by John W. Dower (2010). Riveting account by a MIT historian of the structural similarities and differences between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Pacific conflict of WWII on the one hand and 9/11 and Operation Iraq Freedom on the other. An easy read, scholarly and exhaustively researched and footnoted, it comes to a number of conclusions, most of them quite sobering.
First, and of most interest to me as a student of consciousness, consider the surprise attacks on the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7. 1941 and on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Al-Queda on September 11. 2001. Roughly 2,500 military died in the former and 3,000 civilians in the latter. Both were spectacular tactical successes (for the attackers). Equally, both were colossal failures of intelligence by large organizations dedicated to defend the country from such debacles. Scholarly and journalistic sleuthing uncovered reams of information that pointed to the impeding strike days, weeks and months ahead of time. In the case of 9/11, intelligence personnel had warned the administration 40 times of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Yet all in vain. Why? Countless government investigations and books came to similar conclusions. Of course, there was incompetence at many levels. Yet more insidious, much more widespread than individual failings to heed warnings, were the explicit and implicit attitudes of racial arrogance and cultural condescension in the minds of the people who could have made a difference. Admiral Kimmel, the officer in charge of the Pacific Fleet, made it perfectly clear in an unguarded moment during one of many congressional investigations: “I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.” More than fifty years later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz held his opponents in the same disregard, dismissing bin Laden as “this little terrorist in Afghanistan.” Wide-spread, institutionalized stereotyping, “how can unwashed and uneducated people, living in caves with towels on their heads, threaten us, the most powerful nation on the planet?” blinded individuals and organization to these threats. The events that lead to the financial meltdown of Lehman Brothers and that almost crashed the markets in September of 2008 is another example of such a pathology of thought. Here it was the widely held belief that investment risk was under control and could be leveraged away by suitable financial instruments. This is the unconscious in action.
Second, the occupation of Japan under the visionary General MacArthur was a resounding success. A country whose cities were all but destroyed by fire bombing, who lost all of her colonies, and was governed de facto by the military, emerged as democratic, prosperous and peaceful economic giant with a large middle class. Remarkable, not a single US soldier, not one, was killed during the post-war occupation by sabotage or terrorism. Eight years after the fall of Baghdad, more than 4,000 US soldiers have died in terror-related incidences. The only way US troops move around in a liberated and democratic Iraq is in full body-armor, guns ever ready.
Third, the real similarities are in the culture of hubris, the messianic belief in the soundness and goodness of one’s actions, and the culture of conflict prevalent in the war cabinet under prime minister Tojo under the nominal leadership of the ineffectual emperor Hirohito and in the democratic war cabinet of president Bush with his cabal of vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condi Rice, secretary of state Colin Powell, Wolfowitz and deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage (calling themselves the Vulcans). Both Japan in 1941 and the US 60 years later entered upon a war of choice that was initially stunningly successful at the tactical level yet ended later in a debacle. In both cases, there was remarkably little long-term planning and with scant thought given to the long-term motivation of their enemies and the resources that they would be able to mobilize (did the White House really believe that selling Iraqi assets to the highest bidder, opening up this closed Society to the untrammeled free market, would endear them to the citizens on whose behalf they were supposedly occupying their country??). Despite all of the large differences between the two countries, the psychology, the decision making structures and the justification used by the Emperor System and the Imperial Presidency 60 years later are comparable and are characterized by clannish group-think, the belief in the miraculous power of technology, faith-based reasoning and judging others by their behaviors but one’s own side by intentions, all the usual weaknesses of human decision making.
Lastly, and most depressing, is the chilling propensity for unthinkable violence against unarmed combatants to be justified by high-sounding rhetoric. When questions of reducing the “morale” of the enemy enter the picture, morality exits. This is patently obviously in the case of the murderous al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other jihadists and their intellectual fathers (Sayyid Qutb) but less so in the case of the US and its allies. The prime exhibit here is the air war and terror bombing in World War II in Europe (e.g. Dresden) and in Japan. While early on there were attempts to limit the bombing to targets that had direct military relevance, the later stages degenerated into savage killing of large numbers of civilians by firebombing (hard numbers are difficult to come by but extend into the low millions). This culminated in the only deployment of nuclear weapons by any country, the mushroom clouds above Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The use of indiscriminate bombing continued in the Korean War – with most of the Napalm bombing taking place in North Korea in 1951 and 1952 after the front had stabilized around the present DMZ – and into later wars.
The recognition that the can ny country, the United States of America, can act as brutally when persecuting its war as any other country or people should give us pause and be humble. It brings to mind the sad truth Homo hominem lupus, that is, man is a wolf to men.