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Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9"11/Iraq

04/07/2008 4:30 PM 32"123
John Dower, Ford International Professor of History

Description: The Bush administration began its "great misuse of history" shortly after 9/11, says John Dower, when it seized upon Japan's 1941 Pearl Harbor attack as a useful analogy, a way to promote its own invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Dower views as simplistic these "popular hooks to history" and mercilessly slashes away at the Bush administration's continuing efforts to manipulate the public with historical imagery and example. Yet, with his more refined historical lens, Dower finds some unsettling areas of congruence between those days and our own times.

Reflecting on popular associations between 9/11 and Iraq, and Pearl Harbor and Japan, Dower offers two lines of analysis (and suggests he's got a few more up his sleeve): what he calls "a Pearl Harbor code," and "Ground Zero 2001 and Ground Zero 1945." The first area involves comparing explanations of failures of intelligence that might have anticipated the attacks. Congressional and other investigations of the 1941 and 2001 attacks reveal that despite lots of "noise and chatter," intelligence agencies grossly miscalculated and missed enemy intentions. This represents "not just system breakdown, but a stunning failure of the imagination," says Dower. In both cases, the U.S. was caught unawares because it misjudged the enemy in a manner typical of "white supremacists," simultaneously diminishing the other side's capabilities and casting it as irrational or illogical. In an ironic aside, Dower notes that the Japanese launched their war on "a wish and a prayer, with no contingency planning and no serious contemplation of worst case scenarios." How like the "U.S. strategic imbecility in the Iraqi invasion," he says.

Dower's second analytical line describes how a "clash of civilizations" argument has emerged powerfully since 9/11. Americans believe that Ground Zero 2001 marked the start of a new era -- the West opposing an Islamic culture that devalues human life. But Dower shows that a war machine targeting civilians and noncombatants went into high gear during World War II, with the U.S. and British air wars against Germany, then Japan. Airborne slaughter of innocents became standard operating procedure, part of an "ideological group think we associate with cultures of war." Victims are no longer individual civilians, but entire nations. Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor became "codes for mass destruction and psychological warfare," adopted by both bin Laden and the U.S. -- "one side using this as a model for the horrors of 9/11, the other finding inspiration in what we call the cutting edge of shock and awe, tactics that were presumably to ensure victory in the invasion of Iraq."

About the Speaker(s): John Dower'sinterests lie in modern Japanese history and US"Japan relations. His publications have received numerous awards. His most recent book,Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999), won numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize in Letters for General Nonfiction, National Book Award in Nonfiction, Bancroft Prize in American History, John K. Fairbank Prize in Asian History, Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History, Mark Lynton History Prize, and L. L. Winship/PEN New England Prize. Other books include Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience (1979); War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War,/i> (1986); and collected essays under the title Japan in War and Peace (1994). Dower was also the executive producer of a documentary film entitled Hellfire -- A Journey from Hiroshima, which was nominated in 1988 for an Academy Award.

Dower received his Ph.D. in 1972 in History and Far Eastern Languages from Harvard University.

Host(s): Office of the President, Office of the President

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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