‘A date which will live in infamy’ was the iconic phrase coined by President Roosevelt to describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The same phrase was frequently used in the media after the 9/11 attacks. Prof. John Dower, whose previous works include a Pulitzer Prize winning study of post-war Japan, uses this as a springboard for his detailed analysis of the underlying cultural responses to these two attacks upon American sovereignty. He extends his overview to examine the similarities and differences in military policy towards the occupations of Japan and Iraq.
A central theme of Dower’s thesis is the failure of both intelligence and imagination within the US administration in the lead up to these attacks. Warnings of both were lost in the ‘noise’ of routine intelligence gathering, which meant that crucial reports were relegated unread to filing cabinets.
Equally worrying is the failure of the American intelligence and military community to recognise the threat they faced. Despite a number of warnings, both Japan and Al Qaeda were assumed to be unable to deliver a crippling strike against America. The latter is particularly surprising, given the success of guerrilla fighters against the Soviet regime in Afghanistan and previous terrorist strikes against US forces.
Dower provides a useful discussion of ‘strategic imbecilities’ or the failure of military planners to recognise the logical flaws in their strategy. This can be seen in both the failure of the Japanese command to anticipate that Pearl Harbour would incite a massive US military response, and the American inability to predict massive armed resistance to the occupation of Iraq.
This book is highly recommended for its clear and judicious analysis of the mindset of the US military and intelligence communities after the two most serious surprise attacks in American history. The strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to bring his considerable knowledge of the Pacific War and its aftermath to bear on modern events. Cultures of War must be read by anyone interested in uncovering the intellectual and historical roots of the War on Terror.
Review by Jonathan Eaton
W W Norton/The New Press, £22.99