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.
Dower quotes Samuel Eliot Morison’s verdict on Japan’s decision to go to war against the United States: “strategic imbecility.” He suggests that much the same could be said about the American decision to go to war against Iraq. In both cases, the judgment is too harsh. After all, the Japanese might have made a success of Pearl Harbor, as Dower himself points out. If the two American aircraft carriers that had been at sea on December 7 had been in port, then the Japanese would have destroyed them. If, in addition, they had targeted the American supply depot at Pearl Harbor instead of leaving it alone, the Japanese would have dealt a big blow to the American war effort. There would have been no American victory at Midway Island in June 1942. Instead, the Japanese would have occupied the island and consolidated their earlier gains. In fact, they might have been able to build up enough power to bring the Americans to the negotiating table. To be sure, the Japanese would have been better off with another strategy altogether: namely, convincing their German allies to join them in a drive on British India. That might have avoided, or at least delayed, the twin disasters of Japan’s attack on the United States and Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.