Research Notes: “Bomber” Harris and the Banality of Ego (Part One)

Trying something new: In the process of researching for articles in progress, I often come across cool and interesting stuff that, while cool and interesting, I can’t really use. Conversely, I find myself writing myself into tangents of thought that, again, while cool and interesting, are at best ancillary to the project. Sometimes these things make it into footnotes, but more often than not they remain as jots in a notebook, or are lost to my memory when I delete them from a draft.

Hence, “Research Notes,” an outlet for such ancillary thinking and tangents. At this rate, the essay I’m currently working on will produce a few of these posts.

I’m currently working on an article about the war poetry of Randall Jarrell. Jarrell was a mid-century American poet, most famous for his “bomber poems.” Jarrell did not himself see combat: he enlisted to be a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, but washed out of flight school. He did however prove to be quite adept at celestial navigation, and was kept stateside as an instructor. His bomber poems are in part about the depersonalization of soldiers; the heavy bomber as it appears in his poems is the distillation of the individual’s mechanization and assimilation into the war machine.

Or that’s what’s I’m arguing, at any rate.

In the process of researching this paper I’ve been immersing myself in the history of the bombing war, which makes for fascinating, if often harrowing, reading. Several weeks ago, I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book The Bomber Mafia. It was with a bit of surprise that I realized, as I read the list at the front of all the other books Gladwell has written, that I had never read a book by Malcolm Gladwell. It felt as though I’d read several, which is because I’ve read a lot of his essays in The New Yorker and other publications, I’ve read or listened to a number of interviews with him, and I listened to at least one season of his podcast Revisionist History. And for a while it seemed as if every time I turned around he’d written a new book.

But I’d never read any, until now. The fact that it felt as though I’d read his books but hadn’t is either ironic or appropriate—or ironically appropriate—given that Gladwell’s usual practice is to take a piece of conventional wisdom, something people feel is true, and then show the various ways in which it isn’t. He’s the sage of counter-intuition, and is very deft at building narratives that, though they start out counter-intuitively, come themselves to feel true, becoming (potentially) new nuggets of conventional wisdom.

So it was interesting to read Gladwell’s take on a subject in which I’d been recently immersed, given that it makes his schtick pretty obvious; I can see why he irks a lot of historians, who often take issue with his tendency to oversimplify. Gladwell writes for a broad audience, and his books are basically pop-history (and pop-other academic disciplines). He covers much of the same territory as the chunkier histories I’ve read on the subject, in two hundred breezy pages,[1] and in the process crafts a narrative that, while not historically incorrect per se, prunes the history in ways convenient to his story.

To be fair, all history engages in such pruning to some extent; but Gladwell’s has the effect of eliding much of the nuance of the history he recounts. It was one such oversimplification that my mind caught on and sent me down a rabbit hole of thought that led to this post.

This one detail leapt out at me not least because it was in both the main text of the book and in the summary on the back. The back of the book promises that “In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.” The research I’d done so far rendered this sentence, designed to be mysterious and tantalizing, satisfyingly transparent: the Dutch genius is Carl Norden, who designed the famous Norden Bombsight (the “homemade computer” in question), which, it was believed, would prove so accurate as to revolutionize warfare; the “band of brothers” in Alabama are the aviators who essentially invented the U.S. Air Force, and who became the generals responsible for prosecuting the air war in Europe and the Pacific; and the “pyromaniacal chemists” were the people who improved and refined the incendiary bombs—eventually inventing napalm—that wrought so much destruction.

Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris

That leaves the “British psychopath,” who could only be Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the man who led the RAF’s Bomber Command like a medieval fiefdom. Sure enough, when Gladwell introduces Harris into his narrative, he says unequivocally, “Arthur Harris was a psychopath.”

I found myself somewhat irked by this characterization, and I wondered why on earth it bothered me. By all rights it shouldn’t have: while I’m unqualified to clinically diagnose anyone with psychopathy one way or another, I also wouldn’t want to oblige myself to argue that Bomber Harris wasn’t a psychopath … for the simple reason that he most probably was one, and certainly was in the more colloquial way we mean the term when we refer to someone who is at once cruel and malicious and takes pleasure in inflicting pain and death, and/or is callously indifferent to the suffering he inflicts. Harris was absolutely determined to use his fleet of heavy bombers to reduce every German city of note to rubble and kill as many German civilians as possible; and in pursuing this bloody goal he was also quite cavalier with the lives of his air crews, to the point—as Gladwell notes—that while he was popularly known as “Bomber” Harris to the public, his men called him “Butcher.”

But a psychopath? Well, probably. But it was psychopathy enabled by an unholy combination of military bureaucracy and the inertia it produces, bloody-minded obstinance, and national and personal ego. And while it’s more narratively and morally satisfying to ascribe the kind of indiscriminate destruction wrought by RAF Bomber Command to an unhinged mind, it obscures the ways in which the sheer scale of violence in WWII was only possible by way of bureaucratic banality.

Let me back up a bit. The bomber war was divided between two distinct ethos: “precision” bombing and area bombing. I put the one descriptor in quotes but not the other for the simple reason that precision in high-altitude bombing was a comforting fiction; area bombing, by contrast, is an accurate name for an inherently inaccurate practice. The “bomber mafia” of Gladwell’s title were a small group of American military aviators who came to believe—believe passionately, in fact—that wars of the future could be won by a relatively small number of bombers destroying specific targets crucial to the enemy’s military and civilian infrastructure. Take out power stations and relays, factories manufacturing key items like ball bearings, transportation hubs, and so forth, and you would cut the strings that made the enemy war machine dance. So simple! All you need is a consistent way to deliver munitions with reliable accuracy from a safe altitude.

It should be noted that this blue-sky thinking proceeded from two laudable premises: first, anything that could prevent or circumvent the kind of horrific attrition recently experienced in the trenches of WWI—indeed, anything that could make any war regrettable but short—was a moral good; and second, that precision bombing theoretically allowed you to solely strike military targets and avoid civilian casualties.

The Norden Bomb Sight seemed to promise such accuracy. It was heralded as a marvel of engineering that would take into account a huge range of variables—among other things, windspeed, forward velocity, air temperature and density, bomb size, even the earth’s rotation—which the bombardier would feed into the machine’s difference engine and, from twenty thousand feet up or more, plant a bomb neatly into a pickle barrel.[2]

Now is when the narrator cuts in to say, “They did not, in fact, plant bombs in pickle barrels.”

Far from it: bombing was never anything close to the exact science imagined by the bomber mafia and touted by wartime propaganda. Leaving aside the fact that the Norden Bomb Sight was not nearly as accurate as promised, bomber fleets had to deal with complications ranging from the harrowing (enemy fighters, flak) to the quotidian (cloud cover). Sometimes bomber crews lost their nerve and turned tail before reaching the target, often dropping their payloads over farmland or forest. Sometimes their navigation was so off they bombed the wrong city entirely. As Paul Fussell notes in his book Wartime, an exhaustive evisceration of WWII myths, “The fact was that bombing proved so grossly inaccurate that the planes had to fly well within anti-aircraft range to hit anywhere near the target, and even then they very often missed it entirely.” As the war progressed, “’precision bombing’ became a comical oxymoron relished by bomber crews with a sense of black humor.”

There was a constant push-and-pull between the British and the Americans throughout the bombing war in Europe. The putative psychopath Arthur Harris considered the American insistence on bombing specific targets absurd; he constantly harangued his American counterparts—and harangued Churchill to harangue Roosevelt—to give up their daytime attacks and join the RAF in night-time area bombing to more quickly effect his goal of reducing every German city to rubble.[3] Harris dismissed the American insistence on hitting crucial targets, whether they were travel hubs, ball bearing factories, or oil production, as “panaceas.” That became his favourite word every time he was urged have his bombers try to hit targets more specific than city centers: he imbued it with a haughty, derisive disdain for what he saw as naïve and even childish American thinking. He embodied the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s idealism. War for Bomber Harris was a necessarily brutal affair and every single German was, to his mind, a valid target. American queasiness at the prospect of civilian casualties was, he believed, a weakness[4] that wilfully ignored reality and would prolong the war and, paradoxically, cause greater suffering. Only by breaking the German spirit by pitilessly raining destruction on their cities would the war be won—and ultimate victory, he insisted all the way through, could be achieved by bombing alone.

Again, cue the narrator: “The war could not, in fact, be won by bombing alone.”

However, as the war wore on through 1943 and into 1944 and the behemoth of the U.S. military-industrial complex started producing bombers faster than they could recruit and train aircrews, the American strategy ultimately proved more effective. To be clear: “precision bombing” was never a reality, never became anything more than an oxymoron to be savoured as gallows humour. But as the USAAF was able to put more and more planes in the air, focused raids on high-value targets increasingly paid dividends that Harris’ night-time area bombing did not, even as Harris’ air fleet similarly grew larger and larger. As Canadian historian Randall Hansen details in Fire and Fury, what kept Albert Speer (who had quickly risen through the ranks from his role as Hitler’s pet architect, to being in charge of all war production) awake at night wasn’t the devastation wrought on civilian populations by the RAF, but the massive blows to industry and, especially, to oil production by the American attacks. Yet in the face of mounting evidence that daytime bombing focused on military and industrial targets was having greater effect than his night-time area bombing—as well as increasing pressure from his superiors to follow suit—Arthur Harris remained obstinate in his rejection of “panaceas.”

Hence Gladwell’s characterization of him as a psychopath: Bomber Harris had a list of German cities, and he was determined to reduce every last one of them to rubble on the premise that it would destroy German morale and result in the collapse of the Nazi regime (“area bombing” was also often euphemized as “morale bombing”). There was a method to the madness, albeit a phantasmic one: the best targets for area bombing, so the argument went, were the densely populated city centers, where a carefully calibrated combination of high-explosives and incendiaries would have the greatest effect, creating firestorms that would overwhelm fire prevention efforts; those who weren’t killed were rendered homeless. The people living in these areas were predominantly working-class; the belief was that killing them and/or destroying their homes would create worker shortages and enervate the German war effort.

Except that this did not happen. In fact, just the opposite happened: the German people held firm in defiance of the bombing. Area bombing, rather than breaking their spirit, stiffened their spines … much as the Lufftwaffe’s bombing of London in 1940-41 had done for the British.

All of the histories of the bombing war I’ve read, Gladwell’s included, make this point: Harris’ theory that the bombing of civilians would break a nation’s spirit had already been definitively disproved by the British citizenry. Indeed, this much was pointed out to Harris by Ira Eaker, the commander of the U.S. bomber force. One evening after the two men had eaten dinner together,[5] Harris expounded at length on why the Americans should join the British in night-time area bombing. Eaker pointed out that that the Blitz had not broken the British spirit—why would he think it would break the Germans’? According to Eaker’s account, Harris dismissed the comparison, asserting that the Brits were made of sterner stuff; the Germans, by contrast, would surely crack.

It’s important to note that at the outset of the Luftwaffe bombing campaign—itself launched on the premise that it would break the British and soften them up for Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain—the British high command’s greatest fear was precisely that their people’s spirit would break, and civil society would collapse. The “keep calm and carry on” ethos that has become so identified with the British response to the Blitz was post-facto: the citizenry’s implacability, alongside the RAF fighter corps’ success in repelling the Germans, were two rare bright spots in Britain’s darkest hour. The British have always been justified in feeling proud of that stoicism; Harris’ assumption, which he was not alone in making—that this was somehow exceptional to the British—is exemplary of cultural chauvinism, national ego replicated in Harris’ personal arrogance and obstinance.

Harris rose through the ranks of the nascent RAF in some of Britain’s many colonial frontiers, cutting his teeth for his later career by putting down local uprisings in Iraq in the early 1920s through intimidation bombing—an early model for area bombing, as it was unconcerned with accuracy and designed to terrify the unruly locals into submission. After the start of WWII, he took advantage of confusion and incompetence in Britain’s then-tiny bombing fleet to advance himself to taking over Bomber Command. He was notorious for his arrogant, bullying behaviour, but developed—and cultivated—a popular public profile as someone who would take the fight to the Germans. This popularity, along with his ability to browbeat both his underlings and superiors, made him a favourite of Churchill’s—and thus effectively impossible to dislodge from his fiefdom, even when it became painfully obvious to everyone concerned that area bombing simply didn’t work.

His monomaniacal determination to destroy every German city coupled with his refusal to see the obvious evidence of his strategy’s failure does suggest a measure of mental derangement, to put it mildly. But it is also an example of ego on a catastrophic scale, enabled by bureaucratic inertia.

For reasons I’ll get into in my next post, I went back and forth on using the expression “the banality of ego” as my title. Suffice to say here, my quibble with Gladwell’s characterization of Harris as a psychopath isn’t that he’s necessarily wrong, or somehow doing Harris a disservice; rather, he’s doing our understanding of WWII a disservice, as reducing Harris’ aims and agency to the vagaries of a single, unhinged man elides the more complex and disturbing reality of the war’s massive scope and scale. Harris was a bad actor, something tacitly recognized by the fact that after the war, much to his annoyance, he was almost entirely ignored in the conferring of honours and the recognitions bestowed upon the U.K.’s national heroes. There wasn’t much appetite among the British elites for celebrating Harris, whose abrasive and bullying manner had made him so many enemies. Like his patron Churchill, he became something of an embarrassment to the ruling class once the indomitable Bosch were safely domitable again. But there is also, I would argue, a hint of collective guilt at work in the official ignoring of Harris: his single-minded quest to pound every German city of note into rubble was as much a product of the structures of power facilitating him as it was Harris’ own putative psychopathy. Bomber Harris, far from being stymied by his superiors, was enabled by them.

The nature of this enabling is the subject of part two of this post, so stay tuned.



[1] I’d been slogging my way through Richard Overy’s excellent The Bombers and the Bombed for about two weeks before picking up Gladwell’s book. Overy’s clocks in at over four hundred dense pages, plus another hundred pages of endnotes. In contrast, I read The Bomber Mafia in slightly more than a day. And I enjoyed it! This post isn’t an exercise in trashing Gladwell by any means. But reading him on a topic you know well is a bit like seeing your profession depicted on TV—you can’t help but get worked up over the details that get missed.

[2] The ability to put a “bomb in a pickle barrel” was the common boast made in American propaganda vaunting the technological marvel of the Army Air Force’s bomber fleet. Why pickle barrels and not some other receptacle is a question that remains unanswered.

[3] He came close to getting the Americans to capitulate—Churchill was on his side, and for a time it looked as though Churchill had convinced Roosevelt. General Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force, kept the Americans’ daytime bombing alive by convincing Churchill that, with the Americans bombing by day and the Brits bombing by night, German cities would be pounded relentlessly—“round the clock,” as Eaker said. Churchill liked the sound of that.

[4] Or in the RAF’s parlance, “lack of moral fibre.” This was the verdict leveled against many airmen who cracked up because of the strain of repeated missions. Sometimes, sympathetic psychiatrists found more acceptable diagnoses that spared traumatized flyers’ reputations, but many more suffered the ignominy of a simple “LMF” in their files, a badge of dishonour they wore for years.

[5] Eaker and Harris, counter-intuitively perhaps, became great friends.

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