Something Fine and Powerful

Thomas Laqueur

  • Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq by John Dower
    Norton/The New Press, 596 pp, £22.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 393 06150 5

In June 2001, John Dower, a historian of Japan, wrote a comment piece in the New York Times about the blockbuster movie Pearl Harbor. The problem with it, he thought, was not its predictable romantic digressions or historical errors but its moral obtuseness. Like earlier films on the subject, it was ‘a paean to patriotic ardour and an imagined American innocence … sanitised to an attractive level of virtual violence’. Gone was ‘the broader nature of the terrible conflict with Japan’, and gone too ‘the multiple lessons we might hope to learn from it’. Dower predicted that when, in December 2001, we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, we would see ‘again (with a vengeance) … how tenaciously Americans remember’ – or more to the point misremember – ‘that day of infamy’.

Three months later, 9/11 gave us a Pearl Harbor redux far worse than Dower could have imagined. That politicians should draw an analogy between a surprise attack by four hijacked planes manned by 20 terrorists belonging to a non-state organisation on unsuspecting civilian targets and a massive Japanese attack on a naval base may seem a misjudgment, but it was not surprising. That a president would use such a crisis for his own purposes – Roosevelt effectively, Bush disastrously – might also have been expected. But that ‘Ground Zero’, the hypocentre of the first nuclear bomb test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, would become sacrally identified with the site of the Twin Towers and a metaphor for American victimisation is strange, even bizarre. The same could be said about ‘terror bombing’, a military term used in World War Two to characterise, for example, the US firebombing of 64 Japanese cities before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to speak of Hamburg, Dresden etc. All this was forgotten as ‘terror’ took on new and politically potent meanings.

Cultures of War began as a study of three moments – Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and 9/11 – conducted with an eye to what the past might teach us about the present and how the present makes us look differently at the past. But events once again overtook Dower. In October 2002, he wrote another piece in the New York Times, this time a rejoinder to those ‘realists’ among the hawks who claimed that our success in making Japan into a democracy after the Second World War could, and should, be a model and a precedent for a ‘liberated’ Iraq after the pre-emptive war that was being planned. Nonsense, Dower said, and on the Japanese side of the comparison he had the authority of his magisterial study Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two (1999) to back him up. In the first place, the US occupation of Japan had an unquestioned legitimacy, not least in the eyes of a defeated Japanese people exhausted by war. The emperor endorsed it; it followed an unconditional surrender. The United States, in short, had an undisputed mandate for change in a country chastened by total defeat and disillusioned with militarism. None of this would conceivably be the case in Iraq.

Moreover, a charismatic leader, General Douglas MacArthur, had been in charge of the occupation of Japan; there had been five years of detailed inter-agency planning and a large, well-trained staff was on hand to put these plans into effect; Japanese administrative structures were essentially intact; the country was religiously unified; it had a significant parliamentary tradition; and there were no natural resources to fight over. Most important, the US took occupation seriously; no one claimed that having ‘liberated’ Japan the US could leave the country to its own devices and the beneficence of an ‘invisible hand’. The occupation was carried out by people who believed in the New Deal, in the power of government to make things better, in what we now call state-building. All of this was precisely what the Bush administration rejected in its thinking about a postwar Iraq. Japan offered not a precedent, Dower argued, but a warning. Effecting political change in a strange and distant country is immensely difficult even under the most favourable conditions. ‘To rush into war without seriously imagining its consequences, including its aftermath,’ as the Bush administration seemed to be doing, ‘is not realism but a terrible hubris.’

A week after the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, an interviewer for the New York Times told Dower that his book on the occupation of Japan was reported to be required reading in the White House. Small comfort this must have been; no one in power then or later showed the slightest inclination to think seriously about what might be learned from past experience. For the US, Iraq very quickly became the sort of tactical success and strategic imbecility – short-term victory and long-term failure – that Pearl Harbor had been for the Japanese. Dower’s final chapter in Cultures of War addresses the post-2007 financial meltdown, and argues that ‘psychological, behavioural and institutional pathologies unite the faith-based delusionary thinking in economics with that of war.’

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