December 08, 2014

The beginning of the end

Alan D. Zimm argues on History Net (an essay excerpted from his book) that the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor added up to a lot of shock and awe but was much less substantial in terms of accomplishing any of Japan's actual military objectives.

Far from being "brilliantly conceived and executed," the attack was so "plagued by inflexibility, a lack of coordination, and misallocated resources," that even after "ten months of arduous planning, rehearsal, and intelligence gathering," the details were still being worked out on the way to Hawaii.

As a consequence,

though armed with enough firepower to destroy up to 14 battleships and aircraft carriers, the Japanese landed killing hits on only three battleships; luck, combined with American damage control mistakes, added two more battleships to their tally. Not only was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor far from brilliant, it narrowly avoided disaster.

It is easier on the ego to attribute brilliance to the enemy that catches you flat-footed, though U.S. sailors did put up enough of a defense to dissuade Vice Admiral Nagumo from launching a third wave.

Zimm's description of the confused execution of the Pearl Harbor attack mirrors Eri Hotta's exhaustively detailed account in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy of the absurd political machinations that led up to it.

Hotta comes to the same conclusion as Zimm. Noting that Pearl Harbor is typically described as "a brilliant tactical triumph but an awful strategic blunder," she doubts it was even a "tactical triumph."

[O]il tanks, machine shops, and other U.S. facilities were mostly left untouched. Japan was also unable to inflict damage on any of the U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, which were not present in the harbor at the time. This, along with the fact that the harbor's shallow waters made the repair of damaged crafts easier, enabled a speedy recovery of U.S. naval might in the Pacific.

The attack on Pearl Harbor can best be understood as a desire to duplicate Japan's surprise attack on Port Arthur in 1904, inaugurating the Russo-Japanese War. A little over a year later, Admiral Togo's "Combined Fleet" wiped out the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.

History would not be repeating itself. Though in a purely military context, Yamamoto's fixation on Pearl Harbor was downright rational compared to the tangled web of politics that sanctioned it.

Hideki Tojo only became prime minister in October 1941 (and resigned in July 1944; he was not a "dictator"). By 1941, Japan had dug itself into a deep political hole, the self-inflicted wound of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy being a case in point. And finding itself there, only dug faster.

Nobody knew what they were doing or why. Those in the government who understood the U.S. political landscape the best were too busy promoting their own agendas to apply that knowledge to the looming disaster before them. Tojo himself dithered back and forth.

But Tojo was a veritable Rock of Gibraltar compared to his predecessor, the hapless Fumimaro Konoe, who was against war with U.S. or for it depending on the day of the week.

Meanwhile, the Japanese army and navy fought each other over dwindling resources and for ideological justification. They couldn't agree amongst themselves what a war with the U.S. would accomplish or what the war in China had accomplished so far. Only that they had to do something.

Consequently, for the chiefs and vice chiefs of the general staffs, Hotta concludes,

it proved much easier to go along with the call for war preparedness initiated by the [war] planners than to try to restrain them. Talking tough gave these leaders an illusory sense of power and bravery when the rest of the leaders openly dithered and vacillated between war and peace, unable to articulate an emphatic no.

In the end, Japan's decision to go to war with the U.S. can be summed up as follows:

Japanese Cabinet: We have to do something!
Admiral Yamamoto: This is something.
Japanese Cabinet: Okay. We'll do that!

After a decade of waging an unwinnable land war in Asia, given the chance to do something, Yamamoto couldn't resist the challenge. And yet he was also aware that everything was riding on the Kantai Kessen theory of naval battle: that a single, decisive confrontation would settle things.

As a coolheaded political analyst, Yamamoto warned the naval general staff in Tokyo in late September 1941 that "a war with so little chance of success should not be fought." But at the same time, as an operational planner, Yamamoto, Japan's most informed commander and its biggest gambler, could adamantly insist on the adoption of his Pearl Harbor strategy even though he knew the United States would not give up the fight easily.

Ultimately, how well or poorly the attack on Pearl Harbor was executed made no difference. What William Tecumseh Sherman predicted about the South in 1860 was no less true of Japan in 1941: the U.S. only had to survive to fight another day. In time it would bury the enemy with sheer industrial output.

On both sides of the Pacific, the die was cast long before the shooting started. As Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully argue in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway,

The seeds of Japan's defeat were not planted in the six months of easy Japanese victories that led up to the battle [of Midway], but had instead been sown in the very earliest days of the Imperial Navy's development.

Japan's biggest miscalculation was believing it had to engage the U.S. militarily in order to accomplish its (albeit delusional) objectives. That mistake made, it was doomed. Japan's world war, that began in earnest with Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, effectively ended on 7 December 1941.

What followed in the next four years was the long and bloody denouement.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
At Dawn We Slept ends up making the same point without being explicit about it. In the end, the attack actually knocked out very few ships. One big irony is that the Arizona was obsolete in both theoretical and real terms.

Another point often lost is that to attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese delayed their southern strategy, which made some sense and likely would have succeeded in knocking Australia out of the war. (This is quite a dramatic lesson in opportunity cost. Also a lesson in the folly of the grand attack, which the Japanese repeatedly ignored [see Midway].)
12/13/2014 11:14 PM

# posted by Blogger Joe
A superior strategy would have been for Japan to attack Russia from the east. Combined with Operation Barbarossa it would likely have knocked Russia out of the war (in spite of Hitler's insane meddling.)
12/13/2014 11:16 PM

# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
Arguably the lack of an attack on the machine shops and oil tanks can be traced to the same lack of understanding of the role that logistics and industrial production would play in the strategy of WWII. To have made these a priority target would have been to acknoledge that Japan's "strategy" for the war was wrong.
12/15/2014 12:39 AM