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.