On Sept. 12, 2001, newspaper headlines nationwide read "Day Of Infamy" — harkening back to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Within days, other World War II terms like "ground zero" and "kamikaze pilots" had become common parlance.
Historian John Dower, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, anticipated the WWII references as soon as he learned that terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "The immediate connection everyone made was Pearl Harbor," he tells NPR's Neal Conan.
The Sept. 11 attacks also represented an "enormous failure" of U.S. intelligence, he says — a failure in which he saw other eerie echoes of World War II. "So I went back and reread all the studies of ... the disaster at Pearl Harbor, why we were caught short, compared it to what we know about 9/11." And as the United States began a march to war, culminating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Dower began seeing the similarities between those intelligence failures piling up.
The Iraq invasion, says Dower, "was a true intelligence disaster. I mean, that was simply appalling. ... There was no thinking ahead, and then the comparison gets very interesting.
"In the case of Iraq, as in the case of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, there was no endgame. There was no looking ahead to anticipate what do we do after?" In both cases, the Japanese and the U.S., respectively, "were mesmerized by the initial opening offensive activities. And there was no longer-range thinking of how ... are we going to bring this to an end?"
In 1941, says Dower, the Japanese forces grossly miscalculated how the United States would respond. "They knew the Americans had more industrial capacity [to react militarily], but they thought the Pearl Harbor attack would demobilize the Americans. Adm. Yamamoto, the man who devised the Pearl Harbor attack, said, 'We hope this attack will so weaken their morale that they will not respond effectively.' " Of course, says Dower, the U.S. response "was just exactly the opposite."
And when American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Dower says, "the armies went in with absolutely no understanding at the top levels ... of the nature of the society they were taking on — of the potential eruptions and factionalism and internal strife and opposition they would face in Iraq."
Dower also faults the U.S. military for failing to anticipate the looting in Baghdad that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. Again, says Dower, the fall of Japan in 1945 should have provided a valuable lesson.
"It's not very often remembered," he says, but in the two weeks between when the Japanese capitulated and U.S. troops arrived to occupy the island nation, "enormous amounts of military supplies ... disappeared into the hands of local police. ... Local politicians were involved, local capitalists were involved. And we're talking everything from precious metals and medicines down to blankets."
The looting, he says, was quickly quashed with the arrival of U.S. troops, but "that initial damage was enormous. ... It fed an inflation, it fed a black market that ravaged" the Japanese economy.
When he reflects on the similarities between the two conflicts, Dower says he always returns to a phrase coined by historian Samuel Eliot Morison to describe the attacks on Pearl Harbor: "It was 'tactically brilliant, and strategically imbecilic.' "