History Repeats Itself In 'Cultures Of War' In the wake of Sept. 11, World War II terms like "ground zero" and "day of infamy" quickly became common parlance. And when the U.S. went to war in Iraq in 2003, historian John Dower writes in his book Cultures Of War, he saw other WWII parallels, as dissent was quashed and, he says, strategic blunders piled up.

History Repeats Itself In 'Cultures Of War'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Like a lot of broadcasters on 9/11, the first thing I said when I went on the air that day was that Americans will remember September the 11th, 2001 the way they remember December 7th, 1941.

The next day newspaper headlines read: Day of Infamy. And historian John Dower noted that another term from the Second World War became instantly universal: ground zero. You also saw comparisons between the men who flew airliners into buildings and kamikaze pilots who crashed planes into U.S. naval targets.

At that point, John Dower started to write what he thought would be a small book - until he heard President Bush cite his own work on post-war Japan to counter arguments that the occupation of Iraq might present major problems.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, the experts sometimes get it wrong. Interesting observation, one historian put it, he said: Had these erstwhile experts - he was talking about people criticizing the efforts to help Japan realize the blessings of a free society - he said had these erstwhile experts had their way, the very notion of inducing a democratic revolution would have died of ridicule at an early stage.

So I think it's important to look at what happened. A democratic Japan has brought peace and prosperity to its people. Its foreign trade and investment have helped jumpstart the economies of others in the region. The alliance between our two nations is the linchpin for freedom and stability throughout the Pacific.

And I want you to listen carefully to this final point. Japan has transformed from America's enemy in the ideological struggle of the 20th century to one of America's strongest allies in the ideological struggle of the 21st century.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: John Dower's little book evolved into a major work that came out last year. We missed it at that time, but better late than never. Among the questions he raises: How could very smart men commit huge strategic blunders? What happened to the voices of dissent? How did a military philosophy of precision bombing evolve into firebomb raids that consume entire cities? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Greg Mortenson spoke with Outside magazine after the "60 Minutes" expose on the accuracy of "Three Cups of Tea" and alleged mismanagement of his foundation.

But first, John Dower, the author of "War without Mercy" and "Embracing Defeat." His recent book is "Cultures Of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11, Iraq." And John Dower joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor JOHN DOWER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you: Why was the decision to disband the army a success in post-war Japan and a disaster in Iraq?

Prof. DOWER: Oh, you're going right into the hot questions. Well, it's interesting because the Americans got badly criticized for the decision in Iraq, and in Japan they did indeed demobilize a huge military establishment.

They got rid of the War Ministry, the Navy Ministry, and just simply root-and-branch eradication. Nothing happened. I think there were many reasons.

One was the Japanese were absolutely exhausted by the war. Anti-militarism was running high. The troops that came back were not armed. They were able to move into a very turbulent but still-hopeful domestic economy. Many of them moved into labor. Many joined the labor movement. Many of the top-level people were able to, officers and others, make a transition to civil society in any number of forms or into bureaucratic activities.

So the Japanese were able to absorb that, and they really did, in fact, welcome it. It was not a disruptive event, and of course it was a disaster in Iraq.

CONAN: Not the only one. One of the other things the U.S. military was criticized heavily for was its failure to protect against the looting that broke out in Baghdad and other cities immediately after the government of Saddam Hussein fell, and yet you point out in Japan there were - there was looting too, and hoarding crises.

Prof. DOWER: It's not very often remembered anymore because the occupation in Japan in general went, in most people's eyes, very well and very successfully. There was an interlude of two weeks between mid-August, 1945, when the Japanese capitulated, and the very end of August, when the first American troops came in.

In that period, enormous amounts of military supplies, enormous amounts that had been in storage waiting for possible invasion of the homeland, disappeared, and they disappeared into the hands of local police who were involved, local politicians were involved, local capitalists were involved.

And we're talking everything from precious metals and medicines down to blankets and very common, everyday materials. Much of it was just hidden away. Much of it made its way into the black market. It was an enormous, enormous two-week orgy that was really top-down.

It wasn't coming from grassroots, like the rioting and the looting in Iraq. Once MacArthur and the American - General MacArthur and the American forces arrived, he made it very clear there can be no looting.

They established control very quickly. But that initial damage was enormous, and it fed an inflation. It fed a black market that ravaged Japan for the next two or three years. So it was very consequential, but there were many other positive developments that overrode that.

CONAN: One of the comparisons that you make that people will be interested in is how the decision-makers arrived at a plan which was tactically brilliant and strategically idiotic in the case of both Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Iraq.

Prof. DOWER: Yeah, well, the - I was very interested, in the book, in a number of questions. And one was the failure of intelligence and with this the failure of imagination that 9/11 revealed.

And as you noted in your introductory comments, the immediate connection everyone made was Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and not only was this treacherous, infamous, atrocious act on the part of the enemy, the Japanese and al-Qaeda, but it also was an enormous failure of intelligence.

But what really interested me - and so I went back and I reread all the studies of why Pearl Harbor, why the disaster at Pearl Harbor, why we were caught short, compared it to what we know about 9/11. But to me the interesting thing became that there were(ph) two intelligence failures that are very similar, 1945 and 2001.

That was followed by the invasion of Iraq, and that was a true intelligence disaster. I mean that was simply appalling, and there was no thinking ahead. And then the comparison gets very interesting when you think of the fourth intelligence failure, and that was the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, because what they pulled off was very brilliant.

It was a brilliant attack on Pearl Harbor and some 20 other locations in Southeast Asia, tactically brilliant, and in the phrase I picked up, was a phrase we always used for the Japanese, came from a very famous historian, Samuel Elliot Morrison, American historian who said it was tactically brilliant and strategically imbecilic.

And so the interesting comparison to me then became Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Iraq, and I saw many, many similarities between those two intelligence disasters and felt that the phrase strategically imbecilic applied in the American case and not just in the Japanese case.

CONAN: We saw the results of the Japanese strategic imbecility: They failed to account for America's incredible ability to be productive, to produce all the - replace, well, triple, double, quintuple all of the ships and airplanes lost at Pearl Harbor. What was the strategic imbecility in the case of Iraq?

Prof. DOWER: Well, in both the case of Iraq - in the case of Iraq, as in the case of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, there was no end game. There was no looking ahead to anticipate what do we after the - they were mesmerized by the initial opening offensive activities and there was no long-range thinking of: How is this - how are we going to bring this to an end?

And the Japanese simply did not take psychological considerations into account. They knew the Americans had more industrial capacity, but they didn't - they thought the Pearl Harbor attack would demoralize the Americans.

Yamamoto, Admiral Yamamoto, the man who devised the Pearl Harbor attack, said: We will hope this attack will, you know, so weaken their morale that they will not respond effectively, which was of course just the opposite, just exactly the opposite.

The Americans went into Iraq with absolutely no real understanding at the top levels, at the top levels, of the nature of the society they were taking on, of the potential eruptions and factionalism and internal strife and opposition that they would face in Iraq.

The interesting thing, Neal, is that if you really look at the record, you look at what's going on at the top levels of the Bush administration, and they simply have no imagination about what to expect in Iraq. They simply go in - the famous saying is, you know, in quickly, out quickly, leave a small footprint. And that was simply impossible.

And what's fascinating - what fascinated me was the more you dug into the American side, at lower levels of the bureaucracy in the U.S., the military bureaucracy and the civilian bureaucracy, you were getting loads of reports - from the CIA, from the CENTCOM, from the Defense College, from the State Department, saying this is madness.

CONAN: John Dower is with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. We're talking about his book "Cultures Of War." More in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A photographer in the days following the attacks of September the 11th captured an image of firefighters raising a flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center. Transparently, writes historian John Dower, that evoked the famous posed photograph of Marines raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima in 1945.

That's just one of the many parallels a country and president turn to, grasping for context to understand a tragedy. You can read more about the rhetorical devices pundits and politicians use to connect the terrorist attack to the war in Japan in an excerpt from John Dower's book, "Cultures Of War," at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you have questions for him, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can get a caller in, and this is Glenn(ph), Glenn with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

GLENN (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GLENN: This is an excellent subject. This is a mistake we have made over and over again. And I think we're still making it in Afghanistan. We have failed to recognize the cultural and religious differences in various peoples over the years. And with shortsighted, basically monetary goals in mind, we have tripped ourselves up over and over again.

CONAN: Yet - not going to argue with you, but the case of Japan, hard to find a case where there was less understanding of a different culture and a different religion.

GLENN: Well, this is true, and - but I think even to this day we really don't understand the Middle Eastern people and the Islamic culture and the depths that they will go to to maintain their way of life.

I mean, you look at the history of Afghanistan going back 5,000 years. I dealt with intelligence when I was in the Army, with the Soviets, when they were dealing with them, and we're making the same mistakes. I mean, you're never going to root those people out or change them.

CONAN: Glenn, thanks very much for the call. And indeed, Professor Dower, much of your book is about cultural misunderstandings.

Prof. DOWER: Well, one of the things I deal with is failures of intelligence, but there's a whole chapter that really parallels that called "Failure of Imagination." And that is the failure to imagine what the adversary is like.

And you may remember - I agree with Glenn. We do this over and over again. And you may remember former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in later years, when he was agonizing, really, over the failures in Vietnam. And he says we never understood them. We never understood, and he's talking the simplest things, that there was a civil war going on there. We never understood how this people could fight against, effectively against such a technologically advanced enemy as we were.

And so this failure of imagination, I think, is - absolutely permeates what we do and also what the Japanese did. The Japanese failed to imagine the Americans' response. And it goes in many directions though.

One is a failure to understand the grievances of the other side. In other words, when President Bush responded to 9/11, it took a little while before he really articulated effectively America's response, and that was the war on - the war on terror, and the same speech, that we are combating evil.

And it came in September 22nd, a few weeks after September 11, or 11 days later. And his speechwriter at the time said the wonderful thing about this speech was it didn't acknowledge that there were any grievances on the other side. It simply pointed out, you know, that they were evil.

And that was the famous thing: They hate our freedoms. But of course, there were - if you look at their grievances, what was behind the terror, there were all sorts of things which are actually coming home today.

There were - if you read al-Qaeda's proclamations, bin Laden's proclamations, he's talking about autocratic governments in Egypt and in other areas. Now we talk about that. He's talking about many other things that were grievances, that it doesn't mean you agree with the grievances, but it means you better understand them, or else you're just going to be creating more and more terrorists.

We did not look at the experience of Middle Eastern countries in being invaded by Western powers over and over, from World War I on. And so we were unprepared by a very fierce reaction against occupation in Iraq.

I think this failure of imagination also extends not simply to their grievances. What is it - what is it that makes people become terrorists? What is it that drove the Japanese to take on that incredibly insane war? But also the failure of imagination extends to: What are their capabilities?

And because the Americans were so overwhelmed with confidence in their extraordinary military power - and it is extraordinary - completely failed to imagine how capable asymmetrical resistance could be.

It goes back to Vietnam, goes into Iraq. It's what Glenn mentioned we're seeing in Afghanistan today. So it's a very vexing problem that keeps coming up again and again, this failure of imagination concerning others that affects the larger failure of intelligence.

And it's not a lack of data. It's a lack of thinking. It's a lack of empathy in the sense of being able to just imagine what they are thinking and what they're capable of.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Gregory(ph), Gregory with us from Stockton in Ohio - Coshocton(ph), excuse me.

GREGORY (Caller): Coshocton.

CONAN: Yeah.

GREGORY: I question whether it's a failure of intelligence, because my understanding is that the CIA team on weapons of mass destruction advised Condoleezza Rice and others in the White House that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, but they went ahead.

It's more a matter of a failure of policy than intelligence. I'll take your comment off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Greg.

GREGORY: Well, the CIA position is, I think, interesting. The CIA position, they did come in, and I think most people that were associated with the CIA say that this was a disaster. It's the - you know, that we did confirm to the president the famous slam-dunk, you know, they do have these weapons of mass destruction, and that was a real CIA failure.

That was being challenged by other people outside the CIA, but what -the interesting thing is that when you go into the CIA reporting before the invasion of Iraq, and these documents are now available, they were sending in reports saying an invasion of Iraq is going to be a disaster.

The CIA did reports on this. Rand was doing reports on this. And this is what I referred to earlier - Defense College, CENTCOM, all sorts of people were giving reports saying they did talk about weapons of mass destruction, but they also talked about: you should not - you can't just go in there and expect this to be easy-in, easy-out, which - and it was the government at the top levels that was simply closing off those people.

So at the top levels, anyone who came in and tried to say we can do -handle this in other ways - you know, Blix, Hans Blix, is asking for more time and saying there's nothing there. Other people are coming up and saying your intelligence sources are wrong - you know, Curveball and the various people who supposedly were supplying the information, you know, are misleading you.

But beyond that, the decision to invade and the hubris with which we did it, thinking it was going to be an easy thing, overrode all sorts of reports that were coming in at the lower levels. They simply were not interested in that. So policy was being controlled by a very small group at the very top levels of the government.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rob(ph), Rob with us from Nevada City in California.

ROB (Caller): Yes, I have a comment on the strategic imbecility of perhaps bin Laden and that after the attack, he was shown in a widely publicized - it was a CNN video - celebrating the event. Well, he admitted that he expected the tops of the towers to collapse sideways after being compromised by the airplanes.

And if that had happened, the consequences - no time to evacuate, tens of thousands of deaths - the reaction by the administration would have been pretty extreme in Afghanistan and maybe Iraq. Then, perhaps, bin Laden might have gotten what he wanted, which was apparently worldly jihad, because billions of Muslims who are watching that within that little cracked radios and TVs would see maybe a nuclear attack in Afghanistan and then say, well, that's not justified. I grew up with buildings coming down all my life. And they don't look so big to me on my little TV.

But at any rate, we have to anticipate, in our lack of imagination, that he had a lack of imagination as well. But if he hadn't, what would our response be and how appropriate?

CONAN: Well Rob, other people take that the other way. Peter Bergen, for example, says, A: why launch one attack? It should have been a campaign. B: if the outcome from bin Laden's point of view has been that his base of operations in Afghanistan has been lost and he and his people are bottled up in a little place in the mountains of western Pakistan. So, who had great imbecilic in that sense?

ROB: I would agree. (Unintelligible) objective.

CONAN: But Professor Dower, I wonder if you had comments on it.

Prof. DOWER: Yeah. Well, you know, when I talk about failure of intelligence and imagination, I don't mean it simply for the Americans. I just - I'm arguing that we can't exclude Americans from this.

And one of the things, just as a general background comment - one of the things that really troubled me, that I was wrestling with as I got into this, was we pride ourselves in being a rational nation, rational decision-makers. We talk about rational choice. And yet, even in our own country, where we do have - we are a democracy. We, in theory, do have an exchange of views. Irrationality often prevails. And I think it did prevail in this case.

Bin Laden, I think, you know - there's always what might have been. I think everyone, including bin Laden, certainly was astonished at the success of the World Trade Center attacks. They didn't dream, I don't think - and no one could, really - that it would take down both of those buildings, that they would actually be successful on both buildings and both buildings would disappear.

So in that sense, what he wanted to do - what this is - I think, you've got to understand is, what's going on here is psychological warfare. And he wanted to strike fear into the hearts of the Americans to get them pull out of Saudi Arabia. He had very concrete objectives at that time. He begins by saying, we wanted to get the foreign troops out of the Middle East, particularly his own country, Saudi Arabia. And in many ways, he was more successful in his imagination of the effectiveness of these tactics than the Americans were in response.

And one of the key words there, or phrases, that you might think about is the phrase: shock and awe. Because the Americans, in response, basically said, we have the brute force. We will go over. We will divert our attention from Afghanistan. We'll even divert our attention from bin Laden. We'll attack Iraq. We will shock and awe of our massive power. We'll make Iraq simply get - you know, have regime change, become democratic, and there will a ripple effect throughout the Middle East. And this was very naive.

What bin Laden wanted to do, I think, was, in effect, without using the words, create shock and awe in the West. And he succeeded beyond his dreams. And I...

CONAN: We're talking with Professor John Dower about his new book, "Cultures of War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to add this email from Eric(ph). As an intelligence officer stationed at the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time of the second Iraq war, it bothers me when people talk about intelligence failures. Your guest is talking out of both sides of his mouth. There was no intelligence failure. The community knew what was likely to happen and told policymakers to the extent they would listen.

The intelligence didn't fail. The policymakers did as the result of their preconceived notions. Folks like Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney. They didn't want to hear intelligence that conflicted with their views. And there was very little post-combat planning because they had already decided what was going to happen.

Prof. DOWER: May I comment?

CONAN: Please.

Prof. DOWER: Well, I think Eric maybe isn't listening to what I was saying while he was typing his email, because that's what I said - that there was intelligence coming up from the intelligence community, including CIA and Defense College. That's - that was my point. So then you get into a question of exactly how - what does it mean to have an imperial presidency? What was going on at the top level? But I don't think I was talking out of both sides of my mouth. I think I was saying exactly what he said.

CONAN: Well, then you raise a question, too, of - and we just have a minute or so left - but a question too, of how do you get those decision-makers, a small group of people at the top making decisions like this, when there are dissenting opinions within their own bureaucracies bubbling up? There is a Congress. There is a free press and dissent in other places. And they made the decisions anyway.

Prof. DOWER: Well, that's then we have to ask ourselves, what's going on in our democracy? What does it mean to have an imperial presidency? What is going on? And that's precisely some of the questions I tried to raise. Because when you really push it and you look very carefully at the decision-making that took us into Iraq in 2003, it's what, you know, was called a cabal, a very small cabal. It's the people that Eric mentioned, the small group, the six, seven or eight of them. They are the ones sitting there, making the policies. It's very similar to the cabal that makes policy for Pearl Harbor in Japan. It's a group of about six people, same number, they're sitting around. They are claiming to be very rational. And if you disagree with them, then you are called either a defeatist or even a traitor.

CONAN: John Dower, thanks very much for your time today. We're sorry we missed your book last fall. John Dower is a professor emeritus of history at MIT. His most recent book, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11 and Iraq."

After a short break, Alex Heard from Outside magazine joins us. He spoke with the "Three Cups of Tea" author, Greg Mortenson, after the "60 Minutes" piece.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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