NEW YORK — U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy has recently reminded us why the U.S. forces decided not to go all the way to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. Addressing the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 14, he pointed out that it was none other than the first President Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who had explained in their joint book, “A World Transformed” (Knopf, 1998): “Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have . . . incurred incalculable human and political costs. . . . We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.”

I was struck by Kennedy’s reference not because I am knowledgeable enough about the complexity of recent historical developments, but because I had just read, belatedly, Naoki Inose’s oddly titled book “Showa 16-nen Natsu no Haisen,” which may be translated “Defeated in War in the Summer of 1941.” It was originally published in 1983.

Inose is the one singular man-of-letters Japan has today. A biographer of literary figures such as Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai, he has intensely examined Japan’s modern history from unexpected angles. He has written, among other things, about the little-noticed consequences of the U.S. naval officer Matthew Perry’s coming to Japan, in 1853, and the exaltation of the Emperor beginning in the Meiji era.

In recent years, Inose has also been a powerful critic of Japan’s inability to reform itself. In that role, he has been part of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s brain trust and served on the commission to examine the effects of “Nihon Doro Kodan.” His demand that the public highway corporation stop its wasteful ways was so strong that his appointment to the commission, it is said, prompted some corporate appointees to decline to sit on the board.

The Inose book that I have read describes the “Soryokusen Kenkyujo,” or the Total War Research Institute. The name of the study group, which came into being in April 1, 1941, was so palpably misleading that, five years later, Chief Justice William Webb, of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, would try to prove that the institute was part of Japan’s conspiracy to conquer the world. Conspiracy was a legal notion long pooh-poohed, but it played a big role in the Tokyo Trial.

In truth, the institute was what would today be called a think tank, and its purpose was to contemplate what might happen if Japan were to be involved in a total war. The idea of creating it came from one of the countries Japan wanted to emulate.

An army officer stationed in London in 1930 learned, accidentally, of the existence of an almost secret institute called the Royal Defence College. With a French officer’s help, he eventually found out that the “college,” which had only about 30 students with a study period of one year, aimed to create a network of people who would facilitate coordination among the military and various branches of the government in peacetime and in war. Its “graduates” were, by design, dispersed in the higher echelons of British society.

The initial class of 36 students at the Total War Research Institute was mostly drawn from various government agencies, but just four from the military (two each from the army and the navy), and the remainder from business and journalism. At the average age of 33, they represented “the best and the brightest” that Japan had to offer.

The focus of the institute’s activity was for each student to take on the role of one of the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers, as well as some of the more important government positions, to diagnose the outcome of the looming war. Their judgment was to be based on objective analysis, rather than on political considerations. The climax was a two-day presentation the mock Cabinet made to the real Cabinet on Aug. 27 and 28. The institute’s conclusion accurately foresaw what was to come. It went, in sum:

“Suppose surprise attacks are carried out in mid-December, and suppose they are successful. In the event, victories in the initial battles may be expected. But there will be no way for Japan to win the war because of its clear material inferiority. The war will be drawn out. The Soviet Union will butt in, and Japan will be defeated. Therefore, going to war with the United States must absolutely be avoided.” In April of that year Japan and Soviet Union had signed a neutrality pact.

Put this way, you may say such a conclusion didn’t require a special research group to be reached. Anyone with a fair grasp of the world at the time could have foreseen the same. Among the more memorable judgments made at the time is that of Lt. Gen. Kanji Ishihara, who openly said of the coming war with the U.S.: “It’s a contest, isn’t it, between Japan, which is going to buy 10,000 yen worth of things when it has only 1,000 yen in its wallet, and the United States, which is going to buy 10,000 yen worth of things when it has 1,000,000 yen in its wallet. You might not notice it while buying this for 100 yen or that for 200 yen, but after a while you quickly find you’re ruined.”

Ishihara, the mastermind of the 1931 Manchurian Incident, had by then been shunted into the army reserve after losing in his rivalry with Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Still, just as the decision not to go to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War was made by the supreme military adjudicators in the U.S., the judgment that Japan must avoid a war with the U.S. at any cost was made by a group of the best and the brightest — to use, again, the term made famous by David Halberstam. More ironically, the one leader who paid the closest attention to the Total War Research Institute, Inose points out, was none other than Tojo, then minister of the army — the very man the Japanese leadership would soon select to be prime minister in order to avert the impending war because of his advocacy for it.

If these examples don’t show the implacability of history, what can?

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