A Failure of Vision

USS Arizona Crop
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article was originally published on December 7, 2016.

The battered and scorched Nevada lay aground to one side. Ahead, the Arizona still burned wildly. All day, workmen had swarmed the exposed keel of the turned-turtle Oklahoma, trying to cut holes. Hundreds of sailors, living and dead, remained encased in her, the living tapping for help, running out of air. The harbor reeked of smoke and fuel, and defeat.

from Steve Twomey’s Countdown to Pearl Harbor

Seventy-six years later, the moment-by-moment, witness-by-witness accounts of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor have lost none of their power, and the images of the vaunted Pacific Fleet in ruins still summon horror on the scale of Greek tragedy. Some 2,400 were killed that morning; today, about the same number of Pearl Harbor veterans are still alive, and many of them, along with their families, will be present at this year’s commemoration events in Hawaii, to honor and be honored.

In A Matter of Honor, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan say that the story of Pearl Harbor is not only one of large-scale hubris and small-scale heroism but “Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice.” As blame foretold, that story began in the first minutes of the Japanese attack with Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, watching the devastation in anguish:

So close are the enemy planes that the watchers at headquarters can from time to time see an “exultant look on the faces of the Japanese pilots as they dive past our window. We worry about the Admiral exposing himself.” They worry with good reason. Marine Colonel Omar Pfeiffer will recall the “slight ping as a spent and tumbling 50-caliber bullet breaks through the window glass and strikes Admiral Kimmel on the left breast, in the area where the service ribbons are usually worn.” But for a bruise on his chest — the Admiral has been protected by the eyeglass case in his uniform jacket pocket — Kimmel is unhurt. Glancing down at the bullet on the floor, according to communications officer Maurice Curts, Kimmel says quietly, “Too bad it didn’t kill me.”

Even the eyeglass case seems prescient, for once the immediate shock of the attack was over Pearl Harbor became itself encased in issues of foresight and hindsight — who knew or should have known this, who did or should have done that, who deserves what portion of blame. Kimmel and his immediate subordinate became the primary targets, both of them demoted and humiliated for “dereliction of duty.” In A Matter of Honor, Summers and Swan ask if Kimmel was “a failed commander or a man cynically maligned;” their exhaustive analysis of the facts and testimonies presented in nine separate investigations, and of some newly available documents, demonstrates how Pearl Harbor was the result of systematic unpreparedness and of human error and misjudgment up and down the chain of command. While this convincing exoneration of Kimmel is no doubt encouraging to his family, his grandsons carry on the fight for the official restoration of his naval rank and good name.

Pearl Harbor is not one of the six battles featured in Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, but military historian Alistair Horne does discuss its precedent, the 1904 Battle of Port Arthur. This surprise attack on the Russian fleet by the Japanese was so similar to Pearl Harbor, and a lesson so ignored by U.S. military command, that an incredulous Commander Fuchida, leader of the Pearl Harbor attack, afterward wondered, “Have these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?” This is the same sort of question being asked again today by those who are warning that a “cyber Pearl Harbor” is all too possible:

Our cyber warriors and, to the extent that they think of cyber war, our national security leaders in general, may take comfort in the fact that we could perhaps see a cyber attack coming. They may think that we could block some of it, and they may believe we could respond in kind, and then some. The reality is that a major cyber attack from another nation is likely to originate in the U.S., so we will not be able to see it coming and block it with the systems we have now or those that are planned . . . The reality may also be that when the U.S. President wants to retaliate further, he will be the one who will have to escalate. (Richard A. Clarke and Robert Knake in Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It)

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