ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2001, newspapers the United States adorned their front pages with the tall, boldface type reserved for epochal events — wars beginning, wars ending, a man on the moon. Many 30-point headlines summoned the indelible day-after-Pearl Harbor rhetoric of President Franklin Roosevelt: "New Day of Infamy" proclaimed the Boston Globe; "A Date Which Will Live in Infamy" echoed the Washington Post; "Infamy" summated the Washington Times. In the days and weeks that followed, politicians and pundits returned to the analogy again and again, instilling the idea that September 11 was "a new Pearl Harbor," "our Pearl Harbor," or, as President Bush phrased it in his diary on the evening of September 11, "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century." As John Dower observes in Cultures of War, this collapsing of complex history into facile analogy had profound political effect. With the help of the Pearl Harbor / 9/11 trope, the Bush administration and its media collaborators cast the nascent War on Terror as a struggle equal to the Second World War in its moral urgency and Manichean simplicity.
BEFORE AND AFTER PAINTING NO. 1 © Oliver Jeffers
Cultures of War critiques the reductive uses to which the media and state rhetoricians have put this comparison. Dower contends, though, that when mined with nuance and depth the analogy in fact reveals much: not only about the culture of military policy-making in each moment, but, more abstractly, about the delusional groupthink that pervades our political leadership and attends what Dower describes as the "morbidities of our times and our modern and contemporary wars." Dower, a Professor of History at MIT who has written several important studies on modern Japan and the Pacific War — including the award-winning volumes War Without Mercy and Embracing Defeat — elaborates from the Pearl Harbor / September 11 starting point a series of comparisons: between the bureaucratic dysfunction and "failures of imagination" that prevented American anticipation of each attack; between Japan's disastrous war in the Pacific and the United States' disastrous war in Iraq; between the ideological and spiritual certitude that legitimated both the attacks of September 11 and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; between the apparently "model" U.S. occupation of Japan and the transparently destructive U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The use of analogy in historical scholarship has long attracted fierce debate. For its proponents, analogy is a bridge to historical understanding and to a more empathetic relationship with distant peoples, places, and times. For its detractors, analogic explanation risks "[obscuring] the singularity of the present by subsuming it under some paradigmatic past," as the philosopher Alberto Toscano recently put it ("The Spectre of Analogy," New Left Review 66). The histor...