History is full of examples of the terrible things that can happen when the wrong people obtain control of a country. Sometimes they take charge on their own initiative (like happened in Japan in the 1930s), and sometimes it is handed to them in an election (like Germany in the 1930s). Either way it can lead to disaster for the people so ruled, and maybe for their neighbors as well, and sometimes for the entire world. With Germany and Japan it was all three. The wrong people engage in fantastic thinking, overly ambitious planning, and the ruthless pursuit of agendas that are not in the public’s best interests. It’s trouble with a capital “T.”
Disclaimer: Let me say up front that nothing in this essay is meant as a criticism of the Japanese people in general. I happen to like the Japanese people, and I am a great admirer of Japanese art and culture. I will, however, be criticizing the fanatical militarists who started all of that trouble long ago, and there will be implied criticism of the high ranking military officers who went along because they felt that it was their duty to do so. End of Disclaimer.
An early fascination with the Pacific War has never died in me. The carrier battles, Guadalcanal, the air war, etc. Rather than ever getting tired of it, my interest has steadily grown. These days I am still gathering details about the ships, the planes, and the events, details that others may find strange. Where did the carriers store their aviation gasoline? How many rounds per gun did those planes carry? It’s a good diversion for a mind prone to worry.
I am not a fanboy of anybody in particular, but I find many things, and individuals, to admire in the armed forces of many of the combatants, including our opponents. I’m not a glory hound either, though. Glory is a bittersweet thing that taketh away much more than it giveth.
I always try to stay fact based, so I always avoid what is called “alternate history.” Those are books and articles that try to examine questions like, “what if the Japanese had won the Battle of Midway?” Or, “what if the Japanese had a vast fleet of jet fighters?” I don’t find such questions useful. I think that the better question is, “what mistakes caused the Japanese leadership to take Japan into the war and on to disaster?”
The question, “what would it have taken for the Japanese to prevail in the Pacific War?” is an easy one, because there was literally no statistical possibility of Japanese victory. That would have required a many-fold increase in their available natural recourses and their industrial capacity. All of that was hopelessly inadequate to the task. Getting into the war in the first place clearly indicated that the leadership had completely abandoned the tenets of reality and common sense.
They lived, in other words, in a fantasy world. They were clearly the wrong people for the job.
The Japanese militarists shared with their German counterparts a wild overestimation of their own military capabilities, and a self-serving depreciation of their opponents’ capabilities. They believed that “Japanese fighting spirit” would always carry the day. They convinced themselves that Americans were decadent weaklings who would not fight. Both of these things were horrible miscalculations, and they were both fantasies.
Who would think that it was a good idea to invade China? Huge and populous China! And then, after discovering that defeating China would be much more difficult than they had thought, and maybe even impossible, who would get the bright idea to declare war on America, England and Australia as well? People who lived in a fantasy world, that’s who.
Of course, the decision to attack America was a point of honor, too. Not only had America shamed Japan long before with that “Black Ships” episode, but America had also slighted Japan more recently by withholding much needed supplies of steel and oil. Honor demanded war in the face of all of that.
And all honor is fantasy.
Fantasy . . . even in detail the Japanese leadership seemed to prefer it in most cases. There’s a nice book by a Japanese carrier flight leader about the Battle of Midway. The aviator describes how Midway was war-gamed in preparation for the action. That’s a sensible thing to do. The first time they war-gamed it, the results were a disaster for Japan. Lesson learned? No. They changed the rules and war-gamed it again. The second time was also a disaster, but they still didn’t take the message. They further changed the rules and war-gamed the same battle plan a third time. That time the result was very favorable for Japan, so they went ahead with the original plan. It turned out that they were right the first time. Midway was a complete disaster, with Japan losing four fleet carriers and many planes and aircrew.
Time after time the high-ranking Japanese military men made decisions that were fantasy based and totally lacking in common sense. All Japanese military aircraft through the end of 1943, and even most thereafter, were built of highly flammable, light weight alloys, with no armor protection and no self-sealing fuel tanks. This caused them to literally burst into flames after very little battle damage. The fantasy based reasoning was that the increase in speed and maneuverability would enable the pilot to prevail and live. In reality, the Japanese pilot corps was almost entirely wiped out fairly early in the war.
A related fantasy: “our pilots and our planes are so great that we don’t need to be training a lot of replacements.” Who needs a lot of elite pilots sitting around? Besides, we have all of the planes and pilots that our ships can hold. In reality, the planes and the pilots disappeared with shocking rapidity, and the Japanese never got a meaningful pilot training program going at all.
This blind overconfidence also affected aircraft development. They Japanese had many good designs early on for new, more modern planes and aircraft engines. In the end, none of them made it to meaningful production.
Already in 1943 they could hardly put together air groups for the carriers that they had. By 1944, a new generation of pilots was so poorly trained that it was completely inadequate for the task. (See “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”)
Sadly, it was the ordinary Japanese soldiers and civilians that suffered most due to the folly of their leaders. (And a silent prayer and an RIP for the American and Allied service men and women who also suffered.)
Their German counterparts indulged in similar follies, made similar mistakes, and led their people to a similar fate.
Sadly too, the world is still full of people who are suffering due to the stupidity and the incredible foolishness of their leaders.
Professor? Is there a lesson in all of this? Well, yes, there is.
History has a disturbing habit of repeating itself, and people have a disturbing habit of ignoring history and electing the wrong people time after time. I offer that our current American government and military are probably overestimating the abilities of our military and underestimating the capabilities of potential opponents. Things never happen the same way twice, so it’s hard to see what’s coming. Part of being prepared for anything must include avoiding overconfidence and allowing that your next opponent may have capabilities that you are not aware of.
Preparing your equipment for the worst is a necessity. Never resort to fantasies like, “oh, it’s so stealthy, that’ll keep it safe!”
Beginning discretionary wars is a decision that always requires reality based thinking. That doesn’t stop the wrong people from starting them. Fantasy abounds. There are many people today, in and out of the military, who will cheerfully tell you that we were right to go to Vietnam, and that we only “lost” because of those God damned hippies. Both of these opinions are fantasy based, as was our original decision to go.
Our recent and ongoing adventure in Afghanistan has failed the reality test every year since 2002, and the only good that has come of it is that many Afghan warlords and politicians are now extremely wealthy.
To call the Iraq debacle a fantasy would be too kind. That one was done on a whim. Few geopolitical events in my lifetime have been so ill-advised and stupid. We have nothing to show for it but massive debt, bloody hands, and ISIS.
Somebody in our government should stand up and say that Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were stupid, and someone should apologize to the American people for wasting those trillions of dollars on fantasies, getting nothing in return. That’s not going to happen, of course, because the guilty parties will claim to be protecting the prestige of the United States. That, friends, is honor talking, and honor, as I say, is fantasy.
Where is our common sense? Is there any common sense in provoking China? Massive, populous and not-to-be-underestimated China? But we are provoking them. We provoke them economically with the Trans Pacific Partnership, and we provoke them militarily in the South China Seas.
Worst of all, many of our politicians subscribe to financial schemes that are utter fantasies at best, and downright subversive at worst. Reduce taxes! Deregulate everything! Privatize government services! It’s insanity. (“Insanity:” repeating actions that have failed in the past while expecting a different result.)
We know for certain that electing those who believe these things, or at least pretend to believe them, will lead to further degradation of our economy, our security, and our social freedoms, because the program has been tried several times over the last forty years and it has always led to bad results. They still have their fantasy-based constituents though, so it's possible that they’ll be given another chance next year. After the W. Bush years it should be manifestly clear to everyone that anyone who espouses those ideas should be avoided like plague infested blankets. But many people are listening to them in spite of the fact that their ideas have only gotten more extreme and ridiculous. It’s insanity.
So put on your Reality Caps, friends and neighbors, and let’s use our heads and put the right people in charge. If we can find them. Or at least let’s not put the worst people in charge. Again. Just don’t jump off the cliff because someone promised you that it was a swimming pool.