Error, Folly, and Reversal

Strategic steps and missteps, from Pearl Harbor to Iraq

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.

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.

Japan’s gamble in December 1941 led it to misery and defeat in less than four years. In the case of America’s troubled war in Iraq, the genius of the American constitutional system eventually kicked in. After the shock-and-awe campaign of March 2003 and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, there were chaos, guerrilla warfare, and American governmental floundering. The voters responded by turning Congress over to the Democrats, and that led Bush to change course. He selected a new commanding general who waged a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The Republicans went on to lose the White House. Meanwhile, the new Iraq that emerged may be rather worse for wear, but it survives. That’s a far cry from the rubble and humiliation that the Japanese government reaped from Pearl Harbor.

Still, the American-led war in Iraq remains a textbook case of error, folly, and reversal. Shocking, until one realizes that so are most wars. Most plans fail once they are put into action. The difference between success and failure is often the ability to adapt quickly to the likelihood of error and disappointment. No wonder that Cicero said a successful general needs to have four qualities: military expertise, courage, authority—and luck.

Wisdom is missing from the list, but Cicero expected statesmen to provide that. As for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of recent American statesmanship, readers will find much to ponder in Dower’s stimulating and impressive book.

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Barry Strauss is a contributor to CJR.