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TRAVELS IN THE REICH, 1933–1945
Foreign Authors Report from Germany
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LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2010 / Jan 2011
THE STATE WE’RE IN
GROUND ZEROES CULTURES OF WAR: PEARL HARBOR/HIROSHIMA/9–11/IRAQ
By John W Dower (W W Norton & Co/The New Press 596pp £22.99)
JOHN DOWER WAS provoked to write this book by the almost instant decision to christen the ruins of the World Trade Center ‘Ground Zero’, a name originally associated with the atomic attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In observing how the ruin quickly became an icon of American victimhood, he was struck, as a historian, by how little his own countrymen knew of their own terror bombing of Japanese cities in 1944–5, which had culminated in the two atomic attacks. We remember the atom bomb for the iconic photograph of the mushroom cloud, taken by the Enola Gay’s tail-gunner, George Caron. It soon became the logo of fifty-five companies in New York and even, more bizarrely, the Miss Atomic Bomb Pageant in Las Vegas.
Dower’s book opens with the largely unchallenged connection drawn by the US media and the American public between al-Qaeda’s surprise attack and Japan’s ‘day of infamy’ sixty years earlier. It takes the analogy much further, addressing US failures of intelligence and imagination both in 1941 and 2001. The 9/11 Commission singled out ‘imagination’ as one of the central failures revealed by the attacks. It went so far as to recommend that the best way to avoid another surprise attack was to ‘bureaucratise the imagination’ – an oxymoron, adds Dower, that we can picture the bureaucrats taking seriously to heart by forming committees, preparing flow charts, and perhaps even creating a National Imagination Agency (NIA).
The book also explores the many factors that contributed to Japan’s successful postwar recovery and reconstruction on the one hand, and to the lamentable disintegration of Iraq as a society and as an economy on the other. Even if the insurgency had never broken out after the fall of Saddam, the US simply wasn’t prepared to play the role of occupying power that it had in 1945. The neo-conservatives, then in the ascendant in Washington, were market fundamentalists who lacked the sense of public duty shown by the experts who worked for MacArthur in Japan. And although MacArthur’s military advisers had been dedicated to creating a sound capitalist economy, what they understood by reconstruction was very different from what the neo-conservatives had in mind in Iraq. Sixty years ago it meant land reform, the emergence and encouragement of organised labour and trust busting, as well as ‘economic democratisation’. By contrast, the Bush administration put up much of the country’s economy for sale, outsourcing the task of reconstruction mostly to THE STATE WE’RE IN
American subcontractors. Nation-building was privatised for the first time. And although there has been some recovery, especially in the oil market, the country is not set to become the regional ally that both Germany and Japan rapidly became in the early days of the Cold War. Instead, it looks increasingly likely to become a potential satellite of a nuclear-armed Iran and not what President Bush promised: an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East.
It might also be added, though Dower doesn’t, that it is difficult to see how nation-building can be done ‘under fire’. The US patented nation-building in the American South after Lee’s surrender in 1865. It was actually called ‘Reconstruction’ and it was achieved after years of military occupation. As well as launching Germany and Japan towards ‘economic democratisation’ after the Second World War, the US also rebuilt Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. But as Dower makes clear in an earlier Pulitzer Prizewinning work, tellingly entitled Embracing Defeat (1999), if a nation fails to welcome its defeat it will quickly unravel. Perhaps it all depends on how quickly a regime collapses.
HORROR IN IRAQ BLACK HEARTS: ONE PLATOON’S DESCENT INTO MADNESS IN IRAQ’S TRIANGLE OF DEATH
By Jim Frederick (Macmillan 439pp £12.99)
IN OCTOBER 2005, the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment (1/502) of the 101st Airbor ne Division deployed to Iraq to take their turn garrisoning the area south of Baghdad known as the ‘Triangle of Death’. This was the time when the Bush Administration’s scheme for ‘invasion lite’, followed by a self-funded reconstruction programme using Iraq’s oil revenue, was dramatically unravelling. Dangerously low Coalition troop numbers and implausible expectations of success had given armed factions in both the Shi’a and Sunni communities the time and space to organise themselves. At the same time, the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – in reality, a vicious Sunni faction with little real connection to Osama bin Laden’s organisation – had established a campaign of atrocity targeting the Shi’a community, with the presumed intention of provoking all-out sectarian conflict.
Spread desperately thinly and lacking a coherent tactical approach, the soldiers of 1/502 struggled to maintain secur ity within their area of operations and quickly began to take casualties from snipers and the seemingly omnipresent Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Despite this, on 12 March 2006, four soldiers from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/502, decided, apparently
Looking back, even George W Bush lamented that the US had won too quickly. ‘Had we to do it over again we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success – being so successful so fast, that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in, escaped to fight another day.’ Or as General Myers asserted, victory proved ‘too elegant’. In hindsight, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, ‘we were probably too gracious in our victory’.
John Dower ends his reflections with the conclusion that there are likely to be more failures and military disasters in the years to come. Some readers will find the author too partisan, others too pessimistic, but he offers a sobering analysis, one that defines the contours of the fast unfolding post-American world. There are two kinds of imagination, of course: imagining the next possible challenge, and having enough imagination to dig oneself out of a hole when you find yourself in one. With respect to Afghanistan that is precisely where the US is failing, in part because the ‘culture of war’ still continues to exercise its iron grip. To order this book at £18.39, see LR bookshop on page 10
spontaneously, to leave their small, isolated outpost and visit the home of a nearby Iraqi family where they gangraped and then murdered fourteen-year-old Abeer al Janabi as well as killing her parents and younger sister.
Black Hearts is journalist Jim Frederick’s attempt to explain how this disgusting crime came to take place. Does he succeed? He certainly nails the circumstances and the situation. Frederick describes a unit that appears to have been almost entirely dysfunctional. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk, is painted as a man whose leadership style involved routine public humiliation of his most senior subordinates; junior commanders and NCOs seem to have had little rapport with each other or the soldiers they were supposed to lead; duties and missions were assigned with little regard for the actual manpower or resources available to handle them; logistic and administrative functions at the sharp end were chaotic and ineffective; and rest periods and ‘down time’ seem to have been almost non-existent.
Against this backdrop, the insurgents achieved a steady rate of attrition. Twenty-one members of the battalion were killed during their tour of duty but scores more were seriously wounded; more than 40 per cent of the battalion received treatment for mental health issues whilst they were still ‘in country’. Almost everyone in the battalion was caught by an IED strike at one time or another; many were on the wrong end of multiple attacks, sometimes on the same day. Firefights were frequent and often intense. In a landmark incident in June 2006, three members of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, were captured, killed and mutilated by insurgents.
But did this chaotic situation lead to the rape and murder of Abeer al Janabi and her family? Not directly. Private Steven Green, the ringleader of the crime, was identified not long afterwards (although before his involvement was
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2010 / Jan 2011