Comparing Pearl Harbor to 9-11 on the three levels of warfare

In three days, America will mark the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now that 70 years have passed, it may be time to do an analysis of this attack and to do a tentative assessment of a similar attack that took place 60 years later.


At the five American War Colleges, students spend 10 months studying strategy, policy making, long-range planning, diplomacy, negotiation, international relations and the art of war. What is heavily emphasized is the need for senior professionals in the field of national security to think and act strategically, and to have and maintain a long-term focus. There is a sophisticated attempt to draw lessons from the past, and learn from our successes and mistakes and those of our enemies.

There are three levels of warfare: the tactical, operational and strategic. The most successful military campaigns focus on the strategic level and build tactical and operational plans within the framework of a strategic plan. If the strategic plan is flawed, operational and tactical success may not carry the day.

At this time on our history, it may be timely to do a side-by-side comparison of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago with the attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

At the tactical perspective, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a huge success. Surprise was achieved, many American capital ships were sunk or badly damaged and 188 American combat airplanes were destroyed. Japan lost no large ships and only 29 combat aircraft. The enemy flotilla sailed back to the Japanese home islands in triumph.


HOWEVER, AT THE operational level, the attack on Hawaii was less successful. One type of American ship was not attacked: the aircraft carrier. The Japanese should have known that aircraft carriers would play a huge role in future combat operations, yet the American aircraft carriers were not targeted.

The Japanese also failed to hit oil and gasoline storage, and the American ship repair facilities.

At the strategic level, the Japanese made a huge mistake. That fateful attack on a Sunday morning created a surge of outrage throughout America. The result was something to behold. In three-and-a-half years America and its allies won the war and later won the peace by helping to establish working democracies in Germany, Japan and Italy.

The terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, also had great success at the tactical level. Surprise was complete, damage in New York and at the Pentagon was extensive and the costs in lives and treasure to al-Qaida were very low.

However, success at the operational level was more modest. The fourth airliner never reached its target and the wrong side of the Pentagon was struck.

Although at the 10-year mark it is not possible to make firm conclusions about the success or failure of 9-11, some tentative points can be made.


AT THE STRATEGIC level, the attacks may one day be judged a failure. Shortly after the attacks, the nations of the world came together in a cooperative way to fight terrorism. Intelligence information is now shared with longtime friends such as the NATO nations, but also with Russia and China, who feel threatened by terrorist elements within their own countries.

In addition, most of the top al-Qaida leaders are dead or in captivity, and the al-Qaida infrastructure has been largely destroyed. There also are signs that many Muslims throughout the world have become disgusted with the bloody tactics of the terrorists.

For those interested in examining the lessons learned from these dramatic events, here are a few recommended books. Especially recommended is Counterstrike.

Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, by Gordon W. Prange

Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, by Roberta Wohlstetter

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, by Ali H. Soufan

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker


(The writer, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, is the president of the board of trustees of the Augusta Museum of History and secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Smith was 6 years old when he observed the Japanese attack. Living in Honolulu, he and his sister were on the way to the Sunday school at Fort Derussy, near Hickam Field, in the back of an Army truck when the attack commenced.)



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