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.


Barry Strauss is a contributor to CJR.