Days of Infamy: John Dower's "Cultures of War"

By Eli Jelly-SchapiroAugust 1, 2011

Days of Infamy: John Dower's "Cultures of War"

Cultures of War by John W. Dower

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. 

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 historian and political theorist Mahmood Mamdani has observed that the pursuit of historical analogy can repress more "genealogical" inquiries; questions of resemblance — how does x look like y? — displace questions of history as process — how did we get from x to y? (Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, 1996). That Cultures of War largely succeeds in avoiding these pitfalls is a testament to Dower's analytic rigor. It is also a testament to his careful attention to history as narrative, to history as the study not just of what happens, but of how we record and transmit what happens: Dower's account is closely attuned to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about our Others. 

Alongside "Infamy," another single-word September 12 headline evoked Pearl Harbor and betrayed enduring continuities in American self-perception: "Unthinkable." Pearl Harbor and September 11 were "unthinkable" for two primary reasons: because of our essential innocence and invulnerability, and because of their relative incapacity and general inferiority. For much of the United States' history, popular perception held that what the historian C. Vann Woodward termed our "free security" — security owed not to military preparedness, but to the natural fortifications of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans — was both a blessing of geography and an ontological right. Pearl Harbor challenged this myth and a correlated racist assumption: that "those little yellow sons-of-bitches," as Admiral Kimmel called the Japanese during congressional hearings on Pearl Harbor following the war, were incapable of orchestrating such an audacious and technologically sophisticated attack. Six decades later it was "this little terrorist in Afghanistan," as Paul Wolfowitz had referred to bin Laden five months before 9/11, that defied the intelligence consensus and disrupted the post-1989 mood of global capitalist triumphalism, the so-called "end of history."

If shock, grief, and anger described the prevailing public response to Pearl Harbor and September 11, for politicos and militarists of a certain martial or imperial disposition both events also provoked something like exhilaration. Here was the moment that would wrest us from our isolationism and complacency and revitalize our mission in the world. The white man's burden had been feeling unnaturally light of late, but now once again we could carry it into the wilderness with the appropriate and emboldening measure of its historical and moral weight. "History begins today," Richard Armitage intoned on television on September 11. "The world began on 9/11," Richard Perle later confirmed, as a chorus of neoconservative voices announced with evident relish the resumption of history. This new world and new history was to be inaugurated, with spectacular "Shock and Awe" effect, in the conquest of Baghdad and liberation of Iraq; it was to achieve more expansive form in the subsequent spread of democratic institutions and free markets across the Middle East, and indeed to more disparate points on the "Axis of Evil." When an unnamed aide to President Bush, now widely presumed to be Karl Rove, cautioned a journalist that "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality," he was pronouncing not just empirical but historical inquiry redundant. Except for the occasional cherry-picked reference (to Pearl Harbor, for example), the past was irrelevant. The future of "democracy" and "freedom" would proceed as it must, with the United States as its vanguard and with God on its side. 

The myopia and self-righteousness with which the Bush administration set about waging its war of choice in Iraq echoed, Dower suggests, both the ideological certitude with which Japan began its own war of choice at Pearl Harbor and the moral absolutism that guided the holy warriors of September 11. It also recalled, Dower is careful to note, the more secular but still inexorable faith — in the sublime and peace-bringing power of mass destruction — that justified the U.S.-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The original Ground Zero named not just the moment of war's end but the dawn of a Pax Americana, an "anti-imperialist" imperium founded on moral right, political-economic ascendance, and a technological futurism embodied in the atom bomb itself. With even greater powers of erasure, Ground Zero 2001 signified a new moment of historical rupture — to the extent that few paused to note the origins of the term "Ground Zero" in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Ground Zero 2001 became a wall," Dower writes, "that simultaneously took its name from the past and blocked out all sightlines of from what and where that name came." Emptied of historical meaning, "Ground Zero became code for America as victim of evil forces — alien peoples and cultures who, 'unlike ourselves,' did not recognize the sanctity of human life and had no compunctions about killing innocent men, women, and children." More than 800,000 civilians were killed by Anglo-American air raids in World War II. Several million people were killed in the Vietnam War, the conflict that gave us the euphemism "collateral damage." These inconvenient truths, troubling as they are to the neat civilizationist binary between Western virtue and Islamist barbarism, were tossed aside along with the rest of history by the architects of the New American Century. 

As conceived by its original authors in the Bush administration, the War on Terror is a "forever war," an eternal struggle not just between bounded cultural entities — between the modern world and its pre- or anti-modern outside — but between good and evil. The narrative of the War on Terror owes much of its efficacy to the abiding assumption that history did in fact begin on September 11, 2001 — that the exceptional world in which we are living today is without either precedent or genealogy. This aversion to the past has shaped the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in myriad ways: enabling the fantasy of quick and decisive military victory; disabling understanding of the complex social fractures internal to each country; silencing voices that warned of escalating violence and a protracted U.S. presence in the aftermath of "liberation." So certain were they of rapid conquest and smooth regime-change in Iraq, Rumsfeld and his coterie afforded post-invasion planning little priority. "Mission Accomplished," in the event, predictably devolved into bumbling occupation and counter-productive counter-insurgency. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) functioned most effectively as an agent of privatization, avowing that the logic of the market would obviate any problems that might arise in the process of nation-building and democratization. In accord with this capitalist code, the CPA outsourced many of its own responsibilities to private contractors. 

The U.S. occupation of postwar Japan was more competently managed, as Dower details. Outlining a litany of differences between U.S. authority in Japan and U.S. authority in Iraq, Dower notes that rather than the "free market" fundamentalism governing Paul Bremer's CPA in Iraq, General Douglas MacArthur made developing labor unions and redistributing land central to U.S. policy in occupied Japan. Such stark contrasts tell their own story. But Dower's observations are most penetrating and most original when they highlight correspondence rather than divergence. In occupied Japan as in occupied Iraq, the United States sought to institute an economic and political order amenable to its own geopolitical designs. Drafted in 1941 but anticipating the postwar world, Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter had affirmed the right of all peoples to self-determination — a phrase many colonized nations interpreted as an implicit expression of support for their independence struggles. In the war's aftermath, however, actual U.S. policy facilitated France and Britain's continuance as imperialist powers in East Asia, and sought to ensure for the indefinite future an American military presence in the region. On Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan, the United States constructed more than twenty military bases, the majority of which it maintains to this day. A similar infrastructure of "enduring" bases — fourteen thus far — has been constructed in Iraq. 

A less sensitive historian may have been tempted to connect December 1941 and September 2001 on one linear chain of cause-and-effect, instead of reading, as Dower does to such elucidating effect, the former moment through the lens of the latter. Organizing his argument analogically, Dower is fastidious in resisting the urge to identify a line of causality from Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima to September 11 and Iraq (to do so, he suggests, would be "patently absurd"). In accenting affinity and contrast, however, Dower's approach can at times pull focus from his more genealogical insights into the continuity and transformation over time of U.S. foreign policy. But the scope of Dower's perspective — in addition to World War II and the War on Terror, his narrative contains keen comments on Vietnam and the Spanish-American War — does manage to bring into view key aspects of the long history of U.S. power in the world: the ideological pretexts for and human consequence of America's prosthetic reach across the globe. Venturing beyond the limiting "post-9/11" frame, Dower's study clarifies the political cultures of the War on Terror by locating the current moment in deeper historical time. The book's lasting resonance is not only the particular historical explanations it offers, but the claim it makes for historical consciousness in general: "Where a culture of willful forgetfulness prevails," Dower concludes, "neither war nor occupation nor liberation nor peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction are likely to be carried out successfully."



LARB Contributor

Eli Jelly-Schapiro is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale University.


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