I’m reading a very fascinating scholarly study called Cultures of War by MIT history professor John Dower. Professor Dower analyzes in detail the similarities in the cultural assumptions, bureaucratic decision-making processes, fascination with technology, religious orientation, use of propaganda and strategic military imperatives of four events that serve as symbolic points in the cultural history of two wars.
Interestingly enough, in all cases the decision to act proved disastrous for mankind. In three, and maybe all four, it was also disastrous for the nation/organization instigating the act:
- The Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor
- The United States detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
- Al Qaida’s terrorist attacks by suicide crash on September 11, 2001
- The United States “war by choice” against Iraq under the false pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction and disabling Al Qaida.
The obvious symmetry in considering the cultures that produced all four of these actions is that they are paired: in both pairs, the actions of the United States are typically considered to be reactions against horrible deeds, by a nation in one pair and by a terrorist organization in the other.
But Dower carefully draws U.S. defensive motives into question: He recapitulates what we already know about the duplicitous lead-up to the invasion of Iraq by the Bush II Administration. He also reminds us that no one can say for sure that dropping two atom bombs saved more lives than the more than 200,000 that the U.S. obliterated in two fairly short bombing raids. We know for a fact, however, that the U.S. wanted to brandish its new weapon for the Soviets and everyone else in the world and wanted to stop potential grumbling at home about the cost of the Manhattan Project. Dower also shows us how much the U.S. wanted to go to war against Japan before Pearl Harbor and how much the Bush II (non)brain trust wanted to attack Iraq before 9/11.
Many would consider it blasphemy and/or treason to equate the moral bearing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. under Bush II or Roosevelt, but Dower makes a very strong case. Here are some of the similarities:
- The use of religion as a justification and of religious imagery in manifestos about the events
- The postulation of a battle between civilizations
- The belief that your civilization/religion is infinitely superior to the civilization/religion of the foe
- A justification of killing innocent civilians, politely known as “collateral damage”
- The focus on technology (in the case of Osama, it was computers, not weapons)
We really did feel threatened by the combined force of the Japanese and Germans, and we really did feel threatened by the terrorist attack. But Dower makes it clear that Osama’s followers, too, felt their civilization threatened by U.S. military activity and economic and social imperialism.
The fact that many of us think that the Japanese and the extreme Islamists were fools or devils to feel that their way of life was superior merely suggests that we are unable to transcend our own cultural imperatives that tell us that our way of life is the best. I’m not saying that Al Qaida was right to launch the 9/11 attack. It was as wrong as we were to drop the atom bombs and to attack Iraq (and to pursue the Viet Nam War for that matter). But they certainly were right to think their civilization was threatened by U.S. military and political actions.
And just as Pearl Harbor united even the most vocal pacifists and isolationists in the United States, just as 9/11 united us again, so did the invasion of Iraq, the declarations by the Bush II Administration of a holy war and our establishment of a world-wide torture gulag help Osama recruit many new terrorists throughout the Islamic world. In all cases, too, the governments and terrorist organization embarked on major propaganda campaigns to convince their people that they did the right thing by unleashing death, in one case against soldiers sworn to fight to the death and in the others against innocent bystanders.
Perhaps the most horrible similarity in all the cultures of war that Dower considers in his provocative and easy-to-read book is that in all four attacks, the participants—the military men, the government officials, the scientists and engineers, the soldiers who did the dirty work—were able to forget that they were engaged in killing large numbers of people.
Many factors led to the dehumanization of the people at the receiving end of the bombs, tanks and suicide plane crashes:
- A bureaucratic language that used euphemisms and passive constructions to conceal horrible realities
- A focus on the complex challenge of the task at hand (as opposed to the destructive ends)
- A belief in the inferiority of the victims
- The self-deception often generated by the constant creation of propaganda for others
- A religious belief, i.e., that you’re on a religious mission
These factors affected the decisions and actions of the one-party Shinto autocracy, the Christian representative democracy and the Islamic theocracy. Who has the moral high ground here?
There is no threshold for terror, for starting wars of choice or for unleashing weapons of mass destruction.
There is no military justification for bombing and attacking civilians that can offset or override the moral evil involved in killing masses of innocents.
Heinous acts of terror, genocide and lawlessness in a just cause turn that cause to evil and take from the perpetrators any claims of morality or civilization.
I came away from reading Cultures of War more convinced than ever of these things.