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In the 1920s, in the wake of World War I, a small group of men gathered in Alabama, of all places, to come up with a new way of fighting a war. Of course, at the time, they didn’t really think what …
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In the 1920s, in the wake of World War I, a small group of men gathered in Alabama, of all places, to come up with a new way of fighting a war.
Of course, at the time, they didn’t really think what they were doing was coming up with a new way of fighting a war. All of these men were veterans of the “Great War,” the “War to end all Wars,” and, having observed the wholesale carnage that that war wrought upon Europe, they believed that they could do war better.
As an aside, between 1914 and 1918, the French lost nearly 20% of their male population of fighting age in the war. Think about that. First, we should have hoped that somebody could do war better. And second, that stat makes me more sympathetic to the French—now I understand that surrender mentality better.
At any rate, these crazy men thought that the secret to the next generation of warfare was going to be precision bombing. They had this idea—wholly untested and, at the time, untestable—that it was possible to break a country’s will to war, not by leveling their cities and their civilian populations, but by dropping bombs at precisely the right place to shut off the power, the water, the telephones, and the means of ingress and egress. In one of their more dramatic thought experiments, they imagined a Canadian Air Force . . .
No, that’s not the imagination part.
They imagined a Canadian Air Force leapfrogging the massed Army of the United States at the New York border and being able to bring New York City to its knees with—wait for it—17 bombs. It was also part of their mindset that such a means of fighting a war was vastly more humane than putting millions of young men and women in a field, facing each other, and grinding them down with machine gunfire.
This crazy group of young men is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “The Bomber Mafia.” I am only partway through it at this point, and, as with every one of his books, I am astonished at both the depth of his understandings and his brilliance at telling the story.
One of Gladwell’s lines, early in the book, is especially resonant with me this week. He says, “Revolutions are invariably group activities.” By that, he means that something has to spark the ideas behind a revolution; that those ideas have to be tested and weighed in the minds of similarly-minded people; that every idea is sharpened and improved by being bounced around among other good minds.
The Bomber Mafia—that group of men in Alabama—started a revolution in warfare, entirely in their minds. See, in 1920, the United States did not have *a* bomber, much less a bomber fleet with which to test the theories. In 1940, Hitler did exactly the opposite of what these men proposed when he bombed London relentlessly for months; the Allies did the exact same thing at Dresden and Tokyo.
And now, much later in time, we see wars fought on CNN with such precision that the idea of civilian casualties is practically a cause for a cease-fire.
Revolutions start over conversation.
I wonder whose dinner table (or, more likely, bar) Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock and the rest were sitting around when the crazy idea of a self-governing society that rested on the approval of its citizenry had started floating around. Talk about changing the world.
The “rocket’s red glare” wasn’t the beginning of this grand experiment—it was the end result of a long conversation of like-minded brilliant people.
In this day and age, I wonder if InstaTwitFaceGram have made it impossible to have those important conversations. I hope not—we’re due for some new brilliance. In the meantime, celebrate the old brilliance this weekend with gusto! Happy Independence Day!
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at michaeljalcorn.net. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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