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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cultures of War -- How Militarism and Groupthink Lead to Catastrophe

Cultures of War is one of those books that, according to reviewers on, people will either love or hate. Out of fourteen reviews, seven give it a five-star rating, six give it a one star, and one give it a three. Right off the bat, I'll tell you what my rating is: it is a very strong 5. Generally speaking, if you're a person who regards criticism of the U.S. and its policies as treason, you will hate this book. (One reviewer calls it "a hate-filled rant from an ultra left loon.") But if you're looking for one of the best analyses around on how militarism with its culture of war dumb-down analysis and result in "strategic imbecilities", as John Dower so eloquently puts it, then you will love this book. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, and author of Japan in War & Peace, historian John W. Dower challenges conventional thinking about Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11/2001 and our war in Iraq. It was conventional thinking that got Japan in trouble prior to and during World War II, and it was conventional thinking that got the U.S. in trouble following the terrorist attack on 9/11/01 with its global War on Terror and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For example, in the run up to World War II, racism played a significant factor in dismissing the clear indication that Japan's leaders "were clearly poised for war" (page 15). The same was true with the fatwa declaring holy war against "the Judeo-Christian alliance" issued by Osama bin Laden and other Islamist militants nearly eight years before the events of 9/11/01. Rather than take them seriously, U.S. officials and military commanders dismissed both threats as unimportant, because they came from people who were non-white (Japanese and Islamists). If you don't believe this, take a look at racist U.S. World War II propaganda and the fact that "[n[o one at the top levels of the Bush administration ... had the imagination to take these warnings seriously." "In domestic policy projections, terrorism was not even included among the 'top-ten' priorities established for the Justice Department by Attorney General John Ashcroft. '9-ll' surpassed the Pearl Harbor debacle in exposing negligence and inability to think outside the box at the highest levels" of our government) page 16).

Does John Dower have a point of view? Oh, definitely ... and here it is. Prejudice and group-think prevent clear thinking and analysis. Reality is defined in categorical terms (nonwhite foreigners are irrational; whites, because of our Enlightenment ideals of reason, order, civilized behavior and our Christian history, are rational). Thinking outside the box (Asians are bright, intelligent people, as are Arabs and other non-whites) is discouraged and sometimes not permitted at all. The result? Well, we've been through that often enough that we shouldn't need to revisit it ... but it is clear from recent history that we must.

John Dower is very hard on the administration of George W. Bush, and for very good reason. His administration relied on beliefs rather than sound analyses (Donald Rumsfeld's remark than we'd be in and out of Iraq in a matter of 6 weeks or so after toppling Saddam Hussein is one example; having no plans at all for an occupation is another) and, when legal questions were raised about things the administration was doing, Bush's lawyers jiggered the law so that what was illegal could now be defined to fit within the "Rule of law" (see Chapter 14:"Convergence of a Sort: Law, Justice, and Transgression"). What happened after Iraq was defeated was just plain disaster for everyone concerned, especially the Iraqi people. The main problems? No real planning. Whereas in post-defeat Japan plans for an occupation had been worked out in detail long before the war's end, in Iraq's case, no planning had taken place at all. The occupation was run by "market fundamentalism" -- that sacred cow of George W. Bush and his people -- with unbelievable levels of corruption on all sides that ended in a huge mess. Dower devotes a whole chapter (15: "Nation Building and market fundamentalism") to this subject.

The lack of preparation and outright lying about the two wars George W. Bush got us into are nearly beyond belief. John Dower does a wonderful job of drawing all this together in a very readable way, contrasting it with what went right in our occupation of Japan ... and how we have worked that occupation to serve our global needs, often at the expense of the Japanese people, something that I have witnessed first hand now that I live in Japan.

Put Cultures of War with James Carroll's House of War, Chris Hedges' War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Robert Scheer's The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America,  and Richard H. Immerman's Empire For Liberty, and you'll have a comprehensive history of what has happened to the U.S. over the past sixty years

John Dower's book is not a light read. Drawing on a lifetime of study and masses of information (there are 100 pages of reference notes), it demands concentration, patience and a willingness to have your thinking challenged. You may quarrel with it and even hate it. My recommendation is that you read it with an open mind. You will learn things about your country that you may not wish to hear, but are valuable nonetheless. If you think the book is "worthless", I challenge you to think again.

Rating:  ****

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