--- In Zen_Forum@yahoogroups.com, mike brown <uerusub...@...> wrote:
> ps Audrey, I used to be in the British infantry and have great respect
for the US Marines (not as good as the Brit Army, but still damn good!)
ED posts: MIT historian examines path of war in new book
September 15th, 2010 in Other Sciences / Other
[MIT historian examines path of war in new book] Professor John Dower.
Photo: Graham G. Ramsay
"Japanese psychology," wrote Joseph Grew, the United States ambassador
to Japan at the outset of World War II, is "fundamentally unlike that of
any Western nation." The Japanese mentality "cannot be measured by our
own standards of logic," he added.
More than 60 years later, Paul Bremer, viceroy in U.S.-occupied Iraq,
assessed one of that country's political leaders. "Ayatollah Sistani
operated on a different rational plane than we Westerners," Bremer wrote
in his memoir.
To MIT historian John Dower, these two comments, made in two very
different settings, are nonetheless part of one historical thread: a
long-running American insistence that Western civilization has a
purchase on true rationality which other nations and societies do not.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Dower, an expert on
Japan and modern warfare, the Bush administration, even more than was
commonly recognized, derived its descriptions of America's new enemies
from the older ideas and language of World War II. In a speech President
George W. Bush gave on Aug. 30, 2005, roughly marking the 60th
anniversary of the Allies' victory in Japan, Dower notes, Bush
emphasized how the United States' ongoing struggle in Iraq was, like the
struggle against the Japanese, a fight against "kamikaze pilots on
suicidal missions" and "commanders animated by a fanatical belief" in
their own cause.
"One can almost picture White House speechwriters working from a crib on
World War II highlighted with a magic marker," Dower writes in his new
book, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, published
this month by W.W. Norton and the New Press.
The book is partly a critique of American foreign policy of the last
decade, and partly an argument against the notion that America's wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq reflect a newly emerging "clash of civilizations"
primarily driven by cultural or religious conflict, an idea popularized
by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, among others.
If it were a new clash, Dower believes, American leaders would not have
been recycling such familiar tropes. Moreover, asserts Dower, in
launching war in Iraq, America became enveloped in the same irrational
"culture of war" as its past enemies. Whereas the 20th-century historian
Samuel Eliot Morison once derided Japan's "strategic imbecility" in
attacking Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Dower thinks the United States
displayed the same quality by attacking Iraq.
"We propagate this whole notion of westerners being rational and
scrupulously moral," says Dower, now a professor emeritus. "It's part of
the mythmaking we do. But the whole `clash of civilizations' notion
doesn't hold water. That doesn't mean we're all the same. But when you
place things in comparative perspective and think about war itself as a
culture, there are many things we can learn about ourselves as well as
others. Morison said the world had never seen such strategic imbecility.
Well, now we have again."
`We so sanitize our history'
Dower agrees that America suffered a trauma in the form of the 2001
terrorist attacks. "What the terrorists did on Sept. 11 was an
atrocity," says Dower. "Those were crimes against humanity." His book
began as what he expected to be a short study of the similarities and
differences between Pearl Harbor and Al Qaeda's attack 60 years later.
Yet the occupation of Iraq in 2003 moved the book in a more critical
direction, as he began to think America was roughly recreating imperial
Japan's blunders of the 1930s and 1940s. To be sure, Dower acknowledges,
"at first glance it seems outlandish" to make this comparison. And yet,
as he asserts, "top-level policymakers in both cases underestimated the
psychology and resourcefulness of their adversary and plunged into a
conflict they could not control," and "tended to view disagreement as
dysfunction," a habit of "groupthink" that Dower argues characterized
both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Japan's war policies.
In the latter case, Dower notes, incompatible army and navy priorities
were buried under a need for the appearance of consensus within the
government. Like Japan's rulers before them, high-ranking American
officials, Dower concludes, became unwilling to take positions unpopular
with their colleagues and superiors. As Emperor Hirohito's "advisers
hesitated to tell the sovereign that his holy war had become a debacle,"
Dower writes, Bush's advisers entered a state of "denial" about the
troubles in Iraq.
Dower also explores additional broad characteristics of the "culture of
war." He places contemporary terror-bombing in a larger military
context, noting that the Allied air war against Germany and Japan
deliberately targeted civilians to destroy morale, culminating in the
earlier "Ground Zeroes" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a concluding section, Dower asserts that there have also been great
differences in the way the United States has used its military power in
recent times; he delineates the differences between occupied Japan and
occupied Iraq, and argues that America has changed markedly in
institutional and ideological terms since World War II.
For one thing, Dower says, the United States failed to meet the moral
standards it has tried to codify after previous wars as can be
seen in the torture of prisoners in Iraq, for instance. "Someone like
myself admires America's values very deeply," says Dower. "I feel one of
the things America should do is live up to and really embody the values
we say we have."
Dower is well-qualified to engage in this broad historical comparison.
His previous book, "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War
II," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, while a
previous volume, "War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War,"
won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Colleagues who have already
read Cultures of War in manuscript form have reacted favorably.
"It's a wonderful analysis of the dynamics of war," says Herbert Bix, a
historian of Japan at Binghamton University in New York. "I like its
emphasis on the correctness of the moral attitude the United States had
in the post-World War II years. That attitude to the law has become
It is less clear if the trajectories of imperial Japan and contemporary
America converge on common "cultures of war," as Dower suggests. "I'm
not sure if the term comes alive in and of itself," Bix says. He adds
that to a slightly greater degree than Dower, he sees the path from
Sept. 11 to Iraq as the product of "the steady expansion of the
national-security state after World War II," meaning the growth of the
military, the acquisition of power by the presidency, and the influence
of security agencies. Dower, while not ignoring these factors, is
slightly more inclined to characterize policy decisions as being
informed by an encompassing culture of war-making in the modern world.
While unsure of the reaction Cultures of War will produce, Dower hopes
it will spur at least some readers to think critically about the
policies and actions that, he says, have hurt America's credibility
around the world. "We pride ourselves on tolerating dissent, but in fact
we're ferocious about limiting it," says Dower. "We so sanitize our
history. In sheer practical terms, this makes us incapable of
understanding what we look like to others, and why others may not share
Yet while Dower thinks critical self-reflection is a necessary part of
building a more stable world, he is not especially optimistic that
today's leaders and citizens will learn from their mistakes. Whether
"humankind worldwide will one day find the ability to truly control and
transcend" its ability to wage such destructive wars "is, at best,
highly uncertain," Dower writes. "Constructive change and deep cultures
of peace will come, if at all, incrementally; and that is where hope
This story is republished courtesy of MIT News
(http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/ <http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/> ), a
popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and
Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"MIT historian examines path of war in new book." September 15th, 2010.