2010 National Book Award Finalist,

John W. Dower

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq

W.W. Norton & Co/The New Press

Photo credit: Ken Dower

Interview by Meehan Crist

Meehan Crist: When did you first start working on Cultures of War, and why?

John Dower: The book had its genesis on September 11, when the U.S. media and government immediately responded by drawing analogies to Pearl Harbor and World War II. Headline writers exhumed Franklin Roosevelt’s 60-year-old phrase about “a date which will live in infamy” to convey the shock and treachery of Al Qaeda’s attack. The suicide bombers were described as “kamikaze.” The celebrated photograph of firemen raising the Stars and Stripes in the ruins of the World Trade Center was placed side-by-side with Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and the White House took every occasion to cast him in the mold of the great World War II presidents, Roosevelt and Truman. And then, of course, there was the damning negative similarity that the White House evaded but others quickly observed: the colossal failures of U.S. intelligence that allowed the surprise attacks of both September 11 and December 7 to happen. This unexpected mix of provocative and perverse post-9-11 analogies forced me to think about war in our modern and contemporary times in new, comparative ways.

MC: What questions drove you as you worked on Cultures of War? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

JD: One simple question, clear from the beginning, was what we might learn about failures of strategic intelligence by comparing 9-11 and Pearl Harbor. There were numerous differences, of course, but fundamentally these failures turned out to be strikingly similar at both institutional and individual levels. You had systemic bureaucratic dysfunction on the one hand, and both collective and individual failures of imagination on the other.

Unexpectedly, the invasion of Iraq eighteen months after 9-11, and the chaos and tragedy that followed, ratcheted the question of systemic failures of U.S. intelligence to a new level. It was as if little of real substance had been absorbed when it came to knowing the enemy and planning accordingly. Intelligence was cooked. Bureaucratic turf wars became even more intense. Policy makers gave scant serious thought to the brittle nature of Iraqi society, or to the possibility of effective “asymmetrical” tactics by an emergent insurgency, or to the likelihood that the invasion would drive new recruits to terrorism worldwide. Top-level planning was a fiasco, and with few exceptions the mainstream media followed along like sheep. So the question became: how and why did such a catastrophic failure of intelligence happen again? And what does this tell us about other questions such as irrationality and groupthink in a democratic society and supposedly rationalized bureaucracy?

Another grand question that arose early on, and troubled me greatly, was how to think historically and comparatively about terror bombing. That the September 11 terrorists targeted civilians in the name of an Islamist holy war was widely cited as irrefutable evidence that they—and Islamic “culture” in general—did not value individual life as the Christian and Jewish upholders of “Western civilization” did. But this is cultural mythmaking. The firebombing of German and Japanese cities became standard operating procedure in the Anglo-American air war in World War II. By the end of that war, undermining enemy morale by destroying densely populated urban areas was accepted, with almost no opposition, as being integral to psychological warfare in an age of so-called total war. Targeting non-combatants was legitimized, even applauded.

When the ruins of the World Trade Center were christened Ground Zero, there was a fleeting moment when I thought perhaps this would provoke, if not soul searching, then at least rumination about terror bombing and mass destruction in our modern times. The phrase, after all, was originally associated with the atomic bombs and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such reflection never occurred. Indeed, it remains largely taboo for an American to even suggest a connection between the good war of World War II and horror of 9-11.

Many other questions also drove the writing, but the biggest of all is conveyed in the book’s title, Cultures of War. That was my title from the start, and can be seen as a counter to the “clash of cultures” and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that dominated—and still dominates—the American response to 9-11. I am not a pacifist or cultural relativist, but wars and holy wars and bloody mayhem stain the pages of history from earliest times; I wanted to draw on recent fragments of this history to explore war as a culture in itself—a congeries or aggregation of forces, beliefs, and pathologies that has a terrible and seemingly inexorable dynamism.

MC: Do you feel you’ve answered those questions for yourself and/or the reader, or are there lingering questions, some sense of ambiguity?

JD: There are no conclusive answers. Eventually I worked out certain patterns and categories that helped me see the past more clearly, and to make better order out of new information, new events and developments that previously may have seemed fragmentary, random, disconnected. But it’s a historian’s way of framing questions and issues, and I suppose to some extent a moralist’s. There are policy implications, but I do not attempt to spell these out. Many prospective readers may be puzzled or put off by this, or by the very concept of “cultures of war,” particularly if America is placed in the comparative picture. We speak about “culture” in secular and profane ways every day—corporate culture, for example, or youth culture, drug culture, etc.—but the notion of war cultures is less familiar and much more unsettling.

MC: In this book, as in many of your other books, you use photographs and images from popular culture in order to reconsider the ways in which history unfolds. How do these visual materials change or enhance the sort of analysis you are able to do?

JD: When I began doing history as a graduate student in the 1960s, “graphics” usually meant “illustrations” of what already had been said in words. They rarely amounted to much more than portraits of more or less famous people, or pictures of large monuments and largely familiar events. We’ve come a long way, and now regard visual materials and other expressions of popular culture as invaluable “texts” that illuminate how things were and are seen, constructed, and remembered. They take us places language alone cannot take us. Certainly graphics play a major role in how we experience war, propagandize it, and remember it.

Certain photos become iconic touchstones for remembering momentous events. The “Stars and Stripes” photos of the marines on Iwo Jima and firemen at the WTC site are good examples. When paired, as happened right after 9-11, there was a double impact. And when we look at this pairing today, more analytically, the impact is further altered and compounded. Other less iconic visuals were very influential when published in mass-circulation magazines like Life—the savagery of the war in the Pacific, for instance, and a few years later the soft exoticism and eroticism of occupied Japan. Other graphics have a kind of generic quality that captures the temper of the times, like U.S. posters calling for remembering and avenging Pearl Harbor; and Japanese posters calling for crushing the Anglo-Americans and liberating Asia; and, after 9-11, photographs of placard-waving supporters of Osama bin Laden in places like the Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia, even London. Three holy wars, as it were—American, Japanese, Islamist; when we see them in one place, the comparative point is strengthened.

Then there are the graphics that convey the unfamiliar and unexpected: a U.S. burial at sea of sailors killed in a kamikaze attack; leaflets dropped on Japanese cities by U.S. bombers that warn of air raids to come and feature harrowing artwork depicting Japanese being incinerated; wall paintings in Iraq and Iran based on the notorious photos of U.S. torture in the Abu Ghraib prison; a close-up of a weeping elderly woman at a rally pleading for relief for widows and orphans.

The graphics tell stories; they drive their own kind of insights. And they can be remarkably effective in enhancing understanding when placed, directly or implicitly, in juxtaposition. We can do this effectively in the print media—but the real future for such creative use of graphics is online. Before too long, I think, this will change the way we do history in significant ways.

MC: Did the changing political climate around the current conflicts in the Middle East change your approach to this book at any point?

JD: The quagmire in Iraq and deepening crisis in Afghanistan simply reinforced the perception that U.S. policy was pathological at both organizational and individual levels. And, of course, as the war dragged on, we had more and more access to previously classified documents, investigative reports, accounts by disenchanted insiders, and the like. This did not change the approach, but it deepened the analysis. The more time passed, and the more we learned, the darker and denser the picture became.

MC: In addition to writing nonfiction books—the most recent of which, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize in Letters for General Nonfiction—you are a professor emeritus at MIT. How do you think your work as a historian influenced the way you write your books, Cultures of War, in particular?

JD: Well, as a historian I am temperamentally disposed to think across time in long stretches; across disciplines too, since we tend to be multidisciplinary. And because so much of my career has involved Japan, I find it natural to think comparatively, across cultures. The MIT milieu probably heightened my sensitivity to technological and technocratic change as this affects the conduct of war. At one point, for example, I discuss the “sweetness” of developing advanced weapons of mass destruction like the atomic bomb, a term that comes straight from the scientific community. It probably also matters that I began in literature before moving into history, and listen closely to language. This influenced the way I address the resonances of war rhetoric on all sides and at different points in time.

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing Cultures of War? How did this discovery help shape the book?

JD: There were many small discoveries, no single great one. The ardor with which the U.S. military pursued the incineration of enemy civilians in World War II wasn’t surprising, for example, but some details were disconcerting—the testing, beginning in 1943, of incendiaries and explosives on meticulous stateside reconstructions of the urban residences in which German and Japanese workers lived; the gruesome colored graphics on some of the bombing leaflets dropped on targeted Japanese cities; the eventual number-one criterion for selecting a city to firebomb in Japan being “congestion and inflammability”; and all this hand-in-glove with earnest pronouncements about American humanitarianism. Where the run-up to the Iraq War was concerned, I hadn’t expected to discover how much internal doubt, criticism, and alarm there was at the middle and lower echelons of the U.S. military and civilian bureaucracies. This forced me to dig deeper to explain the groupthink that prevailed at the top and permeated the mass media.

The comparative case studies proved even richer and more suggestive than I expected; that certainly drove the shape and length of the book. After Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, I went back to documents I hadn’t looked at in years—the minutes of the top-level Japanese policy meetings in 1941, which miraculously survived the war. In traditional English-language writings, Japan’s decision for war is explained in terms of Japanese peculiarities and deficiencies—lack of democracy, the temporal closeness of a feudal past, collective inability to think rationally as Westerners do, the “obedient herd” conformism of an authoritarian society that suppresses independent thinking and principled criticism. Rereading the voluminous deliberations of the Japanese warlords today, in the light of what we can reconstruct about the Bush administration’s decision making, these ethnocentric old arguments fall apart.

The similarities that emerged were striking: control of the process by a half dozen or so leaders; deep anxiety about national security; certainty that war was not only unavoidable but just; constant reassurance this would bring “stability” and “prosperity” to troubled and troubling regions (Asia, the Middle East); disastrous neglect of the probable psychological response of the chosen enemy; near catatonic fixation on the initiation of hostilities, to the neglect of worst-case scenarios or what the endgame might be. Dissent was not tolerated and, once the decision for war had been made, inconceivable—lèse majesty in Japanese parlance; lack of patriotism, even treason, in the American case. The conventions of rational discourse were observed even as hubris, wishful thinking, and delusion prevailed.

MC: How did you decide on the structure for this book, and how do you feel this particular form serves the book’s content in a way other structures could not?

JD: There are really two conspicuous structural features to the book. The “tactical” one, as it were, is extensive endnotes. I relegated a great deal of factual and even interpretive material to the notes, with the aim of unclogging the main text as much as possible. The “strategic” structure—I see I’m falling into good military jargon here!—is the division of the book into three distinct parts. The subtitles of each part highlight the thematic focus, and within these various themes I do my best to maintain optimal chronological coherence.

But it was difficult. I’m challenging conventional conceptual compartments, trying to break them down, and often in heretical ways. I really see this as a rough first draft in rethinking the cultures and dynamics of war—and can only hope that others may find something to refine and build on here.

MC: What are the best books you’ve read about war? Did you use any as models for this book?

JD: There were no models as such. I always write out of, and am most comfortable with, the raw stuff—the documents, the language and rhetoric of the protagonists, the telling vignettes that political scientists and the like often dismiss as mere anecdotes and of little value, since they don’t lend themselves to modeling. The endnotes itemize my great debt to other scholars—and also, especially for the 9-11 and Iraq War years, to the writings of many excellent investigative journalists. The latter, with their tremendous energy in interviewing participants close to the events in question, are invaluable practitioners of oral history.

MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Cultures of War, and why was it so hard?

JD: Originally, there were not three but four major parts to the book. The fourth was titled “Holy War and Socialization for Death: Islamist Terrorism and Japanese Indoctrination in World War II.” I spent more than a year on this, and drafted seven complete chapters, but in the end was persuaded this was too much. Somewhere around early 2007, the publishers and I decided to jettison all seven chapters.

This was a necessary decision, but a hard one because the subject is inherently fascinating. I read a great deal of what was available in English about jihad and terror bombers. And, again, I went back to the existing literature about Japan at war and reviewed it with new eyes. It was all engrossing—holy-war rhetoric, martyrdom, demonization of enemies, denunciation of “the West,” Pan Asian and Pan Islam ideologies, powerful use and abuse of history, love of one’s native place…. Of course there were enormous differences between the Islamist terrorists and Japanese ideologues, but the areas of overlap were instructive. Even though the comparative analysis is already dense, I’m conscious of what has been excluded from the book.

MC: What part of Cultures of War was the most thrilling to write, and why?

JD: “Thrilling” is not the word. Writing in general produces an adrenaline rush, even when it’s not flowing smoothly, and the very process often triggers new thoughts. But war is a sorrowful and emotionally exhausting subject to me, and the most intense part of the book—both to write and to read—is the treatment of terror bombing in World War II, culminating in the atomic bombs. I believe this is the fullest attempt to place Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the larger context of the air war against Germany and Japan. It is a story many Americans find heroic, and I understand why. But it is a dark story to me—a watershed moment when old notions of just war were shredded, non-combatants were identified as legitimate targets, and an extraordinary machinery of mass destruction was unleashed on the world. This is the part of Cultures of War triggered early on by the “Ground Zero” rhetoric that followed September 11, amputated as it was from any acknowledgement or recognition or even interest in where the term came from.

This is not cultural relativism. It is certainly not making a simple equation between the air war in World War II and the atrocities of 9-11 and present-day terrorism. But it calls our attention to the relentless coils of war, and to a tragic arc of history that holds us all in thrall.

Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such as The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.