Friday, November 13, 2020

Pearl Harbor, history, and the problems of journalism

Myth versus reality

Confirmation bias and fallacies like post hoc ergo propter hoc are a common feature in conspiracy theories. They let the proponents of such theories avoid the hard, messy work of investigating cause and effect; it makes it easy to find “proof” for the theory without the laborious research good historians undertake.

Journalists – who usually pose as the brave debunkers of conspiracy theories – are also prone to these same fallacies. You find them at the center of the fashionable “argument by epithet” so beloved by places like the New York Times and Vox.

The Founders were racist
The Founders created the Electoral College
Therefore, the Electoral College is a tool of White Supremecy.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Steve Twomey relies on similar muddled reasoning in his book on Pearl Harbor.


Twomey believes that he has unlocked the final secret of Pearl Harbor. America's leaders were surprised because America was racist.

It goes all the way up to the racial assumptions about the potential ability of the adversary. From big things to small things, America was complacent about where things stood on December 7.

If you read the American magazines and newspapers in 1941, it’s amazing how the Japanese were considered a funny, curious people, who were technologically inept. They were supposedly physiologically incapable of being good aviators because they lacked a sense of balance and their eyes were not right. It was even believed that the Japanese were bad pilots because, as babies, they would be carried on the backs of their big sisters and got bounced around, so their inner ear was knocked askew.
Americans, as a rule, did not credit the Japanese with having deep reservoirs of logic, as Americans defined it. Usually, they fell back on race-laden stereotypes. They reduced the entire nation to ‘the Jap.’ The Jap was a creature of the mysterious East, strange and implicitly inferior. He was inept, easily led, premodern, and uncreative.

If Kimmel and Short had been as woke as your average journalism student, then Yamamoto would have been thwarted on 7 December 1941.


The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Huxley
Had Twomey researched like a historian instead of a reporter, he would have realized that life is rarely as simple (or simplistic) as his journalistic account portrays it.

Much is often made of the racism that is said to have contaminated U.S. pre-war thinking about Japan. It is not to be found in gaming. Game documents did include what were supposed to be racial characteristics of the enemy, but in the case of Japan the usual special characteristic was fanatical courage and devotion to duty. It was not stupidity or rigidity.

Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War

Far from dismissing the skill of Japan's soldiers and sailors on racial grounds, in fact, repeated studies right up to 1941 emphasized the technical proficiency and warrior ethos of Japanese servicemen.

Richard Frank, Tower of Skulls
The US press may have underestimated the Japanese due to racism, but the US Navy had few illusions about their main adversary. Moreover, if bigotry explains why the USN did not accurately assess Japanese capabilities, how then does one explain Britain's similar failure vis-a-vis the US?

During the interwar period it was not so much that the British failed to recognize that carrier effectiveness depended on the number of airplanes that they could launch. Rather, as the only navy with carrier combat experience,British naval oficers presumed that the relatively small numbers of aircraft they could generate at any one time represented the best anyone could do.Admiraly assessments of the US carrier developments during the 1930s indicate that the British discounted, if not disbelieved, American claims about the number of aircraft operating at one time from US carriers.

Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, "Military Innovation in Peacetime"

The inter-war Royal Navy was convinced, incorrectly, that aircraft developed to operate from carriers would necessarily be inferior to their land-based counterparts. That was acceptable as long as carriers fought only other carriers. It was entirely unacceptable if carriers had to beat off repeated attacks mounted from land bases. Gaming forced U.S. officers to confront exactly that situation, and therefore to demand high performance of their fleet aircraft. That had enormous wartime consequences.

Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War
In some respects, the Navy was guilty of giving the IJN too much credit. Was it racist to expect Japan to behave as a rational actor and to avoid national suicide?


Should we be surprised that we were surprised at Pearl Harbor?

Was Yamamoto a military genius? Or just a reckless gambler who got lucky?

I'm a journalist whose job it is to explain to others things he doesn't understand himself. 

Scott Shane, NY Times reporter 

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all. 

G. K. Chesterton 
Two journalists who understand the absurdity of the central conceit of journalists and journalism: That it is easy to master difficult subjects quickly and then pronounce on them authoritatively. The headlines promise the final word and imply that there is no room for doubt. Behind the scenes, though, the reality of the work is less reassuring:
A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day. 
Scott Shane 
That's how a marketing conceit leads to the daily deception of the customer. 

Journalism selects, promotes, and rewards people who buy into this absurd idea. Thus, the “authoritative” stories and books are written by the people least capable of writing them

As they go about the work of of “slapping something into the paper” ambitious reporters understand that their work will only stand out if they fill it with headline-grabbing quotes, vivid personalities, and telling anecdotes. The bottom line is that professional advancement depends on gathering superficial fluff. 

In this lecture, Twomey is quite open about how ill-suited his journalistic skills were for the task of historical research. He also remarks several times on his focus on personalities and good stories. 

We engineers have an aphorism: The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible. 
Steve Den Beste 
Unfortunately, this is not an idea that is top of mind with most journalists. It complicates things, makes it hard to keep to a narrative, muddies things up. 


Michael Knox Beran, in Murder by Candlelight argues that the educated progressives of the Victorian era broke with the past by creating comforting myths about crime and evil.
The more one gets into the habit of thinking of evil as a byproduct of social or economic circumstances, or as an anomaly in the neural architecture of the brain, the harder it becomes for one to take it seriously as a permanent element of the soul, one's own included.
This mindset makes evil the sole possession of the Other, not a temptation that each of us face everyday. It is something that can be viewed at arms length. 

In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders notes that melodrama was “the predominant narrative form." of the nineteenth century. The mass audience flocked to entertainments where story-lines were simple and straightforward: “melodrama characters have preordained parts: a villain is a villain, and will not become a hero." 

Modern journalism, which began at this time, found its mass audience by adopting the forms and tone of melodramas. It was easier to sell newspapers if the story could be presented as a conflict between heroes, villains, and buffoons. It was easier to write the story if reporters and editors had a simple narrative to follow as they hurriedly generated copy for the next edition. 

This, in part, explains the continued popularity of “Republicans pounce” and “conservatives seize” headlines when scandals touch liberal heroes and Democrats commit gaffs. The templates of melodrama allow for no flawed heroes let alone false heroes. No matter what the facts are the narrative demands that they be presented in a form that sees each character playing their predetermined role. 

#ad #ad

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Gen. Harold Moore's three rules for crisis leadership

First, never quit. Three strikes and you're not out. Put that on your refrigerator.

Number two - there's always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor. There's always a way.

Number three - trust your instincts.

#ad #ad

Thought for the week

The professor frowned, "You know perfectly well, inspector, that I most strongly deprecate all conjecture," he replied severely. "Conjecture, unsupported by a thorough examination of facts has been responsible for more than half the errors made by mankind throughout the ages."

John Rhode, "The Elusive Bullet" (1936)

Monday, November 02, 2020

“Dollars can't buy yesterday” (II)

(Part I is here)

Mahan's dictum that good men and bad ships make a better navy than bad men and good ships was always near Nimitz's thoughts .
Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible
In the previous post I noted that the US Navy fought the absolutely critical; battles of 1942 without the benefit of the new ships built under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. This was, in itself, a remarkable achievement. As FDR said in his 1943 SOTU address:

This past year was perhaps the most crucial for modern civilization. The Axis Powers knew that they had must win the war in 1942 – or eventually lose everything.
It would be wrong, however, to discount the Navy's performance in 1943-1945 by ascribing it solely to the numerical preponderance produced by America's industrial base.

Numbers count in war but they are not everything. Note that the Royal Navy entered the war with a tremendous advantage over the Kriegsmarine. Yet it took nearly four years for Britain to secure it vital lifelines against a numerically inferior enemy. That is, roughly, the amount of time it took the US Navy to sweep the far more formidable Japanese navy from the whole of the Pacific.

Norman Friedman details just how remarkable an accomplishment that was:

To win the Pacific War, the U.S. Navy had to transform itself technically, tactically, and strategically. It had to create a fleet capable of the unprecedented feat of fighting and winning far from home, without existing bases, in the face of an enemy with numerous bases fighting in his own waters. …

If it seems obvious that any naval officer aware of the march of technology would have developed the massed carriers and the amphibious fleet, the reader might reflect that the two other major navies failed to do so. The Japanese did create a powerful carrier striking force, but they made no real effort to back it up with sufficient reserves to keep it fighting. They developed very little amphibious capability useful in the face of shore defenses: They could not, for example, have assaulted their own fortified islands, let alone Normandy or southern France. The British built carriers, but accepted very small carrier air groups because, until well into World War II, they saw their carriers mainly as support for their battle fleet. Like the Japanese, they did not develop an amphibious capability effective against serious defense.

Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War

When it came to experience, the USN trailed Japan and Great Britain. It had not been at war with a great power since the War of 1812.

Its last conventional naval war had been fought against Spain in 1898, before nearly all the weapons and ships of 1919 had even been conceived. Its World War I experience was limited almost entirely to anti-submarine warfare,
Correlli Barnett called war “the great auditor of institutions”. The Pacific War showed that the USN, as an institution, led the world's navies in technological innovation and operational excellence.

Clearly, the USN had done a lot of things right in the eras of Normalcy and Depression.

Friedman has an idea of what the most important thing was:

What set the U.S. Navy apart? War gaming at the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, seems to have been a large part of the answer. The games played by students there were a vital form of training, but at least as importantly, the games served as a laboratory for the U.S. Navy. It seems to have been significant that, until 1934, the Naval War College was part of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) rather than part of the naval school system. Gaming experience fed back into full-scale exercises (Fleet Problems), and full-scale experience fed back into the detailed rules of the games, which were conceived as a way of simulating reality as closely as possible. Game data were also fed to the U.S. Navy’s war planners, all of whom had graduated from the War College and thus had considerable game experience. The successes and failures of simulation give some guidance into what is needed in current and future games.
Adm. William Sims made war-gaming central to the NWC's mission. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy Department used the NWC as a quasi-think tank and R&D lab. A generation of captains and admirals grappled with the pareticular challenges of war with Japan as well as the evolving nature of sea warfare.

At the same time Newport inculcated a “common command culture “ in the navy's senior leaders and helped breakdown functional silos and mental blinders.

This paid off in the four critical carrier battles of 1942:

During World War II, U.S. non-aviators such as Admiral Raymond Spruance and Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (both War College graduates) successfully wielded carrier forces. Non-aviators in other navies do not seem to have done nearly so well.
In the “improvised war” the NWC grads and their common command culture bested Yamamoto and his battle-hardened samurai. They did this without the benefit of numerical or technical superiority.

Friedman suggests that the wargames at Newport were the ideal tool to prepare the navy for the Pacific War:

Perhaps the fairest evaluation of military judgment versus gaming would be that in areas in which considerable full-scale experience had been accumulated, military judgment was much more likely to be accurate. Gaming offered insight into wars that had not yet been fought, involving new weapons—particularly aircraft. As we look back, the shift in War Plan Orange—a shift which proved extremely beneficial—was one of those areas.
The Japanese navy also used wargames (as did the Prussian/Germany army which essentially invented military gaming). Why did the USN derive so much more benefit than Japan? Three key differences seem to stand out.

For one thing, the Japanese were focussed – even obsessed – with the idea of a Mahanian decisive battle against the US Battle Fleet in the western Pacific. Like the pre-1914 German General Staff they devoted their wargaming efforts to refining a single strategy. This tunnel vision led the IJN to ignore the problems that came with long campaigns and wide-ranging operations.

Another significant difference was the role of logistics in game play and discussion. In the IJN, logistics officers – if they were even included in the gaming sessions – were to see but not speak. Their role was limited to observing and noting the requirements of the planned operation.

Finally, the NWC wargames were played out by mid-level officers. They were free to explore new strategies and tactics and the faculty could referee the games with no concern about alienating senior admirals. The top officers in Washington were free to analyze the results of the games without implicitly committing to any particular course of action.

Japan's wargames precluded this sort of free-ranging exploration. Their games, like all their planning exercises, were fraught with tension caused by political rivalries, considerations of rank and seniority, and prickly concerns about personal honor.

In 1942 – FDR's “critical year” – the Pacific War offered two strategic inflection points. The first occurred after the dazzling Japanese victories at Pearl Harbor, Malaya, and Burma. The second came in the wake of their crushing defeat at Midway. In both cases, the IJN reacted tentatively and with a complete lack of focus. In the spring, Yamamoto sent his carriers to attack Darwin, Australia and then against the Royal Navy in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, he drew up plans for offensives against New Guinea, the Solomons, the Aleutians, and Midway. After Midway he seems never to have settled on clear plan for the defensive war Japan would have to fight. Guadalcanal was seized as an airbase but the island as not fortified and work on the airfield progressed slowly.

In both victory and defeat Yamamoto and his staff seem confused when confronted by sudden changes in the strategic situation.

One cannot ignore the simple fact that not a single [Japanese] operation planned after the start of the war met with success

H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance
The USN presents a completely different picture. Despite the shock of Pearl Harbor, which crippled the battleship fleet and rendered the existing warplans obsolete, the Navy moved swiftly and with strategic focus. Steps were immediately taken to secure the sea-lanes to Australia. Carrier operations began to harass the Japanese bases and blunt their offensives: Lae, the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway.

When the tide turned, the USN seized the initiative. Marines went ashore at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Unlike the Japanese, they quickly put the airfield into operation. At a stroke they essentially eliminated the threat to Australia's lifeline. They also gained a foothold for a campaign against the key Japanese base at Rabaul.

This was not the war the USN had expected to fight; it bore little resemblance to the campaigns gamed out at the War College in the 1930s. Yet it was the war they had to fight in 1942. They fought it, won it, but were not diverted from their overall strategy when the new ships were completed and the Central Pacific campaign could begin.

The, IJN, in contrast [syn] improvised and extemporized their way to a strategic disaster:

Japan reached its level of incompetence, where it fought with all its power and to the death. The battlefields of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were simply too large and too far forward to suit its tiny logistical and transport capabilities....Japan was fighting precisely the war which least suited its material resources, a prolonged and costly battle of attrition beyond easy reach of its supply system.

Michael Handel and John Ferris, "Clausewitz, Intelligence Uncertainty and the Art of Command”

#ad #ad