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Making the Unreal Real


Pearl Harbor

At Pearl Harbor, students examine crisis through the December 1941 attack

by Tony Moore

If someone wanted to study how people and organizations react in the midst of a crisis, a few recent events come to mind as good case studies. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are probably first on the list, followed by events such as the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack on a U.S. government diplomatic installation and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

But like every other event, each of these crisis moments had a precedent, the most notable being the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which plummeted the U.S. into World War II. Recently, a group of six Dickinson students in Visiting Professor of International Security Studies Jeffrey McCausland’s Leadership in Four Directions class traveled to Oahu, Hawaii, where they examined key concepts of crisis analysis and leadership during one of the most significant crises in history.

Living in that moment

“Having taken [McCausland’s] leadership course and then experiencing this case study, it really allowed me to apply the skills that we had just learned and enhanced the case studies we researched,” says Olivia Neubert ’17 (international studies), McCausland’s research assistant. “Physically walking through Pearl Harbor felt like we were really there that day, and it allowed us to better understand leadership failures and to better be able to situate ourselves in the position that so many people were in that day.”

Dickinson students spent their five days in Oahu with students from Chaminade University, a liberal-arts school whose students are chiefly from Hawaii. Together, they focused on leadership issues and how those issues affected, and evolved in the face of, the Pearl Harbor attack, which marked its 75th anniversary in December. Heading off each day to local sites—such as the USS Arizona and the “Punchbowl,” a huge cemetery for those who died fighting in the Pacific—students discussed the history of each location and undertook group activities. The days closed out with capstone discussions on the overarching themes and what students learned about them.

Interactions with the Chaminade students also led to discussions of diversity, cultural heritage and the varying lenses through which students see events such as the Pearl Harbor attack and 9/11, culminating in a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center.

“Visiting the cultural center with the Chaminade students was a great way for us to initiate and discuss how our differing upbringings impacted our perspectives on Pearl Harbor,” says Neubert. “They all have a unique way of looking at problems and a unique way of describing how their culture would react to things—how their culture valued life and valued peace.”


Under pressure

One theme that McCausland emphasized to students is that crisis is something that changes the very face of an organization, while revealing its weaknesses and strengths in ways that you’d never see taking a tour the day before a crisis struck.

“If you examined an organization when it's under the pressure of a crisis, how well or how poorly it's run sticks out in very bold relief—you're under pressure to do something, to change, because your very survival, either financially or literally, is now called into question,” says McCausland, a retired Army colonel and expert in leadership issues and initiatives. “I used to say to the students, ‘If you got every admiral in the Navy together on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at 6:30, and you said, "What is the centerpiece of what we are about as an organization?" If you say "Navy," what picture comes to your mind? Battleships would come up—That's the centerpiece of who we are.’ Well, that was true until about 6:55 in the morning.”

Communication breakdown

As students discovered, the Navy’s reliance on battleships was just one of many illustrations of strategic shortfalls that December day: Exploring a radar site that was supposed to detect planes coming in and out of Oahu, students learned about the miscommunication regarding the identity of the approaching Japanese planes. Because of fear of saboteurs on the island, planes at Schofield Barracks were grouped tightly together so they could be guarded by fewer soldiers, but when the Japanese planes came rushing in, those planes were grouped for convenient mass destruction, something no one anticipated.

“What I see as the general theme is people having different pieces to the puzzle and either a) not realizing that their piece was significant or b) not realizing that their piece was significant in relation to other pieces,” Neubert says, noting that this pattern appears in each crisis the class studied, such as the Challenger explosion and the Apollo 13 mission. “So generally what we see in the course is a lack of ability to clarify what everybody's role is and how everybody connects individually and within their own individual groups to the greater organization.”

Being there

Making those connections themselves, students tapped into site experts and McCausland’s extensive knowledge base while accompanied by retired Colonel Olav Holst, digging into the event through the people who lived it and the organizations for whom they worked.

“What we tried to do is use those individuals’ stories to tell the broader lessons, because that makes it real; otherwise it's this fairy tale—that once upon a time, all these terrible things happened,” McCausland says, noting that both the enormity and the 75 intervening years make it tough for many people to relate to the attack beyond the abstract. “It seems unreal, but I think if you can relate it by talking about individuals whom I can see photographs of, and they don't look terribly different from me, that makes it more real.”

For Neubert, the realness of the experience brought history alive beyond the logistics of the event—the when, where, and how of it all—in a way that textbooks rarely could.

“As far as organizational development goes, Pearl Harbor was a key turning point for the U.S. military as a complex in the ways that each part of the military communicated with each other,” she says, noting that beyond the USS Arizona and the Punchbowl, the group visited the USS Bowfin, a 1941 submarine that now serves as a museum. “But physically being in a place where there was such significance in U.S. history is a really emotional and meaningful thing, and it was a unique and special experience to physically see that space, rather than just sitting in a classroom and learning about the attack.”

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Published March 24, 2017