A Parade of Arrogance: On John Dower

A Parade of Arrogance: On John Dower

During war, John Dower explains, “the system filters out the thoughtful and replaces them with the faithful.”


In 1937, as part of its assault on China, the Japanese Imperial Army began bombing Chinese cities. The world erupted in protest, led by the United States. In September of that year, the State Department declared that “any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and humanity.” The next month, in his well-known “Quarantine Speech,” Franklin Roosevelt also condemned the Japanese assault, charging that “civilians, including vast numbers of women and children, are being ruthlessly murdered with bombs from the air.” In June of the following year, referring to both the Japanese in China and the Germans in Spain, the State Department denounced the “inhuman bombing of civilian populations.”

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Roosevelt immediately dispatched an impassioned public letter to the belligerents, calling on them to refrain from “inhuman barbarism” of this kind. “The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population…during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shaken the conscience of humanity.” Britain soon joined the protest. In 1939, after the Germans bombed Warsaw, the Foreign Office denounced “these inhuman methods” and promised never to indulge in them: “His Majesty’s Government have made it clear that it is no part of their policy to bomb nonmilitary objectives, no matter what the policy of the German Government may be.” Even Churchill claimed to agree, calling the bombing of cities “a new and odious form of attack.” Roosevelt returned to the subject in 1940, recalling with pride that “the United States consistently has taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited.”

These eloquent words and earnest promises counted for very little. As John Dower observes in War Without Mercy (1986), his magnificent study of World War II in the Pacific, by 1942

the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces became the apostles of strategic bombing and proceeded to perfect the techniques of massive urban destruction with incendiary bombs…. British and American planners had, in fact, secretly agreed on the desirability of bombing enemy cities many months before Pearl Harbor, and in the summer of 1942 the Royal Air Force began to repay Germany…for the bombings [of London and Coventry] by destroying Hamburg with the newest weapon in the airborne arsenal: incendiaries that created uncontrollable fire storms. From an early date, British leaders supported dense “area” bombing in Germany to destroy civilian morale…and after Pearl Harbor Churchill frequently turned his gift for the vivid image to anticipation of grinding the Japanese to powder, ravaging their cities, or laying their urban areas in ashes…. [Even] before Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall, the chief of staff, instructed his aides to develop contingency plans for “general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities.”

Dower writes, “Following the Quebec Conference of August 1943, the British minister of information reported that the Allies intended to ‘bomb, burn, and ruthlessly destroy’ both Germany and Japan, and subsequent developments proved him to be a forthright and accurate spokesman.”

The toll of British and American “strategic” bombing, as this form of warfare was antiseptically called, was indeed gruesome. A half-million German civilians were killed and 7.5 million rendered homeless. At least 400,000 Japanese civilians were killed (including the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and sixty-six Japanese cities were destroyed. Most of this bombing was not strictly necessary—it occurred after the military tide had turned and an Allied victory was no longer in doubt. Nor was there any pretense, at least internally, that the primary targets of the bombing were military—soldiers, matériel or weapons factories. The acknowledged purpose was to hasten the end of the war by “breaking the morale” of the civilian population. The word for this strategy is “terror.”

Naturally, officials disliked that word. When the Associated Press reported that the Allies had decided “to adopt deliberate terror bombing of German population centers as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom,” British officials objected and the report was suppressed. Churchill sent a memo to his generals asking whether the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed”—not for humanitarian reasons, of course, but because “we shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs.” He meekly proposed “more precise concentration upon military objectives…rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.” The generals were annoyed by the prime minister’s momentary lapse into candor, however secret, so he obligingly withdrew his memo. (If a forerunner of WikiLeaks had published this memo, might we have been spared a great deal of misplaced reverence for Churchill, as well as a great deal of Western self-righteousness about “terrorism”?)

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Why did Allied decision-makers disregard their frequently and (for the most part) sincerely professed beliefs about terror bombing? And why, sixty years after Japan launched its disastrous war of choice against the United States with a surprise attack, did the United States respond to another surprise attack by launching its own disastrous war of choice in Iraq? As a historian of the Pacific War and the postwar occupation (his book about the latter, Embracing Defeat, from 1999, won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes and the National Book Award) and a citizen appalled by the Iraq War, Dower could not help thinking comparatively about the two episodes. The result is Cultures of War, an extraordinarily rich and insightful study of “some of the broader dynamics and morbidities of our times and our modern and contemporary wars.”

Perhaps the most salient feature of the culture of war is chauvinism, or irrational belief in the superiority of one’s own group. War Without Mercy is a stark, graphically illustrated, often stomach-turning record of American and Japanese race hatred during World War II. Apparently something was learned from that ugly history, and Muslim-hatred in the United States after 9/11 was far more muted—none of the swagger about “killing Japs” or the cartoon portraits of Japanese as apes or insects that polluted American newspapers and magazines after Pearl Harbor. But Dower finds correspondences nonetheless. The savage air assault on Japanese cities and the catastrophic UN (essentially US) sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s would not, Dower suggests, have been perpetrated against whites.

Race prejudice had more subtle effects as well. The United States had a great deal of evidence that the Japanese were planning to open hostilities with a surprise attack, and many indications pointed to Pearl Harbor. Postwar Congressional inquiries unearthed the usual interdepartmental turf battles and unwillingness to share information. But there was something else. Despite a clear warning from Washington ten days before Pearl Harbor that an attack somewhere in the Pacific was imminent, virtually the entire US fleet was left in port, riding peacefully at anchor. Pressed afterward about this, the commanding admiral admitted, “All right…I’ll give you your answer—I never thought those little yellow sons of bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.”

What Dower calls “the ‘little yellow men’ mindset” operated in the months leading up to 9/11 as well. Despite nearly forty warnings that an attack by Al Qaeda somewhere in the United States was being planned, policy-makers could not believe, according to the CIA’s chief bin Laden watcher, that “a polyglot bunch of Arabs wearing robes, sporting scraggly beards, and squatting around campfires in Afghan deserts and mountains could pose a mortal threat to the United States.” Dower says comparatively little about the Vietnam War, but it too would seem to exemplify “the ‘little yellow men’ mindset,” with the accompanying “psychological unpreparedness, prejudices and preconceptions, gross underestimation of intentions and capabilities,” as well as horrendous violence against nonwhite populations, of a kind that one cannot imagine being loosed on people more like us.

Three generations; three humiliating and costly miscalculations; three waves of mass death inflicted in retribution on non-Western civilians, including—perhaps even mostly—women and children. There is evidently something distinctive about the American culture of war. The inability to imagine the sufferings of others is not a uniquely American failing, however; and anyway, there was another dynamic at work in these cases. Dower calls it “the irresistible logic of mass destruction.” In a riveting analysis of the decision to drop the atomic bomb, he shows how, whether militarily necessary or not (the official justification—that fanatical Japanese resistance would have forced an even more costly invasion—is widely contested), use of the bomb was bureaucratically inevitable. The arguments against—simple decency and setting an example of restraint for the postwar world—hardly outweighed the powerful incentives in favor, a number of which Dower catalogs as follows:

(2) fixation on deploying overwhelming force, as opposed to diplomatic or other less destructive alternatives including, most controversially, an unwillingness to back off from demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender; (3) power politics in the emerging Cold War, notably playing the new weapon as a “master card,” as [US War Secretary Henry] Stimson put it, to intimidate the Soviet Union in eastern Europe as well as Asia; (4) domestic political considerations, in which using the bomb was deemed necessary to prevent partisan post-hostilities attacks on Truman and the Democratic administration he inherited from Roosevelt for wasting taxpayers’ money on a useless project—and simultaneously to build support for postwar nuclear and military projects; (5) scientific “sweetness” and technological imperatives—coupled with (6) the technocratic kinetics of an enormous machinery of war—which combined to give both developing and deploying new weaponry a vigorous life of its own; (7) the sheer exhilaration and aestheticism of unrestrained violence, phenomena not peculiar to modern times but peculiarly compelling in an age of spectacular destructiveness; (8) revenge, in this instance exacted collectively on an entire population in retaliation for Pearl Harbor and Japan’s wartime atrocities; and (9) “idealistic annihilation,” whereby demonstrating the appalling destructiveness on real, human targets was rationalized as essential to preventing future war, or at the very least future nuclear war.

Similar pathologies of crackpot realism, partisan politics, bureaucratic inertia, technological fantasy and rank greed appeared during the Bush administration’s headlong war and stumbling occupation in Iraq. The resort to force was overdetermined. For one thing, to have complied with international law would have meant acknowledging and reinforcing the authority of international law, with its constraints on national sovereignty. No American administration or Congress would do this. Conservatives simply do not believe in the legitimacy of international law when its application would be inconvenient. Liberals are invariably paralyzed by fear of being portrayed as “weak.” And both sides agree on the necessity of preserving American “credibility,” the belief of others in America’s willingness to use force, which might be undermined by our betraying any scruples about legality.

For another thing, people with fancy gadgets like to play with them. As Madeleine Albright complained to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” They need to know whether the gadgets work; they need to justify having spent so much of other people’s money on them; and the people who make them (and profit hugely from them) want to sell new ones and so offer enormous inducements—perfectly legal, alas—to military and civilian decision-makers who make the decisions that make those profits possible.

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A universal feature of war culture is the pressure to conform, the drive toward unity of purpose and belief. In emergencies, all governments suppress dissent among their citizens and all bureaucracies discourage independent thinking among their members. This tendency toward groupthink is a leitmotif of Cultures of War. Japan’s decision to make war on the richer, more populous United States appears, in retrospect, to have been suicidal. But once the decision was made, the emperor and the senior militarists relentlessly promoted an almost mystical cult of national unity. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the factitious doctrine of the “unitary executive” was employed to cloak what was essentially, according to Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff, “a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.” The unconvinced were marginalized (like Powell) or forced out like Army chief Eric Shinseki.

The Japanese military could not, or at any rate did not, think realistically about the prospect of protracted war with the more powerful United States. The Cheney/Rumsfeld “cabal” did not, and perhaps could not, think realistically about the aftermath of defeating Saddam. With a dazzling show of historical incomprehension, they invoked the democratization of Japan under the post–World War II occupation as a precedent for “liberated” Iraq, while at the same time emphatically disavowing the “nation-building” methods used in the earlier occupation. As Dower shows in a detailed comparison of the two episodes, the occupation of Iraq was a disaster not merely because, as nearly everyone outside the cabal recognized, Iraq was a much less integrated society than Japan but also because the complex interagency coordination during the former occupation was hardly possible for an administration that distrusted government agencies in principle and outsourced basic functions to unaccountable private contractors.

On the last page of Cultures of War, having brought before us a long, disheartening parade of arrogance, prejudice and misjudgment, and vividly portrayed their lethal consequences for millions of innocent people over the past eighty years or so, Dower quotes a sentence that sounds like an epitaph for this sorry history: “The system filters out the thoughtful and replaces them with the faithful.” In fact, that judgment, though it exactly fits the cultures of war Dower has analyzed so painstakingly, was uttered in and about a different culture. Unexpectedly, Dower devotes the last few pages of his book to the culture of the financial system that collapsed late in the previous decade, and the quoted sentence comes from an anonymous financial analyst explaining in The Economist what made that catastrophe inevitable.

It is a fine narrative stroke: not only to show in a few pages how the two apparently unrelated calamities that have brought this seemingly invincible superpower low were produced by the same dysfunction but also to have found a sentence that describes that dysfunction perfectly: The system filters out the thoughtful and replaces them with the faithful. It has to: in war and business, whenever conflict and competition are fierce, dissent is costly and inefficient.

And this, finally, allows for a tragic perspective on what had seemed only a moral and intellectual disgrace. For it is the nature of a “system” to isolate and disable challenges to its fundamental assumptions. When the machine is racing furiously, doubts are just so much sand in the gears. Faith and thought; fervor and detachment; loyalty and criticism; united hearts and independent minds: can any system accommodate both? And yet, wars must be won; and wars, like all other vast undertakings, require vast systems to carry them out.

It is, Dower concludes stoically, “highly uncertain” whether this paradox can be resolved, whether humankind can ever “truly control and transcend” its “deeper psychological and institutional pathologies.” The truth will make us free, Jesus said. But what if, as Jack Nicholson’s character informed the rest of us at the end of A Few Good Men, we can’t handle the truth?

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