John Dower, Ford International Professor of History, teased out the threads connecting cultures of war from individual nations' densely woven rhetoric about victory in his Killian award lecture, presented Monday, April 7, to a near-capacity crowd in Kirsch Auditorium.
Dower's talk, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq," used examples from the past 66 years of warfare to show how government leaders, once bent on war, both deny history and rely on it.
"War itself is a culture. Holy war rhetoric and indoctrination are part of the culture of war," Dower said as he reminded listeners how phrases associated with World War II--"Day of Infamy" and "Axis of Evil"--conjured an irrational alien enemy and ultimate U.S. victory in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Meanwhile, the historic context of these phrases is obscured.
"Ground Zero," the name used for Hiroshima, is another example, a "powerful label, severed from its origins, emptied of its history," he said.
Acknowledging huge differences among the events he discussed, Dower showed how cultures of war operate. Japanese planning for Pearl Harbor and U.S. planning for Iraq are more like than unlike, he noted.
"Both were wishful, hubristic, alarmed about national security. Neither had a contingency plan for after the victory," said Dower, winner of the 2007-2008 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award.
Both also shared an infatuated reliance on high-tech war machines and a perception that rapid dominance, achieved through shock and awe, would both destroy enemy morale and boost national pride, Dower noted. The result? More terror.
And throughout history, that terror comes home to roost in the form of conformity and "groupthink," Dower cautioned.
"Once the war machine gets going, long-range planning is denounced as lacking patriotism," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 2008 (download PDF).