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. 

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David Foster said...

It *is* true, though, isn't it, that Americans were extremely surprised by the excellent performance of the Zero fighter?

craig said...

I think it is true that American most pilots were surprised by the combination of Zero performance and outdated American tactics. Nearly everyone in the Navy was surprised by the long lance torpedo and massed carrier tactics.

Perhaps the most consequential surprise was that the Japanese had discovered (in the summer/fall of 1941) how to extend the range of the land-based Zeroes. That is perhaps the single most consequential innovation that allowed for the Pearl Harbor attack.

David Foster said...

I thought all the Japanese planes involved in the Pearl Harbor attack were that wrong?

craig said...

They were. The carriers were freed up to make the attack on PH, because the Japanese were able to extend the range of land-based Zeroes and use them on the attacks on Malaysia and the Philippines. Without that breakthrough, the carriers would have been needed to support the attacks on the southward drive.

When Japan took over all of Indo-china in the summer of 1941 the carriers went south. That was one of many reasons why the US Navy did not expect the carriers to hit PH when Japan attacked Malaya and the Philippines.