Book review: ‘Cultures of War’ by John W. Dower

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Cultures of War

Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq

John W. Dower

W.W. Norton: 552 pp., $29.95

Just after the turn of the 20th century, with the United States basking in the glow of victory in the Spanish-American War, insurgents in the Philippines decided that they’d rather not have their former Spanish occupiers replaced by American occupiers. So they fought, and they were eradicated by U.S. troops in what turned out to be the first brutal military campaign of history’s most violent century.

But what stands out about the bloody suppression of rebellious Filipinos by American troops isn’t the violence, John W. Dower argues in “Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq,” which is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction, so much as the “righteous expansionist vocabulary” that enshrouded it. “The boilerplate,” as he calls it, of “innocence, virtue, and ‘our freedoms.’”

“These,” Dower writes, “were the ghosts behind the ghostwriters behind George W. Bush.”

It takes a nimble mind, and a nimble hand, to link America’s regrettable atrocities in the Philippines (whole villages were burned to the ground and their occupants slaughtered) to the events in Iraq. But Dower has the mind and the hand, making a compelling case that, regardless of self-perceptions of righteousness, nations with a culture of war will, indeed, wage war.


Dower’s wide-ranging, thought-provoking book is less an analysis of policy than a dissection of actions, and the arguments that framed them. The George W. Bush administration’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq make them “wars of choice,” Dower writes, much like Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor. In both instances, the war planners failed to anticipate what would happen next.

Dower, who won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his 1999 book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” acknowledges that comparing 1941 Japan with 2001 United States causes one to “enter a hall of cracked mirrors.” But the similarities, he argues, are irrefutable. “What is reflected quite clearly is a process and a mindset antithetical to the rationality both sides believed themselves to be exercising: shortsighted, dogmatic, delusory, a tragic exercise in ‘groupthink’ by individuals of broad experience and considerable shrewdness who turned out to be careless and lacking in wisdom,” Dower writes.

Dower’s crisscrossing discussions defy easy distillation, and his attention to detail makes for sluggish writing in places. But his core point seems to be that a nation’s move to war eventually takes on a life of its own.

And failure to plan beyond the initiation and prosecution of the war itself almost inevitably results in that old military cliché about winning the war but losing the peace. Dower cites reports prepared before the invasion of Iraq warning that a postwar game plan was critical to success, including one by the State Department that accurately predicted the chaos that ensued in Iraq. Avoiding that disaster, it warned, required something that was anathema to the Dick Cheney crowd: an internationalist approach to nation building.

“Given the overwhelming fixation in the White House and Pentagon on a quick shock-and-awe, in-and-out war controlled start to finish by the United States,” Dower writes, “this was a document virtually guaranteed to sink quickly from sight.”

Modern adherents of “America first” doctrines will find much to disagree with here, but Dower’s arguments are deeply, and compellingly, drawn. This is a nation with unclean hands, from the Philippines campaigns to the decision to firebomb civilians in World War II to the rush to complete, and drop, the atomic bomb before Japan surrendered (the true message, Dower believes, was aimed at the Soviet Union). Post- 9/11 secret prisons and “special renditions” bring the cycle forward.


All those actions, Dower argues, were functions of the environments in which they were born. Dower writes of misgivings by some of the Manhattan Project’s key players after their atomic bombs were used against civilian targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, selected because, having been lightly touched by war, they were the best guinea pigs for testing the bombs’ power. Those misgivings, Dower writes, “tell us something about how pressures and fixations multiply in the cauldron of enmity and war; how reason, emotion, and delusion commingle; how blood debts can become blood lusts, and moral passion can bleed into the practice of wanton terror.”

This may lead readers to ask: Are these lessons from which the modern world is willing to learn?

Martelle, an Irvine-based writer and critic, is author of the forthcoming “The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.”