Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11, Iraq | By John W. Dower | W. W. Norton & Company | 640 pages, $29.95

If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, those who remember the past are at risk of misreading it. Facts are one thing, interpretations another. Professional historians know this; when asked to reveal the lessons of the past, they tend toward reticence. But historians have the luxury of reflection. Politicians need to act, so they often appropriate the past boldly, but not always wisely.

So John W. Dower reminds us in this big and ambitious book. Dower, a distinguished historian of the Pacific war, whose many honors include the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, turns here to an exercise in comparative analysis. He aims at understanding the decisions that the American government made after the attacks of 9/11—to his mind, monstrously mistaken decisions—in the light of Japan’s misjudgment in attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. He looks at the strange and fateful appropriation of atomic-bomb language (“Ground Zero”) that sprang up in 2001 as a way of describing the attack on the World Trade Center. He examines the way misperceptions and untruths about the occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II warped the American occupation of Iraq after America’s illusory battlefield success in 2003.

Naturally, these topics stir today’s passions, and Dower looses his share of fiery arrows. If your taste, like mine, does not run to George Bush in Hell, you might at times find the temperature uncomfortably warm. That is a small price to pay for a provocative and expert treatment of the use and abuse of historical memory. This is a big subject and a worthy one for a scholar of Dower’s eloquence and erudition.

The future, said Thucydides, will resemble the past. No doubt, but “resemble” leaves much room for debate. One man’s history lesson is another man’s trap. Take, for example, Julius Caesar. In 49 B.C. he crossed the Rubicon, invaded Italy and started a civil war. To win Romans’ hearts and minds, he played on their historical memories. Unlike rogue generals of the past who made rivers of blood flow, Caesar deliberately spared civilians and pardoned his enemies. That made a splendid impression and won him supporters, but it also left his antagonists free. They paid his kindness back with twenty-three stab wounds on the Ides of March.

If no less a figure than Caesar found Clio, the muse of history, a cruel mistress, then it’s no surprise that Japanese emperors and American presidents have made similar stumbles. After all, Hirohito and his ministers might have reasoned that a sneak attack on the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur had worked splendidly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Why not try it again at Pearl Harbor? Conventional “shock and awe” tactics had sent Saddam’s army packing from Kuwait in 1991, so surely they could open a quick road to Baghdad in 2003.

The Bush administration reached the latter conclusion and imagined that a relatively peaceful and effective occupation would follow. They seem to have forgotten that to render Germany and Japan relatively docile after 1945, the Allies first had to destroy their cities from the air and grind up a generation of young men in battles on land and sea. The American invaders couldn’t do that in 2003, because they wanted to win the support of the Iraqi people. So, as brutal as the invasion of Iraq was—all invasions are brutal—it was mild compared to the destruction of Germany and Japan. The Iraqis still had plenty of fight left in them after President Bush’s premature declaration of “mission accomplished.” No wonder many of them showed their gratitude to American “liberators” with the modern equivalent of raised daggers.

Dower challenges comparisons that seemed natural when they were first made. In 2001, for example, people immediately thought of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, since the 9/11 attacks achieved complete strategic surprise on American soil. But in other ways, the 9/11 attacks were not at all like Pearl Harbor, which focused on military targets. On 9/11, only the Pentagon was a military target; the World Trade Center was a civilian complex, and the Capitol or White House (the likely site of the third, failed assault) are both governmental buildings. More important, the 9/11 attacks were terror attacks: their main target was American morale, not the nation’s material strength. Pearl Harbor, too, aimed at shocking Americans, but its primary target was the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Barry Strauss is a contributor to CJR.