December 29, 2014
Perfect on paper
Kate points out that part of the problem with "mainframe plots" (an amorphous, omniscient "big bad" as the main antagonist) is the "nothing ever glitches syndrome." The bad guy is so pure and untainted in his badness that his Machiavellian schemes unfold without a hitch.
This isn't just a problem faced by screenwriters. It's a problem that people living in the real world have difficulty coming to grips with.
One of the themes explored in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully) was the Imperial Navy's obsession with labyrinthian war plans, exacerbated by "victory disease," an unshakable belief in their predestined triumph through sheer will.
Byzantine intricacy was a trademark of prewar Japanese naval strategy. Fleet exercises often featured exquisitely coordinated maneuvers on the part of the Imperial Navy being met with conveniently inept countermoves by the oafish Americans, who never failed to go obediently to their choreographed slaughter.
In the chapter discussing Admiral Yamamoto's final operational plan for Midway, Parshall and Tully cheekily advise the reader to "pour a rather tall glass of spirits beforehand." I kept imagining Baldrick from Blackadder intoning, "I have a cunning plan."
The simultaneous attack on the Aleutian Islands, for example, has ever since been depicted as a "diversion" because that's the only thing that makes any freaking sense in retrospect. But it really was a full-fledged operation intended to secure a military base on U.S. territory in the North Pacific.
Horse trading to get his Central Pacific strategy approved, Yamamoto agreed (it wasn't his idea) to place two of his carriers well out of reach when, in fact, "the [Aleutian] archipelago was useless for staging any offensive action larger than an occasional narwhal hunt."
Ironically, Yamamoto's chief ally in pushing through his Central Pacific strategy was--the United States. Namely, the Doolittle Raid. It's fun to imagine Jimmy Doolittle doing it for that purpose, but no conspiracy ever works as well as happenstance. Yamamoto deserves every last bit of credit.
Especially after factoring in details of the pre-war political machinations provided by Eri Hotta in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, Admiral Yamamoto ends up looking more and more like the George McClellan of the Pacific War: the gift that kept on giving--to the other side.
Although [Civil War General] McClellan was meticulous in his planning and preparations, these characteristics may have hampered his ability to challenge aggressive opponents in a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of enemy units and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points.
While Yamamoto chronically underestimated the strength of the opposing forces, the results were the same: Midway being a classic case of the inability, when it counted, to apply principles of mass. Yamamoto ended up giving Nimitz the fairest fight he could have possibly hoped for.
During war games leading up to the Battle of Midway, whenever junior officers suggested that the Americans could show up on Admiral Nagumo's flank and start attacking everything in sight ("Hulk smash!"), Yamamoto insisted that such a possibility was inconceivable.
Of course, the U.S. Navy did exactly that. And while it was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Japanese carriers, a beleaguered Nagumo was desperately trying stick to Yamamoto's "cunning plan," when it should have been "summarily consigned to the ash can."
WWII popularized the acronym that perfectly describes what happened at Midway (to varying degrees on both sides): SNAFU. The first two letters get right to the heart of the matter. Stuff getting AFU is "situation normal."
Or as 19th century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke put it more politely, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy," a maxim that Parshall and Tully quip "probably never met with a less enthusiastic audience than the Imperial Navy."
Even on fictional battlefields, the entertainment comes from seeing how a battle plan survives (or doesn't, depending on the POV) contact with the enemy. Scripted storytelling leads us to expect that just when things are going right they're going to go drastically wrong (and vise versa), hence the suspense.
The difference in the real world is that sometimes things never go right to begin with. And when they start going wrong, they don't stop going wrong. That possibility didn't occur to Admiral Yamamoto until four of his fleet carriers were sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.