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Gladwell (Talking to Strangers) delivers a ruminative, anecdotal account of what led up to the deadliest air raid of WWII: the firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. forces in March 1945. Expanding on a recent multiepisode arc of his Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell begins with the development in the 1920s of the Norden bombsight, which gave pilots the ability to aim at specific targets, rather than drop their bombs indiscriminately. A group of young U.S. Army Air Corps pilots including Haywood Hansell enthusiastically endorsed the bombsight and other new aviation technologies and their potential for reducing casualties. Hansell eventually took charge of U.S. bomber units in England during WWII, and used “precision bombing” techniques to target German factories and supply lines. But when he arrived on the Mariana Islands to command the U.S. air attack on Japan in 1944, bad weather and the jet stream near Tokyo made precision bombing impossible. After refusing to launch a full-scale napalm attack, Hansell was replaced by Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the raid on Tokyo that killed an estimated 100,000 people. Gladwell provides plenty of colorful details and poses intriguing questions about the morality of warfare, but this history feels more tossed off than fully fledged. Still, Gladwell’s fans will savor the insights into “how technology slips away from its intended path.” (Apr.)

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Another Gladwell everything-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong page-turner, this one addressing a historical question that still provokes controversy. During the unprecedented slaughter of World War I, bombers played a trivial role. However, by the 1930s, many military thinkers concluded that they were the weapon of the future. Were they right? Gladwell concentrates on the careers of Gens. Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell, but the author includes several of his characteristic educative, entertaining detours—e.g., histories of napalm and the Norden bombsight. Between the wars, all rising American Air Corps officers attended the Air Corps Tactical School in Alabama. A small part of the faculty, the Bomber Mafia, taught that high-altitude, daylight, precision-bombing would win wars. During World War II, Mafia stalwart Hansell sent fleets of bombers to destroy German and Japanese industrial targets. Unfortunately, due to weather, enemy resistance, and failure of the overhyped Norden bombsight, the bombs mostly missed. Gladwell delivers a fairly flattering portrait of LeMay, who “had a mind that moved only forward, never side-ways…[and] was rational and imperturbable and incapable of self-doubt.” Heading the 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific in the fall of 1944, Hansell was conducting high-altitude precision daylight bombing of Japan, with the usual poor results. Replacing him in January 1945, LeMay did no better—until he changed tactics, sending missions at night, at low level, loaded with firebombs. His first round of bombing created a firestorm that killed an estimated 100,000 Tokyo civilians. LeMay’s bombers went on to devastate 67 Japanese cities, and the raids continued until the day of surrender. In his opinion, the atomic bombs were superfluous; the real work had already been done. Some historians call this a humanitarian crime that failed to shorten the war. Evenhanded as usual, Gladwell does not take sides, but he quotes a Japanese historian who disagreed: “if they don’t surrender, the Soviets invade, and then the Americans invade, and Japan gets carved up, just as Germany and the Korean peninsula eventually were.” Excellent revisionist history. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.