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The final portion of my e-interview with John Burton is pasted below… Many thanks to John for his time as well as writing a fine book.
Any lessons learned from Fortnight of Infamy that are applicable for today’s policymakers?
World War II is especially interesting from the standpoint that it was a global conflict which really consisted of two distinctly separate, differently-motivated wars that occurred at the same time. In the broadest terms, Germany’s war in Europe and the Mediterranean was ignited by a combination of fascist ideology and Nazi rallying of a desire for retribution on the part of a country impoverished by a crushing debt-load of war reparations imposed as a “settlement” for the First World War. Japan’s war in East Asia and the Pacific was primarily instigated by the ambitions of a rapidly-growing, overpopulated nation to gain economic advantage and natural resources as expeditiously as possible.
Today, one can recognize a deja vu of new threats that are motivated by hostile or potentially hostile forces that are similarly driven, either by ideology or the eventual need to compete for natural resources. Despite significant advantages it holds in military technology, the United States once again faces the challenge of international over-commitment under conditions where American economic and political capability to influence future events in hot-spots of unrest around the globe has become limited.
If our experience in the Pacific during 1941 should teach us anything, that lesson would be to not underestimate the capabilities or intentions of our likely opponents – and not to so arrogantly and boldly overestimate our own ability to respond to challenges that arise.
Interestingly, one of the reasons the War Department was inclined to be unjustifiably bullish in its self-assessment of American battlefield capabilities during 1941 was the existence of a “weapons system” known as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. As the U.S. painfully discovered during the first fortnight of war, and the year that followed, that sophisticated bomber and its sibling, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, were not especially useful in countering the kind of offensive that Japan had launched in the Pacific – even though the four-engine bomber had been touted since the mid-1930s as a key and necessary component of America’s coastal defense. Its initial failure came as a surprise to many analysts and air officers. In fact, it was not until mid-1944 that the concept of strategic bombing really started to be even marginally effective above Europe. Over Japan, as General Curtis LeMay controversially demonstrated during 1945, the wide-area firebombing of population centers was more effective than any strategic bombing of Japanese factories. Perhaps, in this, there is also a lesson for modern managers of warfare: overdependence on any single type of complex weapons system can be very risky – especially if its effectiveness is largely a matter of theory and conjecture.
Of course, we should always remember that there is ample precedent that may be drawn from the annals of armed conflict to conclusively demonstrate that wars are still primarily won by those determined and courageous men on the ground who engage in combat with light weapons.