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.’

Dower puts no particular pressure on the term ‘cultures’ in his title. He doesn’t mean the timeless anthropological characteristics that define his subject, some version of Clausewitz’s claim that ‘the wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces is the first-born son of war.’ Neither is he interested in the history of war in relation to broader developments in cultural and political history. Clausewitz, writing about the French revolutionary wars, asked whether ‘war, untrammelled by any conventional restraints … in all its elemental fury’ might be said to represent a new kind of conflict, what the 20th century would call ‘total’ war. ‘Will every war in Europe be waged with the full resources of the state?’ He had no answer. Dower doesn’t either. ‘Culture’, never an easy word to pin down in either the singular or the plural, is uncommonly elusive and baggy in this book: a combination of spiritual and moral sickness, historical myth-making and, ultimately, a Nietzschean repudiation of history. Dower laments the ‘broader dynamics and morbidities’ of modern war, the delusions that ‘must be regarded as part of a larger psychopathology’, the pervasive sloth and bureaucratic incompetence of the Bush regime, the moral bankruptcy common to the US and al-Qaida, the idea of killing in the interest of a ‘lesser evil’, double standards and hypocrisy, hubris, group-think and more. He is just as scathing about crimes against reason and history: bowdlerised history, selective forgetting, the mendacious or Machiavellian use of the past, the camouflaging of failure, the vacuities of imagination that led Japan to Pearl Harbor and the US to Hiroshima, the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Beyond all this he rejects the repudiation of history in the service of a faith-based future.

While Dower’s instances of these failures are historically specific, the failures themselves are not. One could map much of what he rails against onto the ‘idols of the human mind’ that Francis Bacon identified in The Advancement of Learning, his great call for a new inductively and empirically grounded way of thinking. Bacon’s ‘idols of the tribe’ – the ‘false mirror’ of human understanding – distort the world just as what Dower sees as false history distorts the politics of our day; the ‘idols of the cave’ (doctrines and ideas based on personal prejudice and experience) are not unlike Dower’s ‘faith-based’ policies; the ‘idols of the market’ (errors we fall into as our minds make unwarranted connections between words and ideas) include the way we treat Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, Hiroshima; and the ‘idols of the theatre’ (prejudices that stem from religious and philosophical systems) are what we would call ideology, racism and, still, religion. The cultures of war addressed by Dower may be contemporary, but they display long-recognised kinds of muddled thinking.

Edward Morgan, who drafted the majority report of the committee that investigated US intelligence failures leading up to Pearl Harbor, asked Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander of the naval base in Hawaii, why he’d failed to move his fleet despite warnings in November 1941. ‘All right, Morgan,’ Kimmel responded, ‘I’ll give you your answer. I never thought those little yellow sons of bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.’ And who would have thought that a group of bearded, robed Islamic radicals in the Afghan mountains could plan and carry off an attack on America’s largest city? Except that there had been far more warnings of an attack on the United States before 9/11 than before the attack on Pearl Harbor. And, of course, these same fighters, supported by the US, had already driven the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

As the various post-mortems showed, failure of the imagination was to blame in 1941 just as it was 60 years later. Japanese war planners were under the delusion that a massive attack on Pearl Harbor would destroy US morale, while US planners didn’t even try to think about what the world looked like through Japanese eyes. No one seems to have thought about how a pre-emptive war against an Arab country that had nothing to do with 9/11 might look in the eyes of the world, both Islamic and non-Islamic. And no one took Osama bin Laden’s writings about the United States seriously. We were surprised. But surprise is, as the 9/11 Commission found, with an explicit reference back to Pearl Harbor, a ‘complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing’; it is, in Dower’s terms, ‘a consequence of obtuseness’. The sense of American innocence outraged, borrowed from Pearl Harbor but intensified and projected onto a global stage, is in Dower’s view either delusional or cynically self-serving. It led to the launch of a war on ‘evil’ under the sign of humanitarianism and with the assumed imprimatur of God – biblical quotations, mostly from Old Testament prophets, appeared on Bush’s briefing papers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (The American occupation of the Philippines after the ‘war of liberation’ from Spain in 1898 – during which waterboarding was invented to deal with insurgents – was, Dower reminds us, also carried on under the banner of democracy and humanitarianism.)

The story of how ‘Hiroshima’ became a codeword for the destruction of the World Trade Center is stranger still. Well before 9/11, Osama bin Laden had been issuing propaganda representing the use of the atom bomb as a crime against humanity. The US had incinerated women, children and old people at a time when Japan was willing to negotiate a peace treaty: this was terror exercised in the interests of global hegemony. When the Bush team took it up, Hiroshima became not a symbol of American destructiveness but of the threat posed to the US by the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed. From there it morphed into an example of the ‘shock and awe’ so beloved of Donald Rumsfeld, the military doctrine of delivering ‘instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large’ and thereby destroying the will of an enemy to resist. Here was Clausewitz’s ‘wish to annihilate’ presented in a language that the US’s adversaries, Arabs in particular, could understand.

Those not already convinced that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firebombing of German and Japanese cities, were militarily unnecessary and morally indefensible won’t be swayed by Dower’s retelling of the stories here. Some might agree that ‘for Americans, what was truly original in the horror of September 11 was the spectacle of being the bombed rather than the bomber,’ though not because of any new evidence he offers. But he makes other, more persuasive points. First, he notes that there is a horrible beauty in the forms of terror practised of late. Robert Oppenheimer was thrilled when he saw the bomb explode over Alamogordo, New Mexico, as were the pilots who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and some Japanese observers too, not forgetting the Islamic fundamentalists who were enraptured by the endlessly replayed images of the Twin Towers in flames. Karlheinz Stockhausen may have been politically tone-deaf – and possibly misquoted – when shortly after 9/11 he called the attack the greatest work of art ever, but he was not fundamentally wrong. Shock and awe is no less aesthetically heightened for being so spectacularly destructive of human life.

Indeed, it is the aestheticisation of terror that allows it to be translated on the one hand into an attractive technocratic modality and on the other into what Dower calls ‘idealistic annihilation’. He tells the well-known story of the German admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who observed in 1914 that killing a single old woman with a bomb would be odious but that if one could set scores of fires in London that would be ‘something fine and powerful’. The actual lives and sufferings of real human beings are eased from the consciousness by the seductiveness of violence done at a distance and by what Burke might have called a culture of the military sublime.

Another feature of the new terror, according to Dower, is that it depends on a revolution in moral consciousness. He dates our fear of idealism, without much evidence, to between 7 December 1941 and 6 August 1945, when for all sorts of reasons the culture of war became more violent and less restrained. One could offer alternative chronologies: the wars of religion, the French revolutionary government in the Vendée, colonial wars of all sorts. Operation Barbarossa, the war of annihilation Germany launched on Russia in June 1941, offers a parallel story to that of the Far Eastern theatre in World War Two. But Dower’s real interest is less in any precise dating or location than in the fact that al-Qaida and state actors share a common language that is part of the ‘cultures of war’. Both George Bush and Sayyid Qutb, the ‘philosopher of Islamic terror’ in the eyes of many Western observers, oppose tyranny, support ‘true social justice’ and are in favour of the alleviation of suffering. In the name of these abstract ideals they perpetrate all manner of evil.

Here, Dower sounds like an Old Testament prophet himself, railing not only against radical Islam and the US response to it but, more broadly, against a world enmeshed in violence: ‘The atrocity of 9/11 … must be numbered among history’s carnal, bloody and unnatural acts – deaths put on by cunning, and a plot by men whose minds were wild,’ he writes, yet it was ‘minuscule in scale compared to the incendiary and nuclear bombing of World War Two’. He views Rumsfeld’s immediate response to 9/11 – ‘sweep it all up. Things related and not’ – in a similar way. From the ferocity of the war in the Pacific to the war in Iraq, his real target is mass destruction in the name of a merciful God, a greater good, or a lesser evil.

Whatever one makes of this jeremiad, two points in particular demand attention. First, terror in Dower’s account is modern only to the extent that it represents older sorts of terror on a larger scale. It is the vastness that causes horror and fear; spectacular violence produces – like an ocean, Burke’s paradigmatic example of the sublime – boundless, inescapable, overwhelming terror. In the political sphere this terror used to be translated through the excessive violence that, historically, the sovereign visited on an offending subject – violence that went well beyond the instrumental to become the sign of an absolute will. The tortures inflicted on the would-be French regicide Robert-François Damiens in 1757 – he was disembowelled, filled with hot lead, wax and boiling oil, and quartered – are a classic case in point. Terror in this sense can have what Hannah Arendt called ‘totalising’ effects: her examples are the French and Russian revolutionary terrors that aimed at restarting history.

Second, Dower suggests how closely terror in its modern political sense is connected to the urge to reject history, or even to the instrumental use of violence to attain a specific end. Pearl Harbor, the firebombings, Hiroshima, 9/11 and ‘shock and awe’ were all meant to be world-changing, apocalyptic displays of the ability to hurt and demoralise an enemy. War has always involved such acts – one pictures the Vikings appearing off the Northumberland coast as an early example of shock and awe – but terror is meant to move a world out of its historically constrained orbit. At stake in Dower’s culture of war is not so much bad, self-serving or mendacious history – although there is lots of that – but historical rupture. Both for bin Laden and for Bush, terror was the sort of gesture that Nietzsche recommended as a means to escape the 19th-century surfeit of historical thinking.

The final third of Cultures of War makes the case Dower outlined in his pre-invasion piece for the New York Times. The analogy between Japan and Iraq is historically insupportable. On the one hand, Japan was a militaristic and anti-democratic regime that had unambiguously lost a world war and was transformed into a pacific democracy without looting, civil strife or violence between conquered and conqueror. In Iraq, on the other hand, hundreds of thousands died after the invasion, the infrastructure was ruined, there was political paralysis, sectarian violence and the scandal of Abu Ghraib. Yet there are also, Dower makes clear, important similarities between the two cases. In both, US sovereignty was absolute. In both, the US invested vast amounts (the sums expended were roughly comparable; failure in Iraq was not due to meanness). In both, the authorities ignored the advice of experts; MacArthur didn’t listen to the ‘old Japan hands’ who thought that a radical transformation of the Japanese polity was impossible. So why the differences in outcomes?

First, there was the Bush administration’s refusal to recognise that a successful war would entail an occupation and that this would be a huge undertaking. We ought to have learned from the Japanese and German cases: occupation requires intensive planning and expert execution. By contrast, ‘liberation’ more or less runs itself; it’s a cop-out. There was no plan in Iraq. It took months for the vice-regent, Paul Bremer, to acknowledge that the US was an occupying power. Insofar as what happened there was not the result of sheer incompetence – of which there was a bottomless reservoir – Dower makes a good case that it was the consequence of an ideological commitment to the power of free markets to govern both the political and economic spheres. Roosevelt and the men and women who directed the occupations of Germany and Japan and ran the Marshall Plan believed in the power of the state to build a better world. Economies and political institutions didn’t run themselves. (The Russians had no scruples about the use of state power: they had the water system and parts of the S-Bahn in Berlin running by the end of May 1945. Of course, they then started to take out railway track to pay for reparations, but that is another story.)

The root cause of the failure of the Iraq enterprise and of the world financial system in 2008 – ‘fool’s errands and fools’ gold’ – is, Dower concludes, the same: an ideological commitment to the power of unfettered markets. Pentagon and White House planners as well as financiers were riding ‘on faith and incapable of anticipating catastrophic risk’. Arrogance, carelessness, ‘callous decision-making’, a reliance on brute force, a lack of historical or self-reflection resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in one case and the suffering of millions in the other. The same idea – that we are living in a new world that has transcended old constraints – was behind both of the great disasters of the Bush era.

In telling these stories, Dower documents a series of historical sins and omissions; but he also describes the radical intellectual position which is held by some of his actors: the self-conscious forgetting and rejection of history. Richard Perle, a former Defense Department official and adviser to Bush, reports that for the president ‘the world began on 9/11. There’s no intellectual history.’ ‘History begins today,’ chimed in Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, on 11 September 2001. This became a Washington cliché: ‘We make our own weather,’ as the saying went. ‘There is a degree of … the historical sense which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether this living thing is a man or a people or a culture,’ Nietzsche wrote. Luther, he pointed out, believed that God created the world in a fit of ‘negligent forgetting’; had he foreseen heavy artillery he would never have done it. Nietzsche also recognised that there is a danger in forgetting: ‘It is so hard to know the limit to denial of the past.’ But this didn’t bother the Bush administration. Great events, they seem to have believed, require us to abandon the examples of the past – monumental history, Nietzsche called it – or efforts to preserve what is old, so that we might embrace heroic action.

What then is to be done? Dower doesn’t offer much hope. What he calls a ‘theology of national security’ casts a long shadow. My father was fond of quoting a line from Schiller’s Maid of Orleans: ‘Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens’ (‘with stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain’). If this is the case – if there is a theology of stupidity – it is doubtful whether history can rescue us from its innumerable, many-headed forms. At a more mundane level Dower’s attack on the crimes against history has been taken up both in the academy and outside it. He is the sainted scholar of those who believe that the war on terror and the Iraq war in particular can be understood as symptoms of historical amnesia, and that sound history would have made for sounder policy. Some have suggested that a ‘historical audit’ – something like an environmental impact report – should be undertaken before actions are decided on. But what is meant by this? If the claim is that historical knowledge and analysis can lead us to adopt the right policy in a timely way, it is clearly wrong. A clear understanding of the very long American and European colonial engagement with Libya does not tell us whether or not to impose a no-fly zone, or for how long. Not even the most intimate knowledge of the French mandate, Baath Party ideology or pan-Arabism will be of much help in dealing with Syria today.

Cultures of War ends pessimistically. It is unclear, as Dower admits in his closing peroration, whether ‘humankind worldwide will one day find the ability to truly control and transcend the delusory thinking’ that includes, but is not limited to, the culture of war. To believe otherwise ‘requires faith and reason of a radically different sort’. ‘Deep cultures of peace will come, if at all, incrementally; and that is where hope must reside.’ One might hold out for a less utopian prospect. The study of history is not a faith-based enterprise. It is founded on evidence; it is deliberative; it demands a certain accountability; and it can be debated, both as an account, as here, of the last 60 years, or of the longer story of which those years are a part. A respect for wisdom may come before the ‘deep cultures of peace’.