The 9/11 Attacks Were No Pearl Harbor

The differences teach us valuable lessons.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Comparing the jihadist attacks on September 11, 2001 to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor has become a staple of commentary on the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Google this topic and nearly half a million links will pop up; google “lesson plans” and you’ll get nearly five million hits. In the catalogue of historical analogies, the comparison of 9/11 to 12/7 is perhaps the most popular outside the historians’ guild.

Historical analogies have been a feature of history since its beginnings in ancient Athens. Thucydides explained that he wrote his brilliant and still instructive History of the Peloponnesian War to provide a guide for the future, which made his history a “possession for all time.” Later, in his description of the horrors that took place in Corcyra during a civil war, he elaborates on what makes historical analogies instructive:

The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same, though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.

Since human nature is constant, comparisons of historical events can be enlightening, showing us what we can expect from human conflict.

Most historical analogies, then, are false at some level, especially if “the variety of the particular cases” is ignored or simplified. But some can still be useful for putting an event in the context of what humans have done over time in similar circumstances, especially the actions and choices that have either led to disaster or avoided it. In the case of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the contrasts between the two events and the responses to each are more instructive than the superficial similarities, for the differences reveal how much this country had changed for the worse in just 60 years.

For example, one common feature in the comparison is that each was a “sneak” attack, an unprovoked assault on a peaceful country not formally at war with the Axis powers or any Muslim nation. This similarity is not useful for many reasons. The Japanese conducted a militarily brilliant attack on its rival’s military assets, whereas 9/11 was a terrorist attack on civilians. Nor is it instructive to call each a “sneak” attack, when preemptive strikes have been an important strategy of human conflict since the Paleolithic. The Athenian orator Demosthenes scolded the Athenians for not preemptively attacking Philip II of Macedon despite his aggression, using a metaphor from boxing. The Athenians’ response to Philip was like that of a “barbarian” boxer who “when struck, always clutches the place hit; hit him on the other side, and there go his hands.” Don’t wait for the blow, anticipate it and throw the first punch.

The other suggestion of “sneak” is that the attack came treacherously out of the blue without warning or provocation. But tensions between Japan and the U.S. had been mounting for years over Japan’s aggression in the western Pacific as it expanded its sphere of influence. After Japan’s invasion of French Indochina in 1940, the U.S. stopped exporting war matériel to Japan, and moved the Pacific Fleet to Hawaii. A few months before the attack, we stopped the export of oil to Japan. We should have recognized that to the Japanese, these were all casus belli.

Given our awareness of Japan’s aggressive intent visible throughout the region in the decade following the invasion of Manchuria, the attack on Pearl Harbor should not have been a “surprise,” especially since in 1904 during its war with Russia, Japan had preemptively destroyed the Russian fleet as it was harbored in Port Arthur on the coast of China. Like the Athenians, we waited for the blow rather than anticipating it.

So too with the attacks on 9/11. Since its creation in 1988, al Qaeda had declared war on the U.S. and announced its desire to attack us. In 1993 it bombed the underground garage in the World Trade Center. Though the trial of the attackers revealed extensive evidence of their traditional jihadist doctrine and murderous intent against us, Clinton and his national security team were reticent to engage forcefully their cells in the Middle East or their state sponsors. Throughout the 90s opportunities to take out bin Laden and degrade his training camps were lost because of political concerns, Clinton’s endorsement of a foreign policy averse to force, and a fear of blowback from Middle Eastern nations.

No surprise that more attacks followed from this policy of favoring “soft power” and fear of political consequences: 26 attacks between 1991 and 1996. The most spectacular were the 1995 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing U.S. Air Force personnel, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer Cole while docked at a fueling buoy in Aden, Yemen. Yet despite over a decade of jihadist terrorism starting with Iranian proxies in 1983 murdering 241 American soldiers in Beirut, and kidnapping and killing numerous American security personnel, we had done nothing other than put on noisy cruise-missile displays and issue empty threats.

Just as it took the attack on Pearl Harbor and 2400 dead to convince us of Japan’s intentions that its actions had made obvious for years, so too it took the gruesome attack on our civilian and military structures, and the nearly 3000 dead in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, to convince us that al Qaeda really meant it when they publicly communicated their hatred of us and our global infidel power.

To be sure, the swift reprisal against Afghanistan and the Taliban for hosting bin Laden seemed for a while to show that America was back and would bring devastation to those who challenged us and murdered our citizens. And even the war against Hussein seemingly underlined this recovery of nerve. For a few months the Middle East and the world, for all their diplomatic bluster, took us seriously as a foe that one should not provoke. They still didn’t like us, but they respected our overwhelming military power.

But the similarities with Pearl Harbor end there. The patriotism and unity of the years following Pearl Harbor­­––when for three-and-a-half years Americans enlisted to fight, and civilians made sacrifices for a noble cause few dared to challenge––lasted for maybe a year after 9/11 before the flags were put away and it was business as usual.

Nor was the political unity after Pearl Harbor evident in the years after 9/11. As they had done during Vietnam, the Democrats began to second-guess and criticize the war effort in Iraq for partisan advantage. Looking ahead to the 2004 presidential election, those who claimed George W. Bush had “stolen” the 2000 election politicized the setbacks and mistakes typical of every war ever fought, allied themselves with the left-wing antiwar movement, and joined their attacks on our intelligence-gathering efforts. As Americans fought, bled, and died abroad, the major candidates for the nomination––including Senators like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards, all of whom had voted to authorize the war––endorsed the canard that Bush had fabricated the intelligence reports that pointed to Saddam Hussein’s intentions to revive his WMD programs. To our enemies, the perception was that half the country didn’t have the stomach for the fight.

Another difference lies in the nature of our military response. The U.S. occupied and rebuilt Japan after its war-making machine had been brutally destroyed and its cities incinerated with incendiary and nuclear bombs. A Japanese walking through Tokyo in August 1945 could see the graphic repudiation of his country’s aggression and the ideas and beliefs that sparked it. Our fathers and grandfathers knew that the enemy had to be not just destroyed, but his culture humiliated out of its exalted self-image as a superior race uniquely qualified to rule over inferior others.

In contrast, Bush and his foreign policy advisors believed that we could repeat that transformation of the racist, militarist, fanatic Japan into a good global citizen by bringing Iraqis and Afghanis democracy and prosperity, even while the enemy––supported and armed by Iran and Pakistan, and acting on beliefs that for a thousand years had dominated much of Christendom––continued to fight, passionately inspired and fervently certain of its divine sanction to slaughter infidels.

Such Wilsonian idealism was enabled by the failure to understand the religious motivations of the Muslim jihadists, and the precepts of Islam that commanded the faithful to fight the unbeliever “until the whole world says there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.” The Bush team’s failure of imagination kept them from seeing that the jihadists had spiritual, not material motives, motives very different from our ideals that prized earthly political freedom, individual human rights, and material prosperity. Thus, we pulled our punches in the fight, thinking that restraint, generosity, winning “hearts and minds,” and concerns to minimize collateral damage would impress the enemy of our goodness. What followed were ROEs that seemingly privileged the lives of the enemy over the lives of our own warriors, and so convinced the enemy of our suicidal lack of nerve and confidence in what we were fighting for.

Take the battle of Fallujah. Instead of flattening the jihadist-infested city the way our fathers bombed Japan, the battle to retake the city cost us 95 dead and 560 wounded in horrific house-to-house fighting. What strategic aim did that accomplish? What message did it sent to the enemy, when we wasted our fellow citizens’ lives to show how respectful of the enemies lives we are? We forgot the ancient wisdom that, as Aeschylus said, “The doer suffers.” The civilian lives incidentally lost in any war are the cost of aggression to be paid by the aggressor.

Finally, we the people after 9/11 are very different from the those who destroyed Japan. Their brutality and sacrifice created the world that has made us rich and comfortable, well-fed and entertained, and intolerant of the tragic necessities and “awful arithmetic,” as Lincoln called the slaughter of the Civil War, that are the permanent consequences of a permanently flawed human nature. We want peace and order created on the cheap, with a minimum of sacrifice on our part. So we farm out the nasty, lethal, tragic work of killing our enemies to a professional military whom we sentimentally revere, then promptly put out of our minds, as the mistreatment of our veterans by the Office of Veteran Affairs shows.

That may be the biggest and most significant difference with Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of thousands of men enlisted after the Japanese attack in 1941, and millions more were subsequently drafted. That army comprised citizen soldiers, a force forged from the remarkable geographic, racial, class, economic, and religious diversity of America. It was the greatest force for American cohesion in history, bonding not just those who fought, but their families who share the grief of loss and the pride of service.  

In 2002, enlistments were only 32 thousand more than in 2001. Nor was the draft reinstated. On the one hand, our volunteer military is the greatest fighting force since the Roman legions. But the experience of soldiering is not nearly as widespread and integrated into the country’s collective consciousness as were earlier citizen soldiers. The experiences of our warriors, and their families’ grief and loss are alien to most of us. They are easier to forget after we indulge our sentimental rituals and rote “Thank you for your service” greetings. They are more like policemen or firemen, specialists whom we expect to do their duty, but with whom we cannot truly empathize. That’s why the armed services advertise themselves as providing job opportunities and self-improvement, rather than highlighting honor and duty, or the courage and sacrifices of heroes and medal winners.

The differences between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 teach us valuable lessons: about the permanence of a destructive human nature, the delusions of moralizing internationalism, the necessity for swift, decisive action before aggression turns lethal, the arrogance of dismissing profound religious and cultural beliefs, the blindness of thinking the West is the obvious standard of human existence, and the tendency of freedom and prosperity to create an intolerance for the tragic realities that define our lives, and the tragic choices that have to be made to protect ourselves.

Maybe that’s why we’re still fighting the jihadists and the wars that began 17 years ago, while Pearl Harbor has led to Japan’s becoming a peaceful and wealthy nation, and a valuable ally.