Following on my several readings of the use and misuse of history regarding the American Civil war (The Half Has Never Been Told, and Forget the Alamo), and World War II (Looking for the Good War) I followed on with John W Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (2010). It is a deeply researched and fascinating book about our human, but particularly American, use of history to embellish ourselves – our feelings, our position in the world– and to not look thoroughly, and at all sides, at what has actually happened, that we might draw lessons from events and patterns of events in order to plan and model options for our future behavior.
History and Story, of course come from the same Greek root historia. In Middle English the two were used indistinguishably, as is true today in Spanish and other languages. History, until very recently, was not understood as other than the national story. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Shakespeare’s History Plays, their purpose was, through familiarizing people with the great names from their past, “arousing a steady patriotism, a love of just liberty, and a respect for all those fundamental institutions of social life which bind men together.”
We’ve only recently begun to insist upon a distinction, that one is anchored in fidelity to facts, and the other bound only to the imagination. The distinction remains a loose one, however. Not only do both Story and History need compelling narratives, but “fact based fiction” and “fictional facts,” are popular techniques. The pull of uplifting stories about our past is strong, regardless of any inconvenient facts. We tell stories about what they have done, and tell stories about ourselves through intentions and ideas. Never is the imperative so strong to fictionalize the facts of history as in war.
Dower does not attempt to explain the origin or ubiquity of all wars. He looks at several recent, major wars involving the United States, and finds strong, uncommented-on similarities between them, on all sides. From the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to the U.S. war in Afghanistan “the broader dynamics and morbidities of our times” are reflected. Militarized group-think makes all decisions regarding war and peace, supported by populations convinced by “war-necessary stories,” whether in a Democracy or a Constitutional monarchy, led by a President, a God-King, or a cadre of unassailable interpreters of God’s will.
As a renowned historian of Japanese War history, Dower was unusually alert to the quickness with which “Day of Infamy,” first coined after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, became a metaphor for the September 11, 2001 attacks by Islamist terrorists on the United States. Infamy, from Roosevelt’s famous speech, appeared in the headlines of virtually every U.S. newspaper within days. Emotive borrowing did not stop there: the “ground zero” of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was borrowed to become “ground zero” of New York City’s twin towers; the terrorist hijackers were referred to as ‘kamikazes’. Osama bin Laden spoke of a ‘Holy War;” George Bush answered in kind.