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.

While Dower was pulling together his thoughts on code words, what they revealed and what they hid, the American invasion of Iraq began. More points of connection emerged, particularly that of a brilliant initial tactical success in the service of strategic imbecility – Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Operation Iraqi Freedom by the United States.  The occupation of enemy nations was another.  To Dower’s distress, the Bush Administration used arguments from his previous book about the U.S. occupation of Japan, and its relative success, to justify  conjectures about the coming occupation of Iraq.  His initial idea grew as these points of similarity and connection began to reveal their common origin, and evolved into a 594 page book, including 98 pages of notes, all deeply interesting –in different degrees to different people for different interconnected themes. A glance at the table of contents will provide multiple points of entry. 

The major war events from the last 80 years are used to argue that the culture of war encompasses us all; not war as combat, celebrated in story and comic book, but as Total War, in which  bombing civilians is no longer the “inhuman barbarism” declared by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 but has become the norm  and standard. If thought appalling and criminal by those being bombed, it is thought to be acceptable, by those doing the bombing, not only by the war planners but by the citizens of that country. Attacks by the Japanese, and Al Qaeda are crimes that will “live in infamy.”  Bombing of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are necessitated by war and are therefore neither crimes, nor moral failures, but “virtuous” bombs. 

The book is organized in three parts.  The first, “‘Pearl Harbor’ as Code,” argues that the popular use of ‘Pearl Harbor’ to mean a surprise attack by Japanese or Islamists, hides many things. How and why were these attacks surprises? What can be learned by such obvious failures of intelligence? Were the failures only of technology and inattention, or were there also “institutional, intellectual and psychological pathologies” involved?  How much did racial stereotyping blind intelligence operators to the skills, aptitudes and resolve by “non-rational, non-Christian, foreigners?”

The second section looks at terror bombings, not only by the Japanese and Al Qaeda but by British and American forces in WW II. As an expert on Japan’s wartime experience, Dower is particularly knowledgeable about the development of the atomic bomb, and the decision-tree that led to its use in August, 1945.  The arguments advanced by apologists for the use of the bombs are examined and set against the available record.  

Part three looks at occupation, of Japan following the end of the Pacific War, and of Iraq following the 2003 invasion.  To Dower’s chagrin, his own writing about post-war Japan, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, was cited by Bush policy makers as showing that American occupation had had good outcomes. 

An Epilogue picks up and reinforces a major argument: that faith-based thinking, and not only religious, guide, inspire, and justify human actions.   Group-think is as strong in “individualistic” societies such as the U.S. as in “conformist” societies such as Japan.  Hubris and arrogance stoking the belief that the enemy is soft and will crumble in the face of attack was as strong in Japan in 1941 as in the US under Bush/Rumsfeld in 2003, as strong with the British about the Germans, as Osama bin Laden about the Americans. 

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Different sections will appeal to different readers. I found most fascinating the central section on the shift from condemnation of terror bombing to acceptance, and even demand for it, to be the most revealing. Particularly, in chapter 9, the revelation that the development of the U.S. atomic bombs, initially begun with some desperation believing the Germans were pursuing such a weapon, was not terminated when, in 1944, it became known that  Germany had no such plan.  The war planners, without serious analysis, shifted effortlessly to seeing Japan as the “necessary” target.

He finds a great deal of evidence, in recorded conversations, cables and statements that in the final analysis, the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not, in anybody’s mind, a military necessity. Although the public claim was, and has continued to be, that tens of thousand of American soldiers lives were spared because of the bomb it turns out that no immediate invasion was planned at all; it was foreseen as possible in October, if needed at all. As ferocious as the Japanese defense of Okinawa had been, and as fearfully foretelling of all-out Japanese resistance to invasion were the kamikaze dive bombers, this was not what motivated the American planners.

Beneath the “necessities of war” as claimed, other decisions were also in operation. Stalin promised Roosevelt in Yalta, February 1945, that Soviet forces would enter the war against Japan three months after Germany’s surrender, which Truman noted several times in his diary would almost certainly end the war. Yet, at Potsdam in July, President Truman (Roosevelt having died in April)  did not tell Stalin about the success of the bomb-testing, or even the existence of such a weapon. Arguments were made at the time, by American diplomats, that Stalin, as an ally, should have been told, that deliberate deception would not build trust for post-war planning. 

The bomb was dropped a few days before the promised mid-August USSR declaration of war against Japan.  Why, asks Dower?  Why, also, were the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of, as some argued for, on an unoccupied island, or on a specifically military base?  Again, from correspondence and communication at the time, he answers:

  • To unsettle, and intimidate the Soviet Union;
  • That having the bombs on hand, it was unthinkable not to use them;
  • That the war was almost surely coming to an end, so they had to be used before that; 
  • To see if, in actual conditions of war, the bombs would perform as designed;
  • To use them on areas relatively unscathed from previous fire-bombing to get a full measure of their destruction;
  • To show the American people that the millions spent on the Project was not a war-time boondoggle.

The most reason never cited is perhaps the most revealing.  When the bombs were initially conceived, and the Manhattan Project begun, it was thought that the Nazis were developing such a weapon, and all haste was needed, no expense to be spared.  By the end of 1944 it was clear that Nazis were not developing such a bomb.  Yet only one scientist, Joseph Roblat, quit the Project.  Why did the others continue?

“The sweetness of the undertaking … was communal as well as intellectual.”

Enrico Fermi, caught in the grip of such “technical sweetness,’ shot off:

“Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples!  After all, the thing is superb physics!”

There was a “high sense of mission, of duty and of destiny, coherent, dedicated, and remarkably selfless,” Robert Oppenheimer, the director, later said.  Those working on the project were, as were kamikaze pilots, B-29 crews, tight U.S. units in Germany, in Steven Ambrose’s books, and Steven Spielberg’s movies, “A Band of Brothers,” oblivious to all but their mission and dependence on each other. 

The Manhattan Project, writes Dower, is a case study of technical imperatives and technocratic momentum, socialization, indoctrination, and plain intellectual numbing.  Nowhere in the book does he play the game of comparison or “whataboutism:” that this atrocity was worse than that; that, sure, the bombs fell but what about massacres in Malay? Americans shot prisoners but the Japanese experimented on living prisoner.  Yes the invasion cost many lives, but they started it. What he sees throughout are constellations of attitudes and behaviors, beliefs about the others and about ourselves.  Cultures of War exist most everywhere, and everywhere are much the same.

“Modern war breeds its own cultures, and incinerating civilians is one of them”

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As thorough as the book is, and as lengthy, one wishes for a chapter, or rich commentary, or perhaps a book forthcoming, on the war culture of Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union –being on full display in 2022 as one of its remnants invades, with all its weaponry, another; set in motion by one man, but supported from within a Culture of War by many.

Nor does he touch on the insight Elizabeth Samet brought forward in Looking for the Good War, that the acceptance of war as part of our culture is seen in our ubiquitous use of war in War on Cancer, War on Drugs, War on Terror –always promising all out effort, a maximum of firepower and resources.  War, that is, as a positive, and righteous effort. 

Cultures of War is the most erudite, thoroughgoing and relevant-to-the-world book I have read this past six months.  In its wide sweep are matters of interest to all concerned, contemporary readers.  Highly recommended.

Of Dower’s many other books, all on Japan, the one most related to this one is likely War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.  Several of his books are available as Audio books, on Scribd, and on YouTube. He is also available as a lecturer on YouTube