Malcolm Gladwell, THE BOMBER MAFIA

Malcolm Gladwell, THE BOMBER MAFIA

Zibby did an Instagram Live for @gmabookclub with bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell about his new book, The Bomber Mafia, already a New York Times bestseller! His five previous books have also “hit the list:” The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. Malcolm is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that the amazing audiobook version of The Bomber Mafia, which Malcolm intended to be an audiobook first, physical book second.


Zibby Owens: Thanks for coming on GMA Book Club and doing it and talking about your book. I feel so emptyhanded talking to you having listened to everything and not holding it up with my folded-down pages like I normally would. Wow, what a book to listen to, to experience. It was like a movie in my ears. It was amazing. For people who haven’t yet had time to sample The Bomber Mafia, would you mind telling everybody everything you have in your listener’s guide, which is also, by the way, amazing, about how you came up with this idea, air conditioning and all?

Malcolm Gladwell: I was in Tokyo about a year and half ago. I went to a little, tiny museum on a side street, old, private museum that looked like a dentist office. It was a museum dedicated to the memory of one night of the second world war, the night when the US Air Force firebombed Tokyo, one of the most dreadful nights of the war. Forty thousand people were killed in one night. I was just so moved and overwhelmed by this that I wanted to find out more. I started on this long journey that ended in this book, which was, how did we get to the point as a country where we firebombed Tokyo on the night of March 9th, 1945? It’s a story that begins in Alabama in the 1930s and includes a crazy Dutch inventor and this romantic general named Haywood Hansell who would sing showtunes to his men as he flew back from Europe and another guy, Curtis LeMay, who never said more than three words at any one time and who was the most intimidating and brutal and ferocious military leader maybe in the whole war. Every time I turned around, the story took on new dimensions. The result is The Bomber Mafia.

Zibby: Wow. What made it about this story that you decided to make it the audiobook as the main attraction?

Malcolm: Because it’s a story you have to hear. One is that all of these characters that I’m trying to bring to life, these generals from the second world war, we have tape of them. It’s not like I’m writing about the Middle Ages. When I’m talking about these people, I thought it was so important to hear their voices. When I talk about the victims of this bombing attack, I thought you had to hear the victims. When I’m talking to contemporary historians who are wrestling with what happened that day in Japan, you have to hear their voices too because they’re not pronouncing on this like it’s a simple matter. They’re still trying to figure out what the right decision was. I also realized the Air Force had these incredible archives full of all of this sound. At Pushkin, this company that I’m a part of, we have this team of people who are just wizards who can make magic out of sound. All of that together made me think, instead of writing a book and then going into a studio, into a little closet and recording it for three days, I want to do the opposite. I want to create a sound experience, something to pull you in. Then there’ll be a book version too. If you want to go that — that’s cool too. I don’t have any problem with that. It was just an opportunity to create something mesmerizing. I think we did that.

Zibby: I think you did too. I have to say, I listened to the first part of it while walking home from dropping my daughter at school. Then I got home and I was like, well, I don’t really want to be home and stop listening. I guess I’ll just grab the dog and take the dog out for a long walk now.

Malcolm: your exercise. I’m sure you’re in way better shape as a result of my book. This is very pleasing to me.

Zibby: It’s dual function. Your book is a weight loss tool and a history tome and entertainment. There you go. What more can you ask for in an audiobook? I was really struck by how amazing it was to feel like you’re watching an old movie, essentially, in your ears while you’re going about normal life and just hearing the sounds and all of it. Describing it is not doing it justice. It’s so immersive to hear that. It was really neat. It was such a great experience as a listener, FYI.

Malcolm: What’s interesting is, normally when you do an audiobook, like I said, you just go into a studio for three days. It costs ten thousand dollars. We spent months and probably two hundred thousand dollars making it sound the way it sounds. This was a huge undertaking. It’s also cool because it changes your notion of — when I write a book, a print book, I think of myself as the author. With this book, I don’t think of myself as the sole author. I think of myself as being part of a team. That’s a totally different thing. When you experience this, remember it’s just not Malcolm. It’s not me all by myself. I have this whole group around me. They created this as much as I did.

Zibby: I just recorded my own audiobook for an anthology I wrote. That cost zero dollars. I was downstairs in my basement on my own computer. This sounds like a huge step up from that experience. Oh, my gosh.

Malcolm: Call us up. We’ll do it.

Zibby: Back to bombing and the Air Force. It’s like, can someone make something more distracting between the things on the screen and the phone calls? Anyway, here I am. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how difficult it would be to drop bombs. Growing up in today’s time, I just kind of assume, like you point out in the book, you take your little aim and you program it and boom, you just drop it. It should land somewhat there. I didn’t think about what had happened between World War I and World War II and the opportunities that opened up and how it was like you’re driving in a car at fifty miles an hour trying to get something into a garbage can and that so many variables went into successful execution from the wind to humidity and everything, how cloudy it was, the weather. It seems like a miracle anything has ever hit anything, or perhaps a tragedy. Tell me a little bit about how these men revolutionized the whole thing and then how the atomic bomb somehow made it better, I don’t know, question mark…

Malcolm: The story of this book is the story of a group of people who are trying to solve the central problem that faced the Air Force at the beginning of the second world war, which is that you could build a bomber and you could build bombs, but you couldn’t figure out how to hit the target on the ground because, as you said, the physics problem of — you’re flying at six miles up in the air. You’re flying at two hundred and fifty miles an hour. The wind is blowing. It’s freezing cold where you are six miles up but not cold on the ground. There’s cloud cover. There’s people shooting at you and on and on and on. Trying to drop a bomb that will actually hit something is nearly impossible. What this group of guys — they call themselves the bomber mafia. What they believed was that if they could figure out the problem of dropping a bomb accurately, they could revolutionize war, and in a good way. They said, look, if we could drop bombs exactly where we want to drop them, then we don’t need armies anymore. We don’t need navy. We don’t need the marines. We don’t have to kill civilians. All we have to do is to fly over the enemy and just impress upon the enemy that they can do nothing to stop us. So fly over an enemy city and instead of bombing the whole city and killing hundreds of thousands of people, take out the aqueducts. Take out the power plants. Take out the bridges. Maybe nobody even dies in those attacks, but the city’s crippled. Your enemy will give up.

They had this dream. They said, look, wars don’t have to kill hundreds of thousands of people. If we’re just more surgical and if we use technology to solve this bombing problem, we can have a world war with a fraction of the deaths. This group of guys — they’re all guys, by the way. They’re all down in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1930s. They really are motivated by this profoundly moral notion. They’re not engineering geeks who just want to come up with a cooler way of dropping bombs. They’re people who want to save human life. They take this vision with them into the second world war. They managed to convince all of the higher-ups in the American army that, let’s try this. Let’s not do bombing the old way where you just drop bombs and try and kill as many people as possible. Let’s try it the more humane way. They try, and they try, and they try. They keep trying. They keep failing. They keep trying. They fail. They keep trying. They won’t give up. They’re the most stubborn, persistent — they’re obsessed with this idea. My book is about their obsession and what happens when they finally run out of time, when finally the army says, you know what, it’s not working.

The short answer to what happens when it’s not working is that attack on Tokyo. We switch strategies in midstream. We go back to killing people by the hundreds of thousands. It’s a heartbreaking story, but it’s also a crazy story. I felt that it was such a contemporary story because I feel like today, we have these kinds of dilemmas all the time. We have people come up with new technologies and they think they’ve made the world a better place, but it doesn’t work that way in real life. That was my impetus to tell this story. I felt like, man, if there was ever a parable for the world we’re living in now, it’s this, dreamers who carry their beautiful obsession with them all the way to real world and then it doesn’t work. Look around. That’s the world we’re living in now, all these shattered technological dreams. I love the fact they tried. That’s the thing. I feel like they’re heroes even though they failed. I want my obsessives and my technological dreamers to think big thoughts, to have a grand moral purpose. I don’t like it when they don’t try. That depresses me.

Zibby: As you point out, all these other inventions, all these other technological inventions like social media and everything’s that come, the car, you don’t even realize the downsides, necessarily, when everybody heralds the introduction of the invention itself. It’s sometimes only until later that you see these costs that are associated with it.

Malcolm: If you had gone to Detroit in the 1920s when the automobile industry is getting off the ground and you had said to those guys, you know, this thing that you’re really excited about is going to kill forty thousand Americans a year and cripple another, whatever it is, forty thousand, many of those being young people who are just out having fun, they would’ve said, you’re crazy. They would’ve said, I don’t believe you. They thought they were bringing about a world of freedom. They thought they were coming up with a better way to get around, a safer — they had these grand notions of what the automobile was going to be. It never occurred to them that car accidents would be something we would live with for a hundred years. There was a time ten years ago when people thought that Twitter was going to bring about democracy in the Middle East. Remember that?

Zibby: Yes.

Malcolm: There was enthusiasm. We honestly thought that Twitter was going to get rid of all of the dictatorships in the Middle East, and not just the Middle East, around the world. It didn’t happen, not even remotely. We go through this cycle over and over again.

Zibby: Not to mention the accidents, but also just the fact that so many people now live their lives sitting in traffic. What does that do to the human existence? Back to the walking and listening to your audiobook, the alternative is just endless doldrums in immobility when you think you’re supposed to be going somewhere quickly. Also not fun.

Malcolm: That was the kind of conundrum that I wanted to explore in this book. Also, this story, it had such personal resonance because my dad grew up in England in Kent. His little town was part of the area that all the German bombers flew over when they were bombing London in 1940. Those were his childhood memories. He would tell me these stories when I was growing up. His mother would instruct him — he had to sleep under his bed as a five-year-old for months because she thought that was the safest place in the house, as if that’s going to stop a bomb if the bomb — then at one point, a bomb drops in my grandparents’ backyard. It doesn’t go off, by some miracle. My dad would tell these stories. He told me about these exciting things that happened to him when he was five. I just thought that was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever heard. I’ve been living with these memories my entire life. To return to this subject as a grown man is this kind of weird experience because I was describing my dad’s childhood. My mom told me this story about — my dad passed, sadly, a few years ago. She told me a story when my dad and his little brother — this is in the middle of the German bombing of England. They went strawberry picking with my grandmother. The German bombers came overheard. My grandmother told them to lie down in the strawberry field. She covered them in newspaper. We can laugh now. What is she supposed to do? They’re in the middle of a field. Her only thought was, maybe if I can make them invisible to the pilots, the pilots will leave them alone. That was her only thinking.

Zibby: You got to do what you got to do. Make do with what you have.

Malcolm: You don’t have to cover your daughter in newspaper to hide her from the enemy.

Zibby: I’m still trying to get over the idea of trying to put your child to bed underneath their beds to protect them from bombs. It’s hard enough for me to get my kids to bed in a bed with blankets and a thousand stuffed animals and whatever else. The things people got through.

Malcolm: It’s very high at a certain point.

Zibby: I think it’s so interesting too, there are a lot of boys who would hear a story about a bomb in the backyard and be like, wow, that’s super interesting, and then just store it away. Yet it didn’t just stop with that. You developed a complete fascination with it, not an obsession. I wouldn’t put you in the obsessive camp, but then enough to dedicate all this time and energy years down the line of really revisiting the secrets buried behind you, essentially.

Malcolm: Oh, you can call it an obsession.

Zibby: Okay, fine. Well, I don’t know. That was a little forward.

Malcolm: Do you know how many books I have on bombing now? I have four full-length, long shelves. What is that? It’s probably a hundred books or more, a hundred and fifty books, half of which I read in the last year. I’ve gone off the deep end. I got into this. I was hanging out with, at one point, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force who’s the wonderful named General Brown, first African American to head the American Air Force in its history. He invited me to come down with him to Maxwell Air Force Base, which is the Air Force base where the bomber mafia were based. I went to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC. I got on the plane that the Air Force flies on. We flew down to Maxwell. I spent the day with him. It was just the most amazing experience. I met all these historians. Not everyone, but most of these top generals, they were all, at one point in their life, pilots, fighter pilots or bomber pilots. When they talk about this stuff, it’s real. It’s not some abstract thing. It’s not like when I’m talking about it. I don’t know what it’s like to fly a bomber. They’re like, oh, yeah. They tell you these crazy stories about being shot down or performing some incredible feat in the cockpit of an airplane and on and on and on. It was just the most amazing — I didn’t know Air Force people. I came away with this incredible respect for what they do and the kind of service they give to this country. It really was a very moving experience as I dug into this.

Zibby: I feel like you’re about to sign up. You’re going to join the Air Force. Next thing you know, you’ll be overheard figuring out a better way to — you’ll spend your ten thousand hours figuring out the perfect way to bomb places. You’ll be the next one to figure this whole thing out.

Malcolm: If some child of mine said they wanted to join the Air Force, I would say, that is amazing. Do it. That is a totally honorable calling in my book. It would not have occurred to me before I wrote this. There was this thing I watched this summer. The old Chief of Staff of the Air Force retired. They brought in this new guy, General Brown. You could watch the ceremony online. I was in tears by the end. It was the most moving — remember how crazy last summer was with the election and political division and COVID? It was just nuts. I was close to despairing. Then I watched this ceremony. It was the most dignified — it was a bunch of people upholding an institution that worked, who believed in their country. There was no politics. It was all about people who believed in the same goals and values and who believed in the same institution and who committed their lives to a single goal, which was defending this country. They gave speeches. At one point, the Secretary of the Air Force was in tears. People were telling stories about fallen — it was just amazing. I’m now getting emotional just remembering it. It restored my faith in my country at a time when I really needed my faith restored. I remember afterwards, I was talking to friends of mine who work for television. I said, “You guys should’ve broadcast that live.” Everybody should’ve seen it. It’s our Air Force. These people serve us. We pay for it with our tax dollars. We should’ve seen it. We should all have seen it, especially this idea, in the middle of all the George Floyd stuff, the fact that the first African American head of the Air Force was taking over. What was amazing was they barely mentioned it. They weren’t doing it to make a point. It was like, he was the best man for the job. He got up there. In that moment when so much stuff seemed like it was falling apart, it was beautiful.

Zibby: Wow, you’re giving me such hope. Even just hearing about it makes me feel like — it also seems like a scene in a movie. I don’t know if you’re planning on some sort of partnership with the relaunch of Top Gun or something.

Malcolm: From to Hollywood’s ears.

Zibby: I know you just are coming out with this amazing experience, audiobook/book/everything. Knowing how long things take in the publishing world, are you already at work on your next book? Is it going to be in the similar format? Are you going back to regular publishing? What’s your plan?

Malcolm: I have book. Like this one, it’s going to be an audiobook first. There’ll be a print version, but there’ll be an audiobook first. We’re going to try and recreate the same amazing, immersive kind of experience and bring all the archival tape. I’m already deep into number two. I have a whole team. The same team who worked on The Bomber Mafia has now been repurposed. We are now onto the next one. I’m in love with this kind of storytelling. I just think it’s so powerful.

Zibby: Can you share what it’s about? Is it a secret? Secret?

Malcolm: Can you keep a secret?

Zibby: I can keep a secret. I won’t tell anyone.

Malcolm: I’ll say it’s about a police chief and what happened to him. It’s relevant to all the debates we’re having now, but it’s a side of it you haven’t heard before, hopefully. It’s a very fresh story. After the end, if you think about it, you’ll realize, oh, I just got a perspective on what we’ve been going through as a country over the last couple years.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like that’s so on brand for you because you constantly are having readers rethink their assumptions about so many things. That fits. I approve. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? You are such a hero of writers and everybody. What advice would you have for somebody trying to start out? Also, should we forget print books? Should we all be moving just to audio?

Malcolm: No, I think what we should understand is that there’s a million ways to tell a story. A hundred years ago, there was one way. You wrote a book. Then there was radio, and there was two. Then there was television, and there was three. Then there was the internet, and there was four and five and six. There’s now like fifty. We don’t have to only do it one way. We should allow people to experience a story the best way that story should be experienced and the way they want to listen to it. Some people want to listen to an audiobook when they’re walking their dog. Some people want to read a book curled up in a bed at night. Those are all equally valid ways to experience something. The freedom in the world we live in is what attracts me. Now we don’t have to pick. That’s why I started this company with my best friend, Pushkin Industries, just to make audio things. We wanted to tell stories in audio. We never thought that was going to be the only way people were going to tell stories. I think young people should think about that. You don’t have to do it one way. Sit down before you start and think, what do I think is the best to tell this story? Then go from there.

Zibby: I love that. That’s awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you on behalf of the GMA Book Club for doing the Live and for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” where I will rebroadcast our conversation. What an inspiring story. Now I’m wondering what you’re going to think up next. I’m now wondering, also, what you’re going to do with virtual reality. Are we going to storytell through that? I don’t know what’s next. I’m going to look to you.

Malcolm: Thank you. This has been really fun. I really appreciate you asking me on to talk about The Bomber Mafia. Everyone, That’s where you can find it, super easy.

Zibby: Everybody, go there right now or I will have done a terrible job. Go, go, go. Take care. So nice to meet you.

Malcolm: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Malcolm Gladwell, THE BOMBER MAFIA

THE BOMBER MAFIA by Malcolm Gladwell

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