Our Madness for War

Must we persist in using the military option when it so rarely works?


Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraqby John Dower, Norton, 640 pp., $29.95

Most scholars of a certain age find their work diminishing—slower to emerge or downsized in heft. Not John Dower, the eminent historian of modern Japan and U.S.–Japanese relations. Addressing questions that have engaged him throughout his career, and propelled by his anger over American war making since 9/11, Dower has produced a whopper of a book in both length and intellectual substance, including 100 pages of dense endnotes drawing on voluminous scholarship and primary sources.

Cultures of War is an untidy book. Dower juggles so many themes and stories that repetition is unavoidable and easy summary impossible. It might be read as several smaller books nested inside a larger one. The chapters on the U.S. incendiary and atomic bombing of Japan and the start of the nuclear arms race could stand alone as the wisest current treatment of that vexed history. Dower’s comparison of the U.S. occupations of Japan and Iraq and his critique of how Iraq War policymakers misread, “cherry-picked,” and ignored the Japan story—“in this case, ransacking not raw intelligence data but history itself”—is another book. That “not a single American was killed” during the seven-year U.S. occupation of Japan (or of Germany) was the most obvious difference, though there were also strange similarities: the occupation, beyond Japan, from Korea to Indonesia, of a war-ravaged and decolonizing Asia entailed enormous  carnage. “The only place in Asia where the guns were really stilled and peace prevailed was Japan.” Even readers who reject Dower’s comparative enterprise will find much of interest here.

Cultures is a loose, catchall term for what he’s getting at, for he examines not the stuff of culture broadly but the nitty-gritty of policymaking and decisions, which he sees as usefully understood in cultural, not just political, terms. Yes, in 1941 American and Japanese leaders made political and strategic calculations, which Dower attends to carefully. But beyond those calculations lay attitudes, assumptions, and stupidities that no policy history can be ex­pected to explain. At the same time, Dower re­sists generalizations about entire cultures. For him, blame for war making does not rest on timeless Japanese, American, or Islamic attraction to war and destruction (he has no truck with those who contrast Western “rationality” to “an illogical ‘East’”). It rests with political and other elites and their responses to circumstances.

Dower compares the entries of the United States and Japan into World War II with the U.S. bombing of Japan, Al Qaeda’s and America’s war making before and after 9/11, and the Iraq War. He pays particular attention to torture and other alleged war crimes during the subsequent U.S. occupations. His effort to compare such things, and his conclusions, will infuriate some critics. But Dower is careful to show that comparison does not mean equivalence, only enough “convergences of a sort” among disparate acts of war and occupation to make comparison useful. As the book’s title suggests, for Dower there is no single culture of war across time and space and circumstance, even within one country. The American culture of war in 2003 differed from that of 1941 or 1965. The robust American systems of war and occupation that grew out of World War II—fallible but full of smart people—had all but disappeared by the time of the Iraq invasion, when the U.S. government “bore only shadow resemblance to that of 1945.” Still, even different systems have things in common—above all, in Dower’s view, their capacity to produce strategic and moral “imbecilities,” not least because leaders grossly misunderstand or simply ignore their enemies, their own impulses, and history itself.

Among Dower’s gifts is a striking ability to embed provocative conclusions within such rich analysis that they cannot be dismissed as outrageous, however much they may outrage readers who skip the analysis. “In practice,” Dower argues, “the imperial presidency under George W. Bush was in certain critical respects more absolute, inviolate, impenetrable, and arbitrary than the militaristic government that took imperial Japan to war.” Fox News won’t like that claim, nor Dower’s assertion that the “unitary executive” presidency that climaxed with Bush “amounted to what Americans call authoritarian governance when practiced by others, even dictatorship of a sort.” But Dower amasses too much evidence, analysis, and careful qualification (“in certain critical respects”) for such claims to be rejected out of hand.

Among many things that the war makers have had in common was their “arrogation of God”—their “abiding sense of a concentrated moment in which mortals found themselves playing God, both destroyer and creator,” as Dower writes of the scientists and policymakers who rushed to use atomic bombs against Japan (and as a shot across the bow to the Soviet Union). To be sure, the Japanese who authorized war, the atomic bombers, Osama bin Laden, and George W. Bush arrogated God to different purposes, which Dower does not equate, and under different circumstances. But despite those differences, what fascinates Dower is how much they sounded alike and unleashed de­struction as a consequence. Arrogation took varied forms, some nominally secular (“history begins today,” one U.S. official declared on 9/11), some expressing a “theocratic vision of good and evil,” as with bin Laden. Perhaps Dower takes expression of that arrogation too much at face value—surely at times it was a rhetorical gloss, an insecure leader’s nervous assertion of authority, or a cynical play to audiences, not a sincere belief. Still, Dower’s job as a cultural historian is to understand how language works, not to measure the sincerity of those who mouth it. And that arrogation went far, even among agnostic scientists, as with the “precious narcissism of [Robert] Oppenheimer’s aestheticism,” as Dower acidly calls it. While scientists regarded the bomb’s effects as supernatural and hellish, “Visualizing hell on earth does not preclude finding it attractive. It may even invite drawing closer.”

Ultimately this is a treatise on the madness of war and terrorism—the madness that precedes war, propels it once started, and gets left in its wake. Dower understands that madness as a cultural historian, not as a psychologist, but his evidence suggests that leaders and systems were often also plain mad, as in crazy-deluded or demonically possessed by the power they wielded and the ideals they proclaimed. In turn, their victories bore them only short-term benefits: for Japan, a few years of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, then destruction; for the Americans (and the Allies), the defeat of Japan, then a globe-imperiling orgy of nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda had the delicious satisfaction of seeing the Twin Towers fall and America humiliated, yet it seems not an inch closer to the goals it professes. For the United States, the most war-prone nation of the post-1945 era, war making has been frustrating at best, dismaying at worst: the Korean War ended in stalemate, the Vietnam War in defeat, and the first Gulf War in an outcome that pleased few, while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now seem endless and inconclusive. Only intervention in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars produced some satisfaction, a reminder that wars of limited goals and means succeed more often than those of megalomaniac goals and titanic means. Even political benefits have been scant: every president who engaged in major war making after 1945 found his presidency and his party soon discredited.

Why, then, did the United States persist at war, when so little was accomplished and so much horror inflicted? Its primary response to frustration and defeat in war has been, apart from a post-Vietnam pause, to double down—to try war again, usually invoking World War II, even as previous failures get swept aside. Now President Obama has done so in Afghanistan. This failed instrument of policy has shown remarkable persistence. One reason for it was that no U.S. failure entailed the national humiliation and occupation that Germany and Japan experienced. America has suffered defeat too lightly, just as it wages war too cavalierly, to force a strong reexamination of its culture of war.

Still, the persistence is fascinating. Why some nations or groups learn from defeat and others do not is another book. Dower would be the one to write it. “Cultures of Defeat” would be a fitting sequel to Cultures of War, pointing toward “the possibility for shared cultures of peace and reconciliation,” that “distant shore that lies opposite the cultures of war.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Sherryis the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War.


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