inflammable substances. It makes their country especially vulnerable to aircraft attack.”

While such musings didn’t immediately translate into Army Air Corps policy — they couldn’t because the technology did not yet exist that would allow United States bombers to easily reach Japan — they did implant themselves in the minds of some School members. In 1936, for example, one Army Air Corps study of Japan concluded that “still greater demoralization of Industry could probably be expected from the havoc of great fires among the FLIMSY Structures of the Densely Populated Settlements in the Japanese Industrial Centers, which would be caused by the use of Incendiary Bombs.” Renowned not only for their combustibility but also for their dense concentration of industry, Japan’s “wood and paper” cities had captured the attention of American war planners. Well before war broke out, air power strategists were exploring the possibility of burning down urban Japan.

But this is of little interest to Gladwell because it muddies his neat and tidy framework. Only in the wake of Pearl Harbor, we’re told, did Americans contemplate such methods. “The idea that you might destroy 80 percent of one of your enemy’s cities,” as one early 1942 Harper’s Weekly column suggested, was, according to Gladwell, “heretical.”

This suggestion is heretical only if you ignore years of commentary on the topic. Rather than consider the various ways in which urban Japan’s combustibility had fueled the interests of experts on both sides of the Pacific, we are left with the absurd claim that “[t]he United States and Japan probably had less contact with each other and knew less about each other than any two wartime combatants in history.” On the contrary, decades of migration, cooperation, and rivalry had linked these Pacific empires, nurturing, among other things, a strong awareness in both countries of urban Japan’s unique vulnerability to incendiary attack.


The Japanese assault on American military bases in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in December 1941 galvanized American efforts to set urban Japan alight. Politicians and pundits alike demanded that Tokyo and other cities be burned down as a form of payback for Japan’s treachery. News stories of Japanese atrocities across Asia and American sacrifice in places like Bataan and Guadalcanal only stiffened this sentiment. Where air power strategists once expressed abstract interest in urban Japan’s tinder-box conditions, they now drew up concrete plans to deliver fire across the Pacific.

They did so at the behest of Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the AAF, who in 1942 asked his intelligence section to begin to compile target information not just on military sites but entire cities as well. By year’s end, analysts and cartographers had created a series of maps that demarcated the most flammable sections of Japan’s major cities. These in turn informed efforts by the Air Staff’s Intelligence section to compile target folders on cities vulnerable to incendiary attack. The result was Japan, Incendiary Attack Data, October 1943, a report that identified the most flammable neighborhoods in 20 different cities. Among its many recommendations: target Japanese workers in order to curtail industrial output and lower morale.

We catch glimpses of this broader incendiary planning in Gladwell’s account. He takes us on a brief diversion, for example, to explore the development of napalm and the incendiary bomb trials at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. These are pivotal episodes that reveal the broad mobilization of American society — chemists, architects, urban planners, and so on — into the weaponization of fire. But to Gladwell these broader structural forces are a mere sideshow to Hansell and LeMay. We get pages parsing Hansell’s moral qualms but only passing mention of the fact that the United States government was testing and mass producing a new generation of incendiary bombs years before B-29s were ever in range of Japan.

Of the many gaps in Gladwell’s coverage, none is more glaring than his silence on the Committee of Operations Analysts (COA). A group of economic, industrial, and logistics experts tasked by Arnold with refining intelligence, the COA brought a wide range of civilian and military expertise to bear on the process of target selection. It was here, in the meetings of its “incendiary subcommittee,” that the blueprint for the firebombings was drawn. After endorsing the Air Staff’s 1943 recommendation to target urban industrial systems and the industrial workers therein, the COA began to draft tactical plans to do just that. In 1944, it released a 155-page report on the matter, Economic Effects of Successful Area Attacks of Six Japanese Cities.

The COA advised that, when weather conditions permitted and enough B-29s were assembled to carry out the attack, the AAF should drop large numbers of incendiary bombs on the densest population concentrations of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Kawasaki, and Kobe. Noting that 58,000 Tokyoites died in the 1923 conflagration, the COA concluded that incendiary attacks on the capital would “produce many times the number of uncontrollable fires” and kill significantly more people given that the city’s population had exploded to over 5,000,000. And if the AAF applied just “a fraction of the effort” expended by the RAF in 1943 when it carried out dozens of air raids on German cities, the damage would be far greater.

If all went according to the subcommittee’s plan, the attacks would “effect a degree of destruction never before equaled” by burning 221 square miles of urban fabric to the ground, killing a half million people by “suffocation, incineration, and heat,” and making 7,750,000 homeless. Firefighting, dehousing, burying the dead, caring for the wounded, and overall social disorganization, analysts estimated, would create an aggregate “worker absenteeism” equal to 26,550,000 days of skilled labor. Such precise figures and sanitized language belie a bottom-line fact: AAF planners called for targeting not just workers but their families as well.

Crucially, the COA cautioned that “to give maximum assurance of totally destroying the area attacked, the danger being that a small effort would merely create firebreaks against a later heavy attack,” the AAF should wait until a large enough force had been assembled. It concluded that, based on available data, “a general attack on Japanese industrial areas should be initiated in March of 1945 and concentrated in that month” [emphasis added].

It’s important to recognize that, by the time the COA issued this report, the AAF was already engaged in the radar (or “blind”) bombing of German cities. While Gladwell devotes considerable ink to a frustrated Hansell contending with the challenges of the air war in Europe, he says little about the broader evolution of American bombing tactics. Hobbled by poor weather, the Eighth Air Force had come to accept that precision bombing was not achieving results. The use of radar, by contrast, appeared more efficacious, even if it meant accepting that bombs would fall haphazardly across urban areas. Under the pretext of destroying Germany’s railways, moreover, they had begun to bomb large swathes of entire cities. Thus, while the AAF held firm in its refusal to engage in nighttime incendiary raids, it effectively settled on a strategy of urban area bombing in everything but name.

Yet, in Gladwell’s telling, a firm commitment to precision bombing carries over from one theater to the next. This misrepresents the nature of the United States’s bombing campaign against Japan. Gladwell makes much of the fact that Hansell’s first major raid on Japan in November 1944 targeted the Nakajima Aircraft Plant — a target in keeping with Hansell’s stated desire to dismantle Japan’s airplane manufacturing industry. But the plant was not the only thing B-29s bombed in that raid. While 35 B-29s bombed the Nakajima target, another 50 Superfortresses emptied their payloads on the secondary target, the “urban area of Tokyo.” When, on November 27, 59 B-29s were unable to hit their primary target, they did as instructed and simply bombed the “Tokyo urban area” instead. Two days later, Hansell launched a nighttime incendiary raid on Tokyo — weeks before he was even pressured to do so. Gladwell need only spend time with the Tactical Mission Reports (available here) to recognize that precision bombing was just one of many strategies pursued by the XXI Bomber Command before Hansell was sent packing.

Yes, Hansell strove to enact his belief in the value of bombing military targets. Like LeMay, however, he was a soldier first. Cities had been put on the target list, and the man in charge of the hundreds of B-29s — the most expensive military project of the entire war — was expected to light Japan’s largest cities aflame in March 1945.

This is not a story of two men, as Gladwell would have us believe, tempted like Jesus was by Satan during his 40 nights in the desert. It’s rather the story of top AAF leadership accepting and then implementing plans developed as early as 1943 to put Japan’s cities on their target list and systematically burn them down. Far from going rogue, LeMay was carrying out a plan set in motion by a group of statisticians, mid-ranking military officials, and bureaucrats in Washington, DC. The incendiary bombings of Tokyo that took place under both Hansell and LeMay were practice for the large-scale bombings planned as far back as October 1943, strategized by some of those same “Bomber Mafia” members that Gladwell extols as models of military morality.

So much for LeMay giving into temptation in his Quonset hut on Guam. He was following orders. The only exceptional aspect of LeMay’s implementation of the 1944 plan to destroy Tokyo was his decision to fly the planes at a low altitude at night as they released their rain of fire onto the city.

While Gladwell acknowledges that “planners back in Washington” came up with the idea to destroy Japan’s six largest cities, he spends no time exploring this phase. Doing so would upend the entire premise that LeMay was leading a pack of “wild animals” that burned down almost all of Japan’s other cities. It was never that simple. In fact, some of the same AAF intelligence officials behind the 1943 plan worked closely with LeMay on Guam to develop a detailed list of which cities to destroy next. This is to say nothing of the fact that LeMay continued to precision bomb as much as the weather allowed through the end of the war. LeMay didn’t swap one strategy for another. In the words of Thomas Searle, the AAF “supplemented an unspectacular precision bombing campaign with a stunningly successful urban incendiary campaign.”

LeMay’s arrival on Guam, in other words, didn’t initiate a tectonic shift in the air war against Japan. The head of the AAF, Arnold, mobilized a complex institutional apparatus to figure out how to destroy Japan’s cities and kill as many people — gathered under the nebulous category of “industrial workers” — as possible. Insofar as LeMay had the tactical vision to send his force in at low altitude at night, he is a central player in this story. But he was just one figure in an entire system within the AAF that had collectively set out to engineer firestorms in urban Japan in the hope of forcing surrender.


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.

We read not a word about the survivors themselves, the remaining men and women who, in the twilight of their lives, continue to work to preserve memories of the firebombings that their metropolitan and national government have long refused to recognize. We learn nothing of the draconian air defense laws requiring ill-equipped civilians to stay put and fight fires — statutes illuminated by the myriad documents that line the Center’s walls. Of Japan’s own terror bombing of Chinese cities during the war — one of many horrific acts committed by the Japanese military — we are told not a word. There’s no accounting of the demography of death, the fact that a majority of those residing in Tokyo during the firebombing were women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Though the book includes over a dozen photographs, not one of them focuses on the corporeal consequences of this raid, the charred remains and asphyxiated corpses of the roughly 100,000 Tokyoites who perished in just a few hours.

Most puzzling of all is Gladwell’s suggestion that this memorial site somehow bears on the analysis to follow. “[S]ometimes our normal mechanisms of commemoration fail us,” he writes. “And what comes next is an attempt to figure out why.”

What comes next does nothing of the sort. Having paid lip service to the Japanese experience, Gladwell resumes his paean to the AAF. When, 40 pages later, he gets to the events of March 9–10, the Japanese are once more an afterthought. Gladwell does include an extended clip of the testimony of one air raid survivor in the audiobook version. Yet, inexplicably, this is not included in the printed book. Readers, as a result, encounter not a single Japanese account of the raid or its human toll.

By the book’s end, one can only conclude that the subtitular “Longest Night of the Second World War” is a reference not to the millions of Tokyoites who experienced the firestorm but to LeMay himself. The author spends page after page recreating LeMay’s hours between the moment the B-29s take off to burn down Tokyo and the moment they return. Here he is in the early hours of the morning, smoking his cigar, worrying about the fate of his crews. “If this raid works the way I think it will, we can shorten this war,” LeMay tells his lone confidant as they drink Coca-Colas. This fine-grained account takes us into the interior of LeMay, a man seemingly in anguish over his decision to send his crews in at low altitude. About the ground-level experience of the tens of thousands of Tokyoites “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” as LeMay himself later put it, we read four sentences.

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.

In this respect, Gladwell takes the classic defense of the atomic bomb — that its use was justified because it spared countless lives that would be lost in a land invasion — and applies it to the firebombings. Offering little more than speculation and inference, he reduces a complex set of forces shaping the Japanese high command’s decision to surrender to a hypothetical. Considering what could have been, we’re told, the ends justified the means. LeMay would object to not a word.


There’s something refreshingly upfront about the conclusion of The Bomber Mafia, in which Gladwell narrates a soirée with the Air Force’s top brass. The subtle ways in which he had been toeing the official line are suddenly rendered starker. Any veneer of critical distance from his source material disappears as Gladwell waxes enthusiastic about the Air Force’s turn toward our current era of pinpoint precision.

Gladwell ends the book by suggesting that insofar as precision bombing is now the prevailing doctrine of the Air Force, “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.” Tell that to the millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians who experienced the onslaught of American bombs falling on their cities, towns, villages, and farms. It may be true that, in the age of unmanned aerial vehicles and GIS, the Air Force has moved closer to the doctrinal orientation of Hansell and his compatriots. But to telescope from World War II to the present day is to overlook all the legacies of this firebombing campaign. It’s to ignore the wholesale destruction of cities across North Korea and the Cold War career of napalm. It’s also to brush aside the fact that drone warfare is only as good as the intelligence behind it — a point laid bare by numerous instances of supposedly surgical strikes claiming civilian lives.

Neither LeMay nor Hansell won the battle or the war. The Army Air Forces won. By pulverizing, burning, and irradiating urban Japan, the AAF achieved its larger goal of becoming an independent wing of the armed forces. Air power became only more central to the American way of war thereafter.

It’s precisely for this reason that we need to consider the broader institutional and political context in which Hansell and LeMay operated. If Gladwell were earnest in his efforts to offer “a fresh analysis of one of the most important events in military history,” he would look beyond the AAF’s highest echelons. He would do well to read COA reports, yes, but also the records of A-2 (intelligence), the Joint Target Group, and the Office of Strategic Services. He should sit down with Japanese survivors, but also Japanese scholars, who have shed light on the topic for decades. He should add to the “whole shelves of these histories” about bombing that fill his personal library new works on the transnational destruction of cities, the militarized vision of the wartime state, and civilian accounts of the air war.

Bringing these perspectives into view reveals the firebombing of Tokyo to be not so much a two-act morality play as a complex story of total war planning that tapped into a deep well of thinking about urban Japan aflame.


David Fedman is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Cary Karacas is associate professor of geography at CUNY-College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center. Together, they maintain JapanAirRaids.org, a bilingual digital archive dedicated to the dissemination of information about the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II.


[1] The book contains numerous inaccuracies, large and small. Gladwell, for example, tells us that “LeMay firebombed Tokyo a second time, at the end of May…” This will come as a surprise to the remaining survivors of the mid-April “Operation Perdition #1” air raid that unleashed more incendiaries than fell on the city on March 10, 1945, killing thousands and leaving over a half million people homeless. Gladwell claims that “there remains no government-sanctioned memorial in Japan to the March 9 [sic] attack.” Such a memorial has stood in Tokyo’s Yokoamichō Park for two decades. Given how the site symbolizes the tortured politics of air raid memory in Tokyo and Japan writ large, it may have made for a compelling story had Gladwell chosen to focus on Japan for more than a few pages. Such errors pile up to the point where it becomes clear that a book that has received so much attention ought to have received more fact-checking.

LARB Contributors

David Fedman is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. With Cary Karacas, he maintains JapanAirRaids.org, a bilingual digital archive dedicated to the dissemination of information about the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II.
Cary Karacas is associate professor of geography at CUNY-College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center. With David Fedman, he maintains JapanAirRaids.org, a bilingual digital archive dedicated to the dissemination of information about the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II.


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