Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

More than 2,500 years ago, Greek historian Thucydides summed up the origin of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) in a single sentence: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

I contemplated that last word — inevitable — during a recent visit to the Arizona battleship memorial at Pearl Harbor.

The deadly Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, was the culmination of decades of rising resentment against the United States. Japan’s first encounter with the U.S. came in the mid-1850s, when Adm. Matthew Perry boldly sailed into Tokyo Bay. At the time, the U.S. was a brash, wet-behind-the-ears global upstart; Japan was an ancient and self-isolated country. Subsequent encounters during the next 80 years fed Japan’s conviction that the U.S. was intent on curbing the island nation’s ambitions to lay claim to more territory and natural resources.

The decision in 1940 to move the U.S. Pacific fleet to Hawaii was interpreted as a direct challenge. The final straw was the U.S. decision in mid-summer 1941 to cut off Japan’s oil supplies and freeze the country’s assets in response to its occupation of Indochina during its brutal campaign in China. The precisely planned assault on Pearl Harbor occurred five months later.

My pilgrimage to the Pearl Harbor memorial came at the end of an intensive two-week visit to Russia’s Far East, a complex region where Russia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby Alaska all intersect.

As I peered at the watery grave of the 1,102 U.S. sailors and Marines killed when the Arizona went down, I imagined the unflinching Japanese warrior mindset of the 1930s and Japan’s fatal overestimation of its international destiny. I also pondered the seemingly similar perceptions of long-term destiny resurfacing among one or more of the players in today’s restive Pacific region. Finally, retrospectively, I’m now also wondering what was going through the mind of the young 19-year-old Ensign George H.W. Bush when his mother ship, the light carrier USS San Jacinto, arrived for the first time at Pearl in May 1944 and berthed near the wreck of the Arizona and several other lost battleships.

Economic and political factors similar to those that fueled regional conflicts in the 1930s appear increasingly evident today. China’s ambitions for growth and global influence are currently limited by the country’s inadequate natural resources. Its strategies so far include an aggressive campaign to claim islands in the South China Sea and spearhead the far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, just across the border, in Russia’s lightly guarded, demographically challenged Siberian and Far Eastern hinterlands, vast forests and mineral fields beckon — a vulnerability of which Vladimir Putin is keenly aware.

Currently these two traditionally distrustful Asian giants are pursuing a pragmatic, mutually supporting policy regarding one another. Add to the mix the latent fears perennially entertained by Japan and the Koreas about their neighbors and you have a highly combustible blend that could, literally, set the world aflame. To boot, advances in cyber, artificial intelligence, and weaponry make it easier for conventionally out-gunned nations to conduct surprise asymmetrical warfare with a high degree of initial shock as Japan did in 1941.

On the long flight back to the mainland, I had plenty of time to think about Thucydides and his observation about the inevitability of war, eloquently elucidated by Harvard University Professor Graham Alison in his prescient “The Thucydides Trap” (2017).

Surely there is a way to free the world from the fatal temptation to believe — as Sparta and Japan each did — that the best defense — in fact, the only defense — is a good offense?

I think so.

But it will require an unprecedented level of frank communication and cooperation among countries, as well as a willingness to stand firm with like-minded partners when opportunistic nations use extralegal means to claim territory or intimidate neighbors. 

As a liberal and democratic nation, the United States remains vulnerable to surprise attacks; we must always be on guard. That said, we must also be sensitive to the potential for our words and actions to make a possible adversary believe conflict is “inevitable.”

What will be required is direct, quiet and patient dialog coupled with unambiguous actions that will promote mutual understanding and thereby more trust, and help humanity fend off future Pearl Harbors.