Hard decisions during war | Inquirer Business

Hard decisions during war

/ 05:16 AM December 16, 2021

The greatness of leaders is revealed when decisions to be made are gut-wrenching. During the World War II, the US Air Force had to decide between two horrendous alternatives: Should enemy areas be firebombed, wreaking great destruction but possibly hastening the end of the war, as proposed by Gen. Curtis LeMay? Or should precision bombing be used, for the sake of civilians, as advocated by Gen. Haywood Hansell, even if this would likely mean a protracted conflict?

In his book “The Bomber Mafia,” Malcolm Gladwell explores “the messiness of intentions.” At first, Hansell attempted to do it his way, utilizing bombsight to aim as accurately as possible.


“The most expensive single undertaking of the Second World War was the B-29 Bomber, the Superfortress,” says Gladwell. “The second most expensive was the Manhattan Project … to build the world’s first atomic bomb … The third most expensive project … was the Norden bombsight, the 55-pound analog computer … [that could allegedly] drop bombs into pickle barrels from 30,000 feet. We wouldn’t need armies anymore. We wouldn’t need to leave young men dead on battlefields or lay waste to entire cities. We could reinvent war. Make it precise and quick and almost bloodless.”

Carl Norden, the creator of the bombsight, was a committed Christian, and paradoxically, this was why he devoted his life to making bombing accurate—so he could save lives.


The Bomber Mafia believed that just wars had to be fought, but humanely. They outlined plans (planes, pilots, explosives) and chose their targets (power plants, transportation grids, oil refineries). Hansell and his air force optimistically deployed the bombsight, but there was just one problem:

“We have not put all our bombs exactly where we wanted to put them, and therefore we are not by any means satisfied with what we have done so far,” said Hansell in Guam while directing the Pacific theater of the war. “We are still in our early experimental stages. We have much to learn and many operational and technical problems to solve.”

But the powers-that-be had enough. Gen. LeMay abruptly replaced Hansell in early 1945.

Hansell was a poet and an opera buff who loved “Don Quixote.” LeMay was not an intellectual, but a man of action.

“I’d rather have somebody who is real stupid but did something—even if it’s wrong he did something—than have somebody who’d vacillate and do nothing,” LeMay wrote in his memoirs.

A problem solver extraordinaire, LeMay did not let anything deter him. After several planned attacks were foiled by the vagaries of the jet stream, he said, “We assembled the airplanes, the bombs, the gasoline, the supplies, the people. Then what would we do? Sit on our butts and wait for the weather … So I [will] get us to be independent of weather.”

LeMay tasked his plots to come in under the clouds, lower than had ever been done in a B-29, while flying at night. He drilled the pilots relentlessly, for he had “a heart that revolted at the idea of what lack of discipline and training would mean to his young crews.”


LeMay would go down in history as the one who firebombed Tokyo, a brutal act which likely foretold the end of the war. “Satan tempts Jesus by offering him dominion over all he sees … if only Jesus will accept … the temptation to do evil that good may come … Hansell sided with Jesus,” says Gladwell.

“But LeMay [went] with Satan. He … accepted the illegitimate means if they led to what he considered a swift and more advantageous end.”

Gladwell believes that given more time, Hansell might still have turned the tide. But after the war, in 1964, Japan gave LeMay their highest honor, the First Class Order of Merit of the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun, for his aid in rebuilding their air force. INQGet “The Bomber Mafia” at National Book Store.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada, or the ebook via Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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TAGS: The Bomber Mafia, World War II
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