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.
The comparison between Hiroshima and 9/11 brings out the best in Dower’s analysis. Ours is an age of hype. It’s no surprise, really, that the World Trade Center site was dubbed “Ground Zero,” with reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and test sites in New Mexico), even though the death and destruction of the atom bomb dwarfed that of the Twin Towers. Or maybe it wasn’t all hype. As Dower points out, “Ground Zero” underlined fears that 9/11 was just a foretaste of worse to come. The anthrax scare of 2001 raised the specter of biological warfare. The threat of weapons of mass destruction loomed large in the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq. Visions of terrorists armed with suitcase bombs still inform our arguments about whether and how to disarm the Iranian nuclear project.
As Dower eloquently argues, Americans have forgotten the reality of the terror that American airmen once launched from the skies over Germany and Japan. They were less skittish about it at the time, as Dower shows. Decades of peace have faded memories and softened mores. Today’s Americans might countenance a certain degree of “collateral damage” in Iraq, but they would not stand for a strategy of directly targeting civilians, as they did during World War II or Korea. The events of 9/11 brought home to them, perhaps as nothing else ever had, that they too were vulnerable to the tactics they had once used on others. (To be sure, Americans did not originate those tactics; it is unfortunate that Dower has so little to say about the terror that Japan unleashed over China, or Germany over England.) To protect themselves, Americans were willing to engage in foreign wars that they never would have supported before 9/11. Enter the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever one thinks of those wars, one could not argue that American plans went smoothly. Like Japan in 1941, the United States adopted flawed strategies. Dower uses the comparative perspective to try to understand why. In the case of Japan and especially the United States, Dower blames poor leadership. The Bush administration, of course, placed too much stock in shock-and-awe tactics. It did not prepare for the likelihood of a guerrilla war, and it had little appreciation of the realities of occupying Iraq. Dower argues persuasively that the administration was chasing the will o’ the wisp of a World-War-II style campaign: it fell for its own metaphors.
Dower also leans heavily on the notion that bad strategies are the result of what he calls “faith-based reasoning.” That is a non-starter. Historically, neither faith nor fanaticism has stood in the way of strategic success. Consider only the triumphs of Constantine or the Crusaders or Cromwell. Or think of the armies of early Islam, which swept out of Arabia in 634 C.E. and, within a century, conquered an empire that stretched from Pakistan in the east to Spain in the west. Neither Japan’s emperor cult nor George Bush’s evangelical Christianity nor Osama Bin Laden’s Islamism can explain strategic failure.
The author is on firmer ground when he criticizes groupthink. Neither the Tojo government nor the Bush administration paid enough attention to dissenting voices. The Japanese underestimated American resolve. The White House and its supporters were maddeningly arrogant for years in their unwillingness to see that their strategy in Iraq was not working.