Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘Pearl Harbor attack

How Did Two of History’s Most Crushing Military Victories Go So Wrong?

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FT 17

Military force is often touted as a solution to problems, especially in militarized countries such as the USA and Israel. And given great credence in the past for what military force has accomplished. Generally this sort of military can-do analysis is of the comic book variety, but sadly  it tends to be pervasive. Today I will examine two of histories most resounding military victories, and discuss why they not only both should have been done differently, and why each of them contained the seeds of ultimate defeat. These two victories are the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the 1940 German attack on France. They were two of the most stunning and unexpected military victories in history, what went wrong?

Pearl Harbor. The classic and in some ways the ultimate surprise attack, nowadays known as a preemptive strike. The entire American Pacific battleship fleet was caught by surprise and sunk. Basically America’s plan to defend its Pacific holdings when war broke out with Japan was sent to the bottom of Pearl Harbor in a  few short hours. Japan basically crippled the US Navy with a single air raid, how could that not be anything but a stunning victory? Unfortunately it was an illusory victory. For one thing the nature of naval warfare was changing, and battleships were no longer the ultimate weapon they had been for decades. Secondly, every single battleship that was sunk with the exception of the Arizona, was re-floated and back in action within a year. Lastly, the attack was a huge propaganda boost for the USA, in one fell swoop Japan had sunk eight obsolete battleships … and utterly destroyed America’s isolationist and peace factions.

The way to best see how this was a mistake is to look at alternatives. There are two possibilities. For one, Japan could simply have attacked Britain and Holland and seized the oil fields in Dutch Indonesia. While the USA might have voted to declare war on Japan, they might not have. At the very least the war would not have been as popular in the USA, and a negotiated settlement might have been possible. More importantly though, the Japanese had wildly underestimated their tactical superiority at the beginning of World War Two. If the USA had declared war on Japan, or Japan had simply attacked the USA without attacking Pearl Harbor, the USA would more than likely have followed its plan for war with Japan. And that plan was to send the battleship fleet to the Philippines. And that battleship fleet would almost certainly have suffered the same fate as the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, sunk by Japanese aircraft. And in this case the battleships would have gone down in deep water, far fewer of their trained crew members would have survived, and by no means would they have been re-floated and been back in action within a year. Basically a case can be made that in retrospect, however brilliant it may have been, the attack on Pearl Harbor was the worst option the Japanese had.

Then there’s the Battle of France in 1940. In World War One, Germany attacked France with pretty much everything they had. It resulted in four years of trench warfare and millions of deaths, and Germany ultimately lost. In World War Two, Germany defeated France in ten days! The fighting lasted for six weeks in total, but on the tenth day German tanks reached the coast and cut off the bulk of the French army from supply. The president of France called Winston Churchill and told him it was over, and that he should start trying to get the British troops back to England. Which they did at the historic retreat from Dunkirk. And that was that, Germany’s historic enemy crushed and humiliated at a cost of about 40,000 dead. Hitler even had the railroad car that Germany surrendered in in World War One dragged out of a museum and forced the French to sign their surrender in it. The defeat was so profound and unexpected that the French people basically went into shock, and there was no resistance to the German occupiers for at least two years. How could it have gotten any better than this?

Well, it could have. The big problem with the Fall of France is that the British got away! If the British forces in France in 1940 had been destroyed or captured, there would have been no British troops to send to North Africa to defend against Italy. In fact there wouldn’t even have been enough troops to defend England against a  German invasion. To say that the course of the war would have been different is an understatement. How could this have come about? Well, the original German plan had been a repeat of World War One, a massive invasion through Belgium. If the Germans had gone with the original plan, they would have suffered higher losses, but they still would have won. The German blitzkrieg tactics made their forces vastly superior to the French and British forces in the field who were still fighting World War One style. More importantly, the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force, would have been right in front of the main German advance, and almost certainly would have suffered devastating losses. There would have been no Dunkirk evacuation, because most of the British troops would have been killed or captured by the German steam roller through Belgium.

And in both my examples, there’s another layer of failure. In both cases the victor learned the wrong lesson from their victory. At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese got an exaggerated idea of the power of carrier strike forces. When they tried one again at Midway less than a year later, they suffered a truly crushing defeat, one that sealed the fate of the war for Japan. And in France, the German’s spectacular success convinced Hitler that he was a military genius on par with Alexander or Napoleon. He wasn’t, and he proceeded to make one disastrous military decision after another. If Hitler had gone with his generals’ plans in France, his victory wouldn’t have been as spectacular, but it would have been more thorough. And Hitler might have been more prone to heed his generals’ advice as the war went on.

Is there any lesson in all this? Just the point I make all the time. The results of war are wildly unpredictable, and even spectacularly successful military ventures can has disastrous unintended consequences. 9/11 had its roots in the stunningly “successful” desert storm war with Iraq. This leads to the second point, which I usually leave unstated; people who make confident predictions about the results of any proposed war are idiots.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is probably Public Domain under US copyright law. It was likely taken by the German military during World War Two. It’s a destroyed French FT 17 tank. That’s a dead French soldier beside it. The FT 17 is a World War One tank. Hundreds of them were taken out of storage and used to equip hastily raised units at the start of the World War Two, which led to the myth that France lost the war because the Germans had better tanks.)

Written by unitedcats

November 30, 2012 at 7:20 am

70 Years After Pearl Harbor, What Have We Learned?

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70 years ago today the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the world was never the same. This all ties into my upcoming third post on the American Civil War, but I’m still struggling with that. Everything is context. When I was a kid Pearl Harbor and World War Two was a considerably more living event. Every other kid’s dad was a World War Two veteran, and the entertainment media was filled with World War Two themed movies, books, comic books, games, etc. Now, not so much, and the youngest World War Two veterans are in their eighties.

So, moving right along, the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. Those dastardly Nips attacked our peaceful anchored battleship fleet in on a  Sunday morning, a day that will live in infamy forever. Barbarians! Monsters! The treacherous nature of the sub humans inhabiting Asia was well known, but it was still a huge shock to the nation. The 9/11 of its time. And I use racist language deliberately, before World War Two Asians were held in contempt by westerners, to a degree that’s hard to fathom in this day an age.  It helps understand how Pearl Harbor came to pass.

The basic facts of the matter are pretty mundane. The USA and Japan had been expanding their Empires in the Pacific since the turn of the century, and conflict between them was more or less inevitable. The Japanese invasion of China in 1931 ratcheted up the tension in the region, and the outbreak of World War Two in Europe upped it another notch. After Germany destroyed France in 1940, Japan seized the opportunity, invading and ccupying French Indochina, aka Vietnam. The USA objected, embargoed US West Coast oil to Japan, and gave them an ultimatum: Until you pull out of French Indochina, no talks and no oil.

And that was that. The Japanese government was in a bind. The Japanese economy would shortly collapse if they didn’t get a resumption of American oil, or find another source. It was wartime, and all current oil supplies were spoken for, so there was no oil available on the open market.  Japan could seize the “Dutch” oil fields in Indonesia, or accede to the USA’a ultimatum and hope the US resumed oil shipments from the West Coast. I could go on, but most should at this point be able to discern that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t some act of perfidy, but a desperate response to what only can be described as Roosevelt’s deliberate campaign to get Japan to attack the USA. He got his wish, and the rest of America got World War Two.

Moving right along, in a strictly tactical sense, the attack on Pearl Harbor while spectacular, was actually far less devastating than it could have been. Most people know that the Japanese were hoping to catch an aircraft carrier or two in port, and luckily they were all at sea at the time. It was worse than that though. In addition, the Japanese failure to bomb the dry docks in Pearl Harbor, and especially their failure to attack the US Navy fuel depot, was a tremendous missed opportunity. Damage to either would have crippled the US war effort in the Pacific for months or longer. Lastly, a case can be made that the attack in itself was a terrible mistake. Had they not attacked Pearl Harbor, the US would likely have followed their original plan, which was to sent a fleet of battleships to the Philipines to defend the US forces there. Where they would almost certainly have been sunk, with much greater loss of life and no chance of recovering the ships. Yes, all but one of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor were refloated and back in action within a year.

Moving right along, did the USA know that Japan was going to attack Pearl Harbor? It’s almost a certainly. The Navy had broken the Japanese diplomatic code before the war, and there is every reason to believe that they had broken the Japanese military code before the war as well. If so, why in the name of God did they allow the attack to proceed? Because it was inconceivable that the Japanese would be able attack with such devastating effect. Even caught by surprise the Navy assumed that its forces in Hawaii would easily be able to defeat whatever primitive and unskilled forces the Japanese threw at them. In fact throughout the Pacific western leaders made the exact same disastrous miscalculation about Japan’s military capabilities, and paid a terrible price for their over confidence. I have to admit that from my readings, almost every military catastrophe in history was foreshadowed by the losing side wildly underestimating their enemies capabilities. Fodder for many future blog posts there.

Lastly, God rest the souls of all who died that day. I can only hope that someday humans as a species will grow up enough so that they are no longer letting their leaders connive and manipulate them into senseless wars. (Ever here anyone talk about a sensible war?) Judging from recent trends in current events, I’m not holding my breath.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is properly attributed and linked. Credit and copyright: Mitch Moore, Star Bulletin. It’s two World War Two veterans reminiscing over old times. The fellow on the left is Takeshi Maeda, he navigated a Japanese Kate Bomber during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The fellow on the right is P-51 pilot Gordon Scott, shot down and captured over Japan in 1945. They are working together to see if Scott’s plane can be pulled from its watery grave in a  lake in Japan. People can get along just fine it’s our leaders that are the problem.)

Written by unitedcats

December 7, 2011 at 9:00 am