Posts tagged ‘Pearl Harbor’

Shock of the New

Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor.  If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new."  From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it.  Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things.   They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.

Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.  One could argue that no one did this in WWI.  The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars.  Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade.  But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges.  The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914.  (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).

As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire.  He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.  At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination.   They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.

Post Hoc Prioritization

For a while, there has been a contrarian school of thought in historical study of WWII that FDR, wishing to have the US enter the way against a strong isolationist streak in the general population, purposefully ignored evidence of an impending Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in order to create a casus belli.  A few historians have used some intelligence warmings combined with the insane un-preparedness of Pearl Harbor as their evidence.   Instapundit links to a new declassified memo that warns of Japanese interest in Hawaii just three days before the attack.

This is a fun but generally foolish game.  The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were "ignored."  But the problem in intelligence isn't always lack of information, but too much information.  In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything.   It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point -- that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time.  The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another.  It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context.  To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

And sure, the readiness issue at Pearl Harbor is inexcusable.  But while historians can always find a few people at the time who argued that Pearl Harbor was the most logical attack target, this ignores the thousands in and outside the military who thought the very idea of so audacious an attack that far from Japan was absurd.   Historians are failing in their job when they strip these decisions of context (if you really, really want to get on someone about preparedness, how about McArthur, who allowed most of his air force to be shot up on the ground despite having prior notification of the Pearl Harbor attack hours before).

As Usual, the Onion Was There First

From the famous Onion 9/11 issue, this seems amazingly precient considering Senator McCain's proposed law to allow the President to indefinitely detain just about anyone he thinks might be a terrorist

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), one of Congress' decorated war veterans, tried to steel the nation for the possibility of a long and confusing conflict.

"America faces a long road ahead," McCain said. "We do not yet know the nature of 21st-century warfare. We do not yet know how to fight this sort of fight. And I'll be damned if one of us has an inkling who we will be fighting against. With any luck, they've got uniforms of some sort."

"Christ," McCain continued, "what if the terrorists' base of operation turns out to be Detroit? Would we declare war on the state of Michigan? I suppose we'd have to."

Michigan was an interesting choice -- I wonder if they knew at the time the prominence of Muslims in Michigan or if it was just a random choice?  Certainly, though, they had McCain nailed.

I mentioned earlier that maybe somewhat different rules of due process were required when the enemy is not wearing, you know, uniforms.  Again, the Onion was first, from the same article

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will be different from any previous model of modern warfare.

"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said. "Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."

On War

Harold Koh on what does and doesn't make for a war:

Koh, a former Yale Law School dean who wrote about the War Powers Resolution during his academic career, said the “narrow” role of U.S. warplanes in the mission doesn’t meet the definition of hostilities.

The circumstances in Libya are “virtually unique,” he said, because the “exposure of our armed forces is limited, there have been no U.S. casualties, no threat of U.S. casualties” and “no exchange of fire with hostile forces.”

With a “limited risk of serious escalation” and the “limited military means” employed by U.S. forces, “we are not in hostilities envisioned by the War Powers Resolution, Koh said.

As an outsider to the political process, it has been absolutely hilarious watching a White House full of children of the 1960's retroactively justifying Nixon's Christmas bombings of Cambodia.  It's not a war, they claim, as long as our soldiers are safe and we are mostly just killing citizens of other nations from the air.  Of course, by this definition, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not an act of war.

There are many reasons to put separation-of-powers-type scrutiny on war-making that go beyond just the risk to American lives.  In particular, killing people from other countries can radically change our relationship with other nations.  I find it ironic that that White House has deliberately put blinders on and declared that the only reason to get Congressional approval is if US soldiers are at risk, since it was Obama who lectured the nation on the campaign trail about how damaging to our world image he felt Bush's wars to be.

Nothing New Under the [Rising] Sun

Sixty-six years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which turned out to be about as smart of a strategic move as taunting the New England Patriots just before the game.  During subsequent years, there was an inevitable investigation into why and how the US got caught so flat-footed, and who, if anyone, was to blame.

Decades later, revisionist historians reopened this debate.  In the 1970's, not coincidently in the time of Watergate and lingering questions about the Kennedy assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin, it was fairly popular to blame Pearl Harbor on ... FDR.  The logic was (and still is, among a number of historians) that FDR was anxious to bring the US into the war, but was having trouble doing so given the country's incredibly isolationist outlook during the 1920's and 1930's.  These historians argue that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack but did nothing (or in the most aggressive theories, actually maneuvered to encourage the attack) in order to give FDR an excuse to bring America into the war.  The evidence is basically in three parts:

  • The abjectly unprepared state of the Pearl Harbor base, when there were so many good reasons at the time to be on one's toes (after all, the Japanese were marching all over China, Germany was at the gates of Moscow, and France had fallen) could only be evidence of conspiracy.
  • The most valuable fleet components, the carriers, had at the last minute been called away from Pearl Harbor.  Historians argue that they were moved to protect them from an attack known to be coming to Pearl.  They argue that FDR wanted Pearl to be attacked, but did not want to lose the carriers.
  • Historians have found a number of captured Japanese signals and US intelligence warnings that should have been clear warming of a Pearl Harbor attack.

I have always been pretty skeptical of this theory, for several reasons:

  • First, I always default to Coyote's Law, which says

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

I think it is more than consistent with human history to assume that if Pearl Harbor was stupidly unprepared, that the reason was in fact stupidity, and not a clever conspiracy

  • The carrier argument is absurd, and is highly influenced by what we know now rather than what we knew in December of 1941.  We know now that the carriers were the most valuable fleet component, but no one really knew it then (except for a few mavericks).  Certainly, if FDR and his top brass knew about the attack, no one would have been of the mindset that the carriers were the most important fleet elements to save.
  • I find it to be fairly unproductive to try to sort through intelligence warnings thirty years after the fact.  One can almost ALWAYS find that some warning or indicator existed for every such event in history.  The problem occurs in real-time, when such warnings are buried in the midst of hundreds of other indicators, and are preceded by years of false warnings of the same event.
  • I don't really deny that FDR probably wanted an excuse to get the country in the war.  However, I have never understood why a wildly succesful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was more necessary than, say, an attack met strongly at the beach.  I can understand why FDR might have allowed the attack to happen, but why would he leave the base undefended.  The country would have gotten wound up about the attack whether 5 ships or 10 were destroyed.

It is interesting how so much of this parallels the logic of the 9/11 conspiracists.  And, in fact, I have the same answer for both:  I don't trust the government.  I don't put such actions and motivations past our leaders.  But I don't think the facts support either conspiracy.  And I don't think the government is capable of maintaining such a conspiracy for so long. 

December 7 and Free Trade

From our American point of view, we usually think of the attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor fifty-five 65 years ago as the main Japanese objective at the time.  In fact, the attack on Pearl Harbor was merely a screening move, an attempt by the Japanese to limit the US's ability to respond to its main objective -- seizure of resource-rich targets in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. 

The Japanese in 1941 shared many of the beliefs that are disturbingly common today.   They believed that their country had to be "self-sufficient" in key industries and resources.  And, they had a huge distrust of foreigners and international trade.  Lou Dobbs would have been very comfortable with them.  The end result of believing in self-sufficiency was that Japan eschewed peaceful trade as a way to gain resources in favor of colonialism and military intervention.  To some extent, the European colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries stemmed from the same beliefs.

As an island nation, Japan had developed a rich and complex social
structure. It resisted westernization by sealing itself off from
contact with the outside world, particularly Europe and the United
States. By the early twentieth century, though, Japan's efforts to
achieve self-sufficiency were failing, for the nation lacked its own
raw materials and other resources. Some members of the ruling class
argued that Japan could grow and prosper only by modernizing and
adopting Western technology. Japanese nationalists, though, advocated a
different path: the establishment of an empire that would not only
elevate Japan's stature in the eyes of the world but also guarantee
access to the resources the nation needed. Moreover, many members of
the nation's traditional warrior class"”the Samurai"”were embittered by
the aftermath of World War I. Japan had backed the victorious Allies,
but the Samurai believed that in the peace negotiations following the
war the United States and Great Britain had treated Japan as a
second-class nation. They, too, longed to assert Japan's place in world
affairs.   []

After WWII, the Japanese gave up colonialism and military intervention in favor of arms-length trade.  And, as a result, grew through peaceful exchange into being the wealthy world power that militarism and "self-sufficiency" could never achieve.

Postscript: Some might argue that the Japanese were forced to give up on trade in favor of militarism by the US embargoes.  This is a particularly popular explanation among the "America-is-the-source-of-all-evil" academics, that the Japanese would have peacefully traded for all their needs if only we had let them.  This viewpoint is silly, and completely ignorant of the goals and philosophies of those running Japan.

The Japanese desire to be resource self-sufficient is always there, and the embargoes were a result of previous military adventures by the Japanese to gain colonies by force in Korea and China, as well as Japanese threats to invade southeast Asia.  Japanese militarism to achieve "imperial self-sufficiency" predated western embargoes by many, many years.  The western embargoes may have forced the Japanese hand to move quicker than they might have, but their moves into resource-rich Indonesia were probably coming soon anyway, just as similar moves in Korea and China had been going on for a decade.

To be fair, today's self-sufficiency advocates are passive and xenophobic rather than aggressive and xenophobic, as the Japanese were.  This is at least a small improvement, and means that they prefer to quietly sink into squalor rather than going out with a bang (two bangs?) as the Japanese did.

Update:  Memories of the Pearl Harbor attack.  And the Arizona Republic comes through with a good series on the death of the USS Arizona.

Greatest Onion Issue, Five Years Later

Few people in September, 2001 were willing to try to get us laughing again.  One notable exception was the Onion, which produced what was probably their greatest issue.  In particular, this is still dead-on five years later:

In a televised address to the American people Tuesday, a determined
President Bush vowed that the U.S. would defeat "whoever exactly it is
we're at war with here."...

Bush is acting with the full support of Congress, which on Sept. 14
authorized him to use any necessary force against the undetermined
attackers. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the
congressional move enables the president to declare war, "to the extent
that war can realistically be declared on, like, maybe three or four
Egyptian guys, an Algerian, and this other guy who kind of looks
Lebanese but could be Syrian. Or whoever else it might have been.
Because it might not have been them."...

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will be different from any previous model of modern warfare.

"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven
sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military
targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with
their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said.
"Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such
luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for
him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."

"America is up to that challenge," Rumsfeld added....

Gramm said that the U.S. has already learned a great deal about the
details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon, and that a rough psychological profile of its mastermind has
been constructed.

"For example, we know that the mastermind has the approximate
personality of a terrorist," Gramm said. "Also, he is senseless. New
data is emerging all the time."

Don't Know Much Good About America

One of the ways I like to pass the time on long drives (we went to San Diego this week with the kids) is to listen to audio books in the car.  For this trip, my wife picked out Kenneth Davis's Don't know much About History.  This particular version had been edited down to a quick 3-1/2 hours.

Its of course impossible to edit American history down to this short of a time, but we thought it might be enjoyable for the kids.  Also, I am used to the general "America sucks and its heros suck too" tone of most modern revisionist history, so I was kind of prepared for what I was going to get from a modern academician.   But my God, the whole history of this country had been edited down to only the bad stuff.  Columbus as a source of genocide -- the pettiness of American grievances in the revolution -- the notion that all the ideals of the Revolution were so much intellectual cover for rich men getting over on the masses -- the alien and sedition acts -- slavery -- massacre of Indians and trail of tears -- more slavery -- civil war -- mistreatment of the South after the war by the North -- more massacre of Indians -- Brown vs. board of education -- the great depression as the great failure of laissez faire economics -- did Roosevelt know about Pearl Harbor in advance -- McCarthyism -- racism and civil rights movement.   All of this with numerous snide remarks about evil corporations and rich people and the never-ending hosing of the poor and women/blacks/Indians (often in contexts entirely unrelated to what he is talking about, such that the remark is entirely gratuitous).

That's as far as we have gotten so far, but I am really giving you a pretty honest outline of the segments.   I have zero problem admitting that America's treatment of its native populations was shameful and worth some modern soul-searching.  Ditto slavery.  But to focus solely on this litany, with nothing about the rising tide of standard of living for even the poorest, of increasing health and longevity, of the intelligent ways we managed expansion (like the homestead act), of having the wealth and power to defeat fascism and later communism in the 20th century when no one else could do it.  Of creating, in fits and starts and with many long-delayed milestones, the freest country in the world.  Of a history where every other democratic revolution of the 18th and 19th century failed and fell into chaos and dictatorship but this one succeeded.  He begins the book by saying that he is bravely going to bust all the myths we have grown up with, but in essence helps to reinforce the #1 myth of our era:  That America is a bad actor on the world stage and less moral than the countries around us.

Which of course, is insane.  And remember, I am the first one to criticize our government over any number of issues, but the moral relativism that academics apply to America represents a shameless lack of correct context.  To borrow from a famous saying, I am willing to admit that America has the most shameful history, except for that of every other country in the world.

I don't even deny that a book with the premise that "schools and media often gloss over the bad stuff, so I want to let you know that America has a dark side too" would be a perfectly viable project.  However, this book represents itself as a general history text, and does not claim this particular mission as its context.  By the way, I am not sure what country he is living in if he thinks this stuff is not taught in schools.  My kids' schools totally wallow on all the bad stuff - the racism, the environmental problems, etc.  I would be willing to bet more graduates of public schools today could answer "Maintenance of slavery" to the question "what was the biggest failure of the Constitution" than they could answer the question "Why did the US Constitution succeed when so many other democratic revolutions failed?"  The latter is a much more interesting question.  Of course, in this audio book, predictably, Mr. Davis addresses the former in great depth and never even hints at the latter.

Update on Coyote's Law

Given all of the conspiracy theories bouncing around the net nowadays, I thought it would be timely to revisit Coyote's Law.  Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

To some extent, Coyote's Law is a logical extension of Occam's Razor.  However, it seems to have consistent and frequent application in modern politics.  Here are a couple of examples, but I am sure the reader can think of more:

  • There are a number of revisionist historians that make the argument that Pearl Harbor was actually an elaborate FDR plot to overcome domestic isolationism and bring the US into the war.  They point to the many missed intelligence clues, the incredible unreadiness of the defenses at Pearl Harbor, and the missing US carriers as evidence of a conspiracy.  However, most historians have concluded that Coyote's Law holds, that our failure at Pearl Harbor we the result of mistakes and incompetence, not conspiracy.
  • The mother of all conspiracy theory subjects is, of course, the JFK shooting.  Many people simply refuse to believe that a lone gunman, and a fairly unimpressive one at that, could have pulled off such a killing.  He must have had help from the Cubans, or the Mafia, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the grassy knoll, or whatever.  Despite all the millions of hours of research into these theories, Coyote's Law still holds - it is much more likely that JFK was killed due to poor protection and the vulnerability of any one man to a sufficiently dedicated gunman who is not committed to getting away after the assassination (which, by the way, is still true).

To some extent, in both these cases it is a bit unfair to use the word "stupidity".  I am reminded of a quote by Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if it was his actual words) in a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.  Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination".  To some extent, that is what happened both at Pearl Harbor and with the JFK assassination, and, essentially, with the 9/11 attacks.  What occurred was so new, so unprecedented, that no one could really make themselves believe in advance that it would happen.  But, none-the-less, it resulted in incompetence, not conspiracy.

Which brings us to the 2004 election.  Certainly, in this case, no one can claim a failure of imagination, as just about everyone half anticipated vote-tally screw-ups after Florida in 2000.  However, in their review of conspiracy charges regarding election counts, this Caltech-MIT report has a fantastic restatement of Coyote's Law:

Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes?


EEEK!  Frank Borman is the astronaut.  I had Martin Borman, the Nazi.  Sorry.  (and yes, this mistake was due to my STUPIDITY and INCOMPETENCE, and not a Boys From Brazil conspiracy.