“For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a rider was lost. For want of a rider, a message was lost. For want of a message, a battle was lost. For want of a battle, the war was lost. For want of a war, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a nail.”
The above time hallowed rhyme (nursery or otherwise) is apparently what actually did happen in the demise of the reign (and life) of one of my favourite Shakespearean villains, Richard III.
And whilst it is not quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, The Bomber Mafia, it represents a chain of reasoning which does unpin his book.
Gladwell is one of my favourite non-fiction authors. He has an almost unique ability (shared with Nick Taleb of Black Swan and Steven Levitt of Freakonomics) to see patterns in human behaviour that others cannot, and to explain those patterns in an engaging narrative.
He also seems from what little I know of him, to be a really nice guy.
The Bomber Mafia is rather different from his usual books. He is not so much trying to find and explain patterns in human behaviour but to write a history of an aspect of warfare, specifically the US Air Force’s development of the doctrine and technology behind precision bombing, first in the 1930s, and then in its practical failure in application during the Second World War.
This failure in the practical application of the theory then under the military theorists who at first led the US B-17 and B-29 bomber forces in that war is what led to the alternative – the indiscriminate fire bombing of Japan (even without the A Bomb) under the more pragmatic general Curtis LeMay.
It is a riveting read. Everyone has heard of LeMay of course. But who has heard of the Quixotic General Hayward Hansell? Or of any of the other strategically brilliant men who invented the precision bombing doctrine? Or of the Norden bombsight, an analogue computer of intricate and precise components, which supposedly could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet?
Theories and brilliant inventions do not always hold up in real world conditions, and in the 1940s both the Norden bombsight and the theories behind precision bombing did not measure up in the fog of war.
But, as Gladwell tells us in the conclusion, the technology now does allow the USAF to live the doctrine of precision bombing in the present day.
And this is perhaps where this fascinating book falls down. It is a history of half the story, of how the innovative mavericks in the US Army Air Corps developed their strategically brilliant doctrines and what happened to those ideas in practice then. It does not really talk about the here and now.
To go back to the rhyme at the start of this post, For want of a nail, we can get to the crux of what precision bombing doctrine was all about. How about, if, instead of armies, navies, and air forces slugging it out for many year at great cost of lives and suffering in total warfare, there was an alternative? What if the alternative was that you could knock out a key component here or there of the enemy’s war effort or economy in one precise surgical attack, which could quickly bring them to their knees, ending the war almost immediately?
The ‘Bomber Mafia’ of the book and of the US Army Air Corps thought that they had an answer like that, and developed a doctrine that was the basis for US air power planning in the Second World War.
The main example used is ball bearings, which most complex machinery needed (and still needs) to operate. If there was one particular ball bearing factory in Nazi Germany that could be sufficiently damaged or destroyed, then the Luftwaffe would cease to fly within weeks, and so too most other motorised transport in Germany.
But there could be other examples. Railway junctions, pipelines, crucial factories of other components. A complex machine is only functional when all its many parts come together.
The US Army Air Forces failed to take out the ball bearing factory in question, and as a result, mostly abandoned the attempts at precision bombing in Europe. In the Pacific, the risk averse Hansell was not even able to try hitting such targets.
Gladwell is a great storyteller and he does build a great picture of the motivations of the brilliant men who tried to limit the ferocity of warfare with this idea of the surgical strike.
But uncharacteristic of him, he leaves the narrative incomplete, to my mind at least. The idea of taking an enemy out with precision bombing is an idea which can be extended far beyond the realm of air combat, particularly in contemporary times, and I am surprised that a pattern finder like Gladwell has not followed this idea further down the rabbit hole.
We are all, to this point in time, becoming increasingly aware of cyber warfare. Only a couple of days ago, someone caused several popular global websites to crash. A few weeks ago someone closed a fuel pipeline in the USA and held it to ransom, seriously disrupting the US economy. Last year, a cyber attack caused banking systems in Australia to be disrupted for a morning (I did notice this as my credit card did not work immediately when I was buying something).
You do not need bombs, drones, missiles, or fast high flying aircraft to take out key components of an enemy’s economy or infrastructure. You just need a very clever computer hacker with a very powerful computer. [Or at least so I think – what do I really know about what technology a hacker needs?]
The ideas that the strategic minds in the US Army Air Corps were developing in the 1930s are ideas which, if we look at them properly, are now, in our far more technologically sophisticated era, ones which no longer need to ride airplanes into battle to wage sinister warfare. This is the theme which Malcolm Gladwell and other clever and imaginative people need to explore further.