Touches With History

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

I had three touches with history over the Memorial Day weekend. I wasn’t looking for them, but there they were anyway.

–1–

The first was a book I read over the weekend called The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021).

The Bomber Mafia is not a long book and I could hardly put it down. I finished it in two days. Confession: I don’t really like to read. I like having read. I need to read. Everything in life is easier for me when I am reading, so I read. This was an easy book to read and it was absolutely fascinating.

The book is about the U.S. Air Force in World War 2, in particular two generals named Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay and their approaches to waging warfare. Both were interested in ending the war early, but they had very different approaches. One was interested in precision-bombing, taking away the means of the enemy waging war. The other was committed to wholesale destruction.

But this book is more than that. It’s about the technology of waging war.

Do you know the three most expensive undertakings of World War 2? The first was the B-29 Bomber, known as the Superfortress. The second was the Manhattan Project, the development of the first atomic bomb. The third was, as Gladwell explains, “Not a bomb, not a plane, not a tank, not a gun, not a ship. It was the Norden bombsight.” This was a “fifty-five pount analog computer” designed to, according to legend, “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from six miles up.”

I don’t want to give anything away. But two things struck me as I read. The first was the staggering amount of losses in the Eighth Air Force based in England. In 1943 B-17s flew to Schweinfurt to attack a ball bearing factory. They were unsuccessful but lost sixty planes and 552 airmen were either captured or killed.

Then they tried again in the Fall of 1943, this time with a diversion. The diversion didn’t work for reasons that are part of the story Gladwell is telling. This second attack on Schweinfurt was only marginally more successful, but in the process, “Nearly a quarter of the crews on that mission did not come home.”

So then you start figuring out your odds of survival. Not every mission was like that one, but if on every mission there are 25% casualties, you won’t long have air crews or planes.

How do you process those kind of losses? And as we come up to the anniversary of D-Day this Sunday, you think about the 4,900 Allied troops killed, missing, and wounded to take the beaches of Normandy. The more I understand about World War 2, the harder it is to comprehend the level of commitment.

The second thing that comes out in the book is the story of the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan were not the only allied air attacks on Japan. Before, during, and even after the dropping of those two atomic bombs, U.S. forces were using a newly developed weapon on the cities of Japan. Napalm. Many more people died from firebombs than the two nuclear weapons.

Gladwell has a strong moral sense but he’s not telling a morality tale. He is offering a compelling story that makes you think. I can’t recommend this book enough and if you want my copy, just ask.

War is awful, as those who were part of one must know only too well. This book was a good choice to read on Memorial Day weekend.

As a Christian you struggle to make sense of war. At the same time you are not overwhelmed by it. The story Gladwell tells is not an easy one to consider, but it’s not the end of The Story:

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4, NIV)

Gladwell is a gifted writer and makes connections between things that you didn’t realize were there and tells such a captivating story that you almost can’t help yourself following along, even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject.

–2–

I get a newsletter on Sunday mornings written by a man named David French. He is a Harvard Law graduate and a committed Christian. His politics are on the conservative side, but he doesn’t push forward Republican talking points. He is an independent thinker and I frequently often myself challenged by the things he says. At the very least, I enjoy reading how he thinks.

During the week he writes for an online magazine called The Dispatch. But on Sunday mornings he writes specifically to his Christian audience and, I suppose, anyone else who is interested in listening in.

This past Sunday he opened with this question: “How old were you the first time you heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre?” He followed this with a confession: “I’m ashamed to say that I was in my forties.”

So here is my confession: Sunday was the first time I had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I’m 57. Am I the only one who has lived in such ignorance?

May 31 was the 100th anniversary of this low point in the history of how white and black people relate to each other. If you are interested in reading his account (and his words directed specifically to Christians) click here. This particular article is not hidden behind a pay wall. He makes an poignant comparison to D-Day and Memorial Day.

French has a unique perspective on race relations. He and his wife are white. Years ago they adopted a baby girl from Africa. He has told some uncomfortable stories of what that’s been like and the events of the last year have not made that any easier.

–3–

I listened to a podcast on Econtalk featuring Julia Galef. She and host, Russ Roberts, talked about her book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. I was drawn to the discussion and the book primarily because of the events of this last year. How do you think about things when there are such polarized views about, well, everything?

Galef says there are two ways of thinking—the soldier mindset and the scout mindset. The soldier mindset is intent on defending what you believe. The scout mindset seeks to discover what you can learn about the world. It was a helpful discussion.

In the book Galef tells a story about Abraham Lincoln I had never heard before. As the Union armies sought to defeat the Confederacy, the town of Vicksburg became an important target. It would give the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the South in two. Even the Confederate president Jefferson Davis recognized, “Vicksburg is the nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.”

But how to attack Vicksburg? Lincoln and his general, Ulysses S. Grant, had very different views about how to accomplish this. Grant had been trying unsuccessfully for months. And, then, as Galef tells the story, “Finally, in May 1863, he settled on a daring plan to approach the city from an unexpected direction, while using subterfuge to hide his troops’ progress from the Confederates.”

Galef says Lincoln thought the plan was “far too risky.” He had other ideas about how to accomplish this. “But two months later, on Independence Day, Grant’s army stood victorious in the center of Vicksburg.”

It’s the end of this story that is so remarkable. Lincoln sent a letter to Grant congratulating him on his victory.

“I wish to say a word further. . . . I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

“You were right, and I was wrong.” Wow. It seems like we are more interested in saying the opposite: “I was right. You were wrong.”

Historians say this admission of Lincoln’s was true to his character.

Leave your comment

Required.

Required. Not published.

If you have one.