The Interview

In our reaction to 9/11, echoes of Pearl Harbor

JOHN W. DOWER JOHN W. DOWER (Julia Malakie/Associated Press)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2010

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In his revelatory new book “Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq,” John W. Dower examines the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the US response from the vantage point of history and of collective memory. Exploring three major themes — “Pearl Harbor as Code,” “Ground Zero 1945 and Ground Zero 2001,” “Occupied Japan and Occupied Iraq” — Dower exposes the dubious nature of any nation’s or movement’s claim to moral purity or clear conscience in an era when “modern war remains largely wholesale killing.”

A professor emeritus of Japanese history at MIT, Dower is the author of “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, among other honors. His other books include “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War” And “Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954.” Dower spoke from his home in Boston.

Q. What were your thoughts when you first heard about the 9/11 attacks?

A. I was in rural Vermont, and I first heard about the attacks when I went into town. After the initial shock, I was struck by newspaper headlines that read “Infamy” or “Day of Infamy.” Immediately the link was made to Pearl Harbor and Japan, subjects with which I was very familiar. The analogies with Japan keep coming. Suicide bombers. Kamikaze. The slogans of 9/11 — “We will never forget” — were also reminiscent of Pearl Harbor as was the sense of rage and desire for revenge. This was also an attack by a non-white, non-Christian enemy so the dimension of race and culture was immediately striking. But I was struck too by the distortions in these analogies; Pearl Harbor, for example, being a military attack on a military target, not a suicide bombing of civilians.

Q. What made you dig deeper?

A. The more I considered these Pearl Harbor echoes, the more fascinated I became. We began to see outrage against Muslims, Arabs, against Islam to which the Bush administration promptly responded, saying we must not repeat the injustices done to Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. There was the precedent of profound institutional intelligence failure. But I was also intrigued by how both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 exposed our failure of imagination: our failure to see others, to understand their motivations and capabilities.

Q. Why did you extend this to Iraq?

A. In 2002 I thought that I would do a little book on these parallels. Then 9/11 bled into the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and it was clear that nothing had been learned. Looking at Pearl Harbor and at 9/11, I saw two wars of choice — in Japan’s case a tactically brilliant attack and in Al Qaeda’s case an attack that was extraordinarily effective. Iraq was another war of choice.

Q. You also place 9/11 in a wider context.

A. Yes. We heard that this was a clash of civilizations or cultures. We heard that Islamic people have diminished respect for human life, that they target civilians, that this is a major difference between them and us. But terror bombing had been standard operating procedure since World War II. The targeting of civilians was a major part of the British and American air wars — we even used the phrase “terror bombing” — and if anyone has perfected massive destruction from the air it’s the United States. 9/11 was a real atrocity; it was murder, but to put that in the context of irreconcilable cultures is to ignore history.

Q. What did you think when you heard the name ground zero resurrected?

A. Ground zero is a name we historians associate with the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and I was stunned by how it was reused as a way of saying, “We are unique victims.” The term “mushroom cloud” was also used, again without reference to the fact that the mushroom cloud we know best is the one that erased Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Q. Do you hear similar rhetoric in the current controversy over the proposed cultural center?

A. I do. The site is sacred ground as are many other sites around the world. Grieving and commemoration is essential. But it’s also important to make this a place not of American righteousness and Islamic evil but a site where people are encouraged to think historically and to contemplate how such atrocities can be prevented.

Q. Are you asking Americans to suppress their patriotism?

A. No. To some, patriotism means that you never criticize your nation. To others who love their country’s ideals but fear we are losing them, if we’re not free to be self-critical we’re lost. When patriotism bleeds into nationalism and intolerance — whether in wartime Japan, today’s America, or among Islamic fundamentalists — it suffocates understanding. I’m not arguing that there’s no difference between us and the terrorists. That would be absurd. But the belief that it is sometimes appropriate to target civilians to destroy morale — nobody has a monopoly on that. We are all complicit. From my perspective, we can best honor the dead by facing these painful facts honestly and struggling to break such terrible coils of violence. It helps to think historically and comparatively. That’s how we strengthen our democracy.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at