During the Second World War, America responded to a unique crisis with a unique and equally ingenious solution. In 1944, Japanese forces began launching swarms of bomb-carrying balloons that would fly to altitude and ride the powerful Pacific jet stream winds to North America. Once over Canada and the USA, the balloons dropped their explosives. The bombs rained down at random across North America, reaching as far as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
While this may sound low tech and ineffective, the proof of the severity of the threat is that several civilians, including children, were killed by one such bomb that came down on US soil. Hundreds of balloons were being launched and the threat had to be stopped.
US fighter pilots in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska were tasked with finding the balloons, yet this proved extraordinarily difficult. Shooting them down, even if a pilot could spot them in the first place, proved equally challenging due to their small size. Flying countless hours of fighter patrols was only a partial answer — and a high cost one — to combat a very low-cost threat. If the balloon-bombing campaign started to achieve results, even if it was just killing civilians who were unlucky enough to be hit, it was clear the Japanese would expand the campaign ten-fold.
The US Military had to find another way.
Matching the sinister simplicity of the plot with an equally simple strategy, the US military called on American patriotism. It encouraged a media blackout on reports of Japanese balloon bombs, appealing to the patriotism of journalists and editors to avoid mention of what was rapidly spiraling into a serious crisis. If the stories were impossible to ignore — such as if there were casualties in a small town — then the media was asked to play it down. When civilians encountered the balloons, soldiers were sent to explain what was going on and urge them to remain silent.
For the Japanese, with little intelligence reporting from within the USA and Canada, there was concern that their campaign was failing. Japanese intelligence agents scanned the newspapers diligently looking for reports of the success of their balloon bombing campaign. Finding none, the Japanese first lied to their population about the campaign’s success. However, building hundreds of balloon bombs, even if each one cost little, added up in time and resources when thousands were contemplated in the plan. Finally, with months passing and no word of success, the Japanese concluded that their balloon bombing campaign was a failure. They closed the program in a public relations fiasco.
The lessons of Fu-Go (the name of the balloons) remain relevant today.
First, Europe and North America are facing a similar scale of violence with small attacks that produce relatively small numbers of casualties. Second, the obvious military solution of patrolling everywhere is far too costly. Other, lower cost and more creative solutions are required if we are to prevail.
The benefits of a “Fu-Go approach” to media reporting during wartime are clear. As frustrating as it can be to deal with a public not fully conscious of the threat, the potential political turmoil that terrorism can produce must be considered. A media black out on terrorist events could actually work since the goal of terrorism is to produce terror. In today’s hyper-speed media environment, terrorism has its perfect carrier wave. Perhaps a black out could have potential merit.
However, the public asks the media to speak truth — and loudly. The definition of the media too has broadened — it is no longer the radio and the newspapers and TV, but thousands of bloggers, plus Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook posts. In a sense, everyone with a smart phone today is a journalist. We ask the media to speak not just to truth, but to power as well, and when they fail, we step up and do it ourselves.
We can ask the media — and the bloggers — to act in the country’s best interests — but it wouldn’t likely work. We think that the more we scream, the more noise we make, the more power we have. We are wrong.
Sometimes, silence is power.
America today is not the America of the Second World War. Patriotism exists, but it has shifted. Anti-Americanism has been rebranded as somehow patriotic. Some may burn the flag as an expression of free speech and protest, but others do so in anger and hate.
The Fu-Go approach depends on an America that is thoughtful and less knee-jerk in its political animosities. Today, we find those who call for the downfall of the “American Empire” on college campuses. We find those who would spit on the flag and throw stones at our soldiers when they march on the Fourth of July. There are those who refuse to honor our police. There are others who would sabotage our country’s security because, in their mind, such acts are “protected free speech”.
Thus, for all its potential, a Fu-Go approach would likely backfire today.
For every journalist and blogger who would remain silent, there would be others who would pretend the threat is even greater than it actually is. Yet more would call out a request to remain silent as the sign of a government conspiracy. Still others would hope that their over-dramatized stories of terrorist violence would make them famous. There are those who encourage each other in dubious misreporting — the ends, it seems, justify the means — hoping to subvert the message in the name of “dissent” or “resistance”.
We can ask ourselves what we might think about this era when we look in the mirror a few decades from now. How will we see ourselves when the threat of terrorism has been overcome? Will future generations wonder at our collective stupidity that, even in the face of extreme violence, we were unable to join and stand together against the threat?
Looking back at Fu-Go it would be outrageous to now claim that Americans had little to fear from our Axis enemies. The Japanese were an expert, hyper-militarized society bent on global power. The Nazis were evil personified. Likewise, even if the USSR was the very definition of Reagan’s “Evil Empire”, some today claim that the threat from the Soviet Union in the Cold War was overblown or even manufactured by our government to justify defense spending. This type of revisionism is pathetic.
Perhaps we’re reaching a point where we’re done pretending. Isn’t it time that we ask ourselves what we are doing to uphold our end of the bargain as citizens, supporting the very nation that secures our right to free speech in the first place?
Indeed, America has changed — and perhaps not all for the better. Our patriotism demands we ask restraint in the hyper-speed reporting of terrorists acts. To do otherwise plays into the hands of the terrorists, who hope for massive media coverage for every tiny act they undertake. Yet we give the terrorists exactly what they most need.
American culture rejects patriotism instead of embracing it. We live in an era when it is more dangerous to fly a flag than to burn one.