U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A great book of 2010: John Dower’s "Cultures of War"

As we are still in a week of relative rest (and my kid is out of school), I will keep this post quite brief. I am happy Ben asked us to suggest great books of 2010. Like him, I strongly recommend George Cotkin’s Morality’s Muddy Waters and our own David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Both books deserve greater attention that I can give them in this post. So I will offer another book with a link to a great discussion by its author. John Dower’s The Cultures of War has impressed me in large part because it asks questions that are difficult to answer but fascinating to investigate. You can find Dower’s conversation about the book at After Words.

This is a big, bold book that takes as its general theme a comparison between the cultures of war that surrounded the American war with Japan and the American wars following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But this is comparative history with a twist: rather than comparing American and Japanese visions of the same war, as Dower did in War without Mercy, Dower uses comparative history within the same country, between many different countries, and as a way to critique to use of historical analogy. For example, he discusses the strange use of Ground Zero to describe both the point of detonation of the atomic bombs over Japan in 1945 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. The fact that such a term can be used in such different and seemingly contradictory ways frames one of Dower’s most interesting insights: that “the reasons we humans embrace violence and mass destruction are more convoluted than the war planners or most policy analysts acknowledge, and we ignore this complexity at our peril–however forbidding what this says about us as individuals and societies may be.”

Because I am wrestling with the ways in which wars since 1945 have influenced the construction and uses of American civil religion, I find Dower’s willingness to wade into difficult subjects such as evil, holy wars, terrorism and terror bombing, just war, the elegance of science and the science of destruction, and myth-making to be nothing short of brave. Moreover, Dower once again puts to use his keen critical eye for war photography by including a remarkable 122 illustrations in his book. Somewhat like Susan Sontag (whom I also admire), Dower doesn’t merely critique the social significance of iconic photographs but has the audacity to question our relationships to images of real suffering–there is a moral imperative to his reading.

I will close for now and promise a fuller discussion of Dower’s important work soon.

Happy New Year!