Friday, January 13, 2017

What We're Reading: Remembering Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,
by Craig Nelson
Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack,
by Steve Twomey

Two new books were published this fall for the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the United States into World War II. Over the years, the admonition to “Remember Pearl Harbor!” has had a changing meaning in our national psyche. In the years immediately following the Japanese attack, it was a slogan used to encourage recruitment and rally public support for the war effort. It was a call for repayment and revenge for what was seen as a vicious sneak attack, one perpetrated by a race that was morally unprincipled and dishonorable. The racism associated with the attack—and it was mutual—justified “total warfare,” as John Dower explored in his award-winning book,
War Without Mercy.

In later years, the call to remember Pearl Harbor had a less immediate and more abstracted meaning; we were to remember Pearl Harbor as a symbol of the need for perpetual vigilance and military preparedness. Pearl Harbor, a single event that involved an enormous loss of life, was also memorialized as a symbol of the sacrifice made by all those who serve their country. And there has always been, both during and after the war, a persistent allegation of conspiracy about Pearl Harbor—an astonishing one when you think about its implications—the allegation that Franklin Roosevelt and his administration wanted the United States to enter World War II and manipulated events in such a way that Japan would strike out, that they in fact knew Pearl Harbor was going to happen and let it happen as a casus belli. For some, that alleged perfidy, has been what we should remember about Pearl Harbor. It is a construction of events that both of these new books discredit.

Franklin Roosevelt asks Congress for a Declaration of War
against Japan, December 8, 1941.
As Pearl Harbor fades from living memory, our national remembrance of Pearl Harbor seems to be going through yet another subtle change. In remarks last week at ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, both Japanese Prime Minister Abe and President Obama centered on the theme of reconciliation, on Pearl Harbor as representative of an enmity and bitterness that both nations worked to overcome. Obama referred to Abe’s attendance at the ceremony as an “historic gesture that speaks to the power of reconciliation and the alliance between the American and Japanese peoples, a reminder that even the deepest wounds of war can give way to friendship and lasting peace.”

These two new books revisit Pearl Harbor not as a symbol of enmity reconciled but rather to remind us of what actually happened there on December 7, 1941 and why it happened. They are companionable books—you will learn something from reading both. The most memorable part of Nelson’s book is the recreation of the attack itself, and the focus of Twomey’s book is the lead-up to the attack and his attempt to explain the various misreadings, miscues, and errors of judgement that left the U.S. Fleet vulnerable to attack. Most Americans today are largely uninformed about these subjects, and these books remind us about how horrendous was the loss and explore the important things we might learn from the story of how it happened.

The U.S.S. Arizona on fire and sinking. 1,177 U.S. servicemen were killed on
Arizona, almost half of the total of lives lost at Pearl Harbor.

The battleship West Virginia sinking. A boat looks for survivors
who jumped into the flaming, oil-covered sea.

Craig Nelson’s book, Pearl Harbor from Infamy to Greatness, perhaps suffers, paradoxically, from its virtues and ambition. The ambition seems to have been to produce the most comprehensive account of Pearl Harbor, from the diplomatic prelude to matters of military dispositions and intelligence to accounts of the attack itself, to “greatness,” which seems to be composed of an account of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and to a very truncated account of the U.S. Naval operations that followed in the Pacific. Why the author felt the need to present a synopsis of the entire history of the naval warfare that followed, in what of necessity would have to be an abbreviated form, is a little perplexing. The scope of this book is just too large, and someone inexpert about the topics—and the military minutiae of craft, ordnance, and protocols—cannot hope to command all of the details of fact and event. Misinterpretations and errors are bound to occur. Considered analysis of actions and events and the significance of the facts reported are likely to suffer as well, in the drive to present every detail. The parts of this book have too much an assembled rather than an integrated feel, as if they were the products of wholly discrete episodes of research and writing.

Nelson wants to put us in the shoes of those who experienced the attack. He weaves together the accounts of various eyewitnesses into a dramatic and visceral narrative. The uneasy feeling comes not from a doubt that it all produces a realistic portrait of the horrors and suffering that soldiers and sailors experienced during the attack, but that for the sake of literary drama and impact some license may have been taken. He tries to tie together the memoirs of specific Japanese pilots to the accounts of sailors on the very same ships the Japanese pilots are attacking at the time; it seems almost too neat a device and arouses suspicion. Some of the author’s descriptions of the horror are over the top, images constructed to elicit a gut response. The reader feels a bit manipulated. The various eyewitness accounts appear to have all been used without any skepticism or discernment, and some of them feel apocryphal or embellished.

For all these caveats, however, the general understanding of events presented here is sound, the “impression” we get feels authentic, and the wealth of details and anecdotes make this interesting reading. There are some photographs in the book, but they feel perfunctory, a compilation of what might be readily found, rather than choices carefully chosen to illustrate or supplement the text.

Steve Twomey’s Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack, is not so much about what happened at Pearl Harbor but rather about how it could happen. That is, of course, the great question that has occupied so much of American history about Pearl Harbor, resulting in numerous inquiries during and after the war and endless speculation ever after. In spite of what conspiracy theorists have to say, there is no simple answer. And perhaps that is the major thing to take from Pearl Harbor, that the unexpected is, well, unexpected and that there is a complex of reasons why a catastrophe of this sort was considered unthinkable and, if thought of, improbable.

Twomey’s presentation of the facts is measured and disciplined, and his understanding and analysis of events is sound. We are lead in a reasoned and logical narrative to a compelling identification of the vital errors, a summation that makes clear the many things that went wrong and resulted in catastrophe. It turns out—much like the mysteries where we discover that it was not the butler who did it, but rather the entire cast of suspects—that there is plenty of blame to go around. Twomey is not afraid to apportion it. He presents a list of problems that all contributed to the fatal cascade: problems in military culture, command, and communication, and deficiencies in civilian leadership and sharing of vital information. And he reminds us that it was not that a Japanese attack was not expected as Japanese and American diplomacy failed. It was just not expected at Pearl Harbor, for a lot of plausible reasons. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was killed
in 1943 when intelligence intercepts allowed
U.S. pilots to find and shoot down his plane.

Pearl Harbor represented a failure of military imagination and an underestimation of the enemy. It was an unprecedented attack by a huge air fleet, thousands of miles from home, made possible by the use of aircraft carriers. It represented in scale and innovation a development that forever changed naval warfare. The nature and power of such an attack was not imagined by the defenders at Oahu, any more than they imagined that the Japanese could solve the problems of refueling for the long sea journey, remain undetected in their approach, or make torpedoes effective weapons in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. Much of this assessment was rooted too in racist attitudes that denigrated Japanese military competency and technical ingenuity. The cultural gulf between the two countries was a critical factor when it came to determining likely behavior and the calculation of risk. That the Japanese would undertake a war with the United States that they knew they could not, in the end, win, was to the Americans, who did not understand the compelling forces in Japanese culture, an irrational decision, one made against reasonable odds, a gamble they did not think the Japanese would take.

The Americans did not understand Japanese strategy. The long odds for the Japanese were that they could seize the territory and natural resources they needed to obtain in Southeast Asia and the East Indies before the United States was able to effectively respondto get back on its feet in the Pacificand then negotiate favorable terms for a cessation of hostilities, from a position of strength. Americans did not understand that the Japanese would not want to have the U.S. Fleet on their flank; severely damaging the fleet at Pearl Harbor would buy them the time they needed to consolidate the simultaneous conquests they planned in the East Indies and Southeast Asia.

Twomey has an interesting analysis of the intelligence picture as well. We have in hindsight, in an age of better intelligence, assumed that the Americans knew more than they did. What they knew was largely incomplete and inconclusive. He also looks at the interaction between Japanese war preparation and diplomacy in these last days (to get the most in-depth understanding of what motivated Japanese decision making and diplomacy during this critical period see Japan 1941by Eri Hotta, previously reviewed for this blog). 

The best feature of Twomey’s remarkably good study of the events leading up to the attack, however, and something that is perhaps unique, is that he gives us character studies of the principal actors involved and then shows us how character affected perspective and action. Perhaps this is what we are to learn and what it would do us well to remember about Pearl Harbor: that we are fallible human beings, unable at times to comprehend each other, creatures with a much vaunted but in fact quite limited ability to manage the complexities of our social and political actions or to accurately anticipate the future, holding in our hands weapons of astounding violence.

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