The second of September marks the sixtieth anniversary of Japan's formal surrender ending World War II. That war offers many important and relevant insights that are applicable today to America's global war on terror and the greater Middle East. Consider four.
First, wars beget wars. No war starts or ends in isolation. World War II had its roots not only in World War I. The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 put in place a structure in Europe predicated on a balance of power among the main states. When that balance ended in 1914, the result was the catastrophe of World War I. From World War I came the seeds of World War II. From World War II came the Cold War. And today, much of the conflict and violence in the greater Middle East springs from roots that are decades and even centuries old.
Second, culture and ideology play a large, often dominant and usually hidden role in decisions over war and peace. Japan's high command saw no peaceful alternative to gaining access to the raw materials it desperately needed to fuel its economy and war machine. In attacking Pearl Harbor, the aim was to destroy America's Pacific Fleet, thereby eliminating the only possible deterrent to Japanese expansion of its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The conclusion was that given America's isolationism and seeming unwillingness to engage abroad, a quick truce could be negotiated and the United States would not interfere with Japan's move across Asia.
Third, while wars generally have winners and losers, so too peace can have winners and losers. After World War I, the carnage and casualties applied throughout the defeated and victorious powers. There were really no winners. After World War II, the defeated powers became winners, rebuilt and democratized through the Marshall Plan, named for the great American general who was secretary of state in 1947 and 1948.
Finally, suicidal behavior is neither irreversible nor inevitable by societies and polities that practice it. By 1945, the allies knew the war would be won. The only question was the cost in the Pacific. Japan's army chose suicide to surrender. Kamikazes had bloodied the U.S. Fleet at Okinawa and scores of Japanese soldiers had jumped off the cliffs of Saipan to avoid surrender. Operation Olympic, the plan for invading Japan, predicted a million U.S. casualties and tens of millions of Japanese killed and wounded. Japan was cut off and blockaded at sea. Its cities were being reduced to rubble by round-the-clock firebombing. Yet it continued to fight on.
On August 6th, the first atomic bomb eviscerated Hiroshima. Three days later Nagasaki was hit. The next week Japan sued for peace. The reason was the "shock and awe" of those attacks. The incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese in a night of bombing by hundreds of B-29's was comprehensible. But one airplane, one bomb, and one city gone was not. Hence, a society bent on suicidal behavior in its own defense was profoundly and almost instantaneously dispossessed of that course of action.
Today, parallels in the greater Middle East with these points are clear. The roots of conflict extend far beyond the war on terror. Autocratic rule, disenfranchisement from the political and economic processes, the ArabIsraeli-Palestinian conflict, poverty and the impact of ideological and theological pressures from Islam are causes and symptoms that must be addressed if lasting peace and stability are to be brought to the region and violence contained and ended.
Culture and ideology are central ingredients that often confuse perception with reality. That the United States now sees a direct link between September 11 and the war in Iraq is an example of how these distortions affect policy. The original reasons for the attack into Iraq were to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, not to win the war on terror.
Sadly there is no Marshall Plan. Hence, the greater Middle East could devolve into a condition of losers far exceeding winners. And regarding the use of suicide by Jihadist bombers, while no one is contemplating nuclear weapons, as America assumed suicidal resistance by Japan would continue, perhaps there are means to deal with Jihadists as well.
We all know that a reading of history will not guarantee against repeating past mistakes. But the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific does present some useful reminders.
Harlan Ullman is a columnist for the Washington Times. A frequent television commentator, his latest book is Owls and Eagles-Ending the Flights of Fancy of Hawks, Doves and Neo-Cons. His last book, Finishing Business: Ten Steps to Defeat Global Terror, was published in October by the Naval Institute Press.