15 February 2017

War of Ideas - Japanese Naval Strategy in WW2

Having been a kid who played with toy guns and obsessed over FPS games back in the day, I always found war interesting. But there are, of course, many people who dislike military history and I think the video above is a good example of why. Just like people who hate history think it's an endless list of dates and names with no significance to their lives today, people who hate military history think it's just a bunch of battle dates/names and narratives of how side A killed more than side B. But military history is so much more than that. Consider this: The French Revolution wasn't important because of how many smelly peasants got pissed off and went on a rampage across Europe. The French Revolution still excites many today because it highlights the guiding power of ideas in our world. Ideas like a person's relationship to his state, the equality of man, sacral kingship, or the very purpose of society and its laws.

The power of ideas should have broad appeal to any human even moderately curious about the world. After all, we live in a time when ideas like liberalism, Islamism, globalism, and transgenderism are whirling about in a chaotic flux. I bring this up because war, like any human endeavour, is ultimately framed by ideas as well. So if you think military history is a boring list of battles, pedantic analysis about the merits of gun calibres, or inane arguments like if a samurai could beat a knight, then this is gonna be an ongoing series of posts about how ideas, such as what "war" is, influences the course and conduct of wars.

The first post to start this series is on WW2 Japanese naval strategy, or lack thereof, which might be stale stuff for WW2 buffs, but hopefully of interest to people who only ever learned WW2 in terms of  the holocaust, women being used on the home front, and final results of who won and who lost.
If I were to ask you to name prominent 19th century thinkers, you'd probably name people like Marx, Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. If you took courses on world history, maybe you'd come up with more diverse names like al-Afghani, Fukuzawa Yukichi, or Ram Mohan Roy. But it's disappointing how high school/1st year uni-students can learn about the 19th century and it wouldn't be unusual if they had no idea who Mahan or Clausewitz was, much less Corbett or Triandafillov. So if you're one of these people, let me tell you about how this all-American boy Mahan and his ideas fucked Japan from beyond the grave.

Mahan is best known for his 2-volume series, The Influence of Sea Power upon History. Here are some of its main points summarized in simple terms. Since the age of sail enabled transoceanic commerce, the richest countries are those who can secure control of the seas with strong naval power. This, in turn, allows them to ensure maritime trade is conducted on terms favourable to them. In his mind, "strong naval power" meant capital ships (your biggest, baddest warships). The capital ships were like the tree trunk while other kinds of warships and merchant vessels, while important, were like the branches, leaves, and fruit of a tree. This particular framing of naval power meant that in a naval war, you should aim to cut your enemy's tree trunk. That is to say, an offensive strategy of concentrating your capital ships for a decisive battle that would cripple the opposing fleet and cause them to sue for peace.
"They wear shoes inside homes and they call us uncivilized?"
Western nations in the late-19th/early 20th century gushed over Mahan's ideas, but Mahan's greatest fanboys were all the way in the Far East in a land called Japan. Historically, Japan has had a weak military naval tradition despite being an island, as it rarely faced the threat of invasions from the Asian continent, and thus preferred to squabble among themselves on land. But incidents in which Anglos perpetuated the stereotype of gaijins being rude led Japan to build a modern navy.

Now modernizing or building a brand new army is harder said than done. It's hard not just because you have to often adopt foreign institutions to build a modern government, economy, and industry to support the armed forces. It's also hard because with new weapons comes new ways of thinking about wars. To give a non-military analogy, if I asked you to share your favourite songs with a friend, would you physically hand him your smartphone containing your songs? See, it sounds retarded because the internet has completely divorced the transfer of physical objects from the action of "sharing" for us millenials. But a person who's lived all his life in an age before cheap, high-speed internet wouldn't share that same view.

Returning back to late-19th century Japan, Japanese naval proponents actually had to think up with new ways to fight with their modern navies and achieve concrete, practical objectives, unless they wanted to be forever laughed at by their peers who saw the army, not the navy, as more integral to protecting Japanese sovereignty. So when they saw the world gush at the ideas of Mahan, they too jumped on Mahan-bandwagon so they could say they had a sophisticated doctrine to justify receiving a greater share of the national budget and build a modern navy.
100% Historically accurate depiction of the Russo-Japanese War
In Japan's first two wars with their brand-new navy, the ideas of Mahan served Japan relatively well. In the 1st Sino-Japanese War, Qing China adopted a passive, defensive naval strategy. As such, their superiority in ship numbers was squandered by separating the navy into 4 regional forces and using it more for convoy duty, letting Japan land and supply troops in Korea pretty easily. Meanwhile, Japan did Mahan proud by taking the offense and concentrating their ships in the decisive Battle of the Yalu River. In the Russo-Japanese War, a decisive naval battle again helped bring about a victorious conclusion to the war. So in light of this history, it's not surprising that Japanese naval strategists became more and more enthusiastic about the Mahanian-obsession with the "decisive battle." Unfortunately, in Japan's most important war, a rather obscure conflict called WW2, the house of cards that the Mahanian doctrine built came crashing down.

To understand how the quest for the decisive battle served Japan so well in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars but failed disastrously in WW2, we need to identify and re-examine underlying assumptions of Japan's strategy. Going back to Mahan's ideas, you can boil it down to a chain of logic like this: Decisive Battle → Control of Seas → Wealth/Power. 

Now what does it mean to have control of the seas? At one time, when powerful surface-ships like a battleship were the be all and end all of naval battles, their presence could be counted on to secure control of the seas. But what happens when naval warfare changes to include submarines and aircraft below and above the sea? Can your battleships really have control of the sea if you're outmatched below the sea and above the skies? 
Cannae, the decisive but not-so decisive battle
Next, turning to the assumption of a decisive battle, consider this: If you completely annihilate an enemy army in battle, is that decisive in settling the war? If you answer yes, then I say to you what if the enemy's capacity to build a new army is still intact? Clearly not, right? Next, consider this: If you completely annihilate an enemy's capacity to wage war, is that decisive? If you answer yes, then I say to you what if the enemy's will to fight is still intact? Now if we're dealing with a context in which genocide is completely acceptable, then sure, the answer is still a yes without a doubt. But if mass genocide isn't a politically viable solution, then the answer is more complex. It's decisive for that specific war, but in the long-run, you're stuck with a defeated enemy that can't wage war only as long as you suppress him. And the moment your will to suppress him starts to erode, your once-defeated enemy will come back with a vengeance, fuelled by his bitter memory of the past. In any case, achieving "real decisiveness" must take into account both the capacity and the will to fight.

In the 1st Sino-Japanese War, China's strongest fleet was the Beiyang fleet which included the two ironclad battleships which European observers thought would BTFO Japan's navy. But the Beiyang fleet was almost entirely built in foreign countries and China could hardly replace it quickly once the Japanese destroyed it. Meanwhile on land, China had suffered a string of lop-sided defeats. Facing a Muslim rebellion in the Northwest while seeing that it had little chance of putting a force either on land or sea that could dislodge Japan from the Northeast, China thought it was much more sensible to sue peace in this limited war. There was no reason for the Qing dynasty to completely jeopardize its existence over the issue of whose sphere of influence that Korea fell under, after all.
I tried so hard. And got so far. But in the end, it doesn't even maaaaattteeeer~
Similarly, the Russo-Japanese War was also a limited war ultimately about imposing a sphere of influence over Korea. And like the Qing dynasty, the Romanov dynasty lacked both the capacity and the will to continue the war. In trying to mobilize and supply troops to the Far East, the rudimentary single-track railway that the Trans-Siberian railway was at the time made things difficult. Same went for sending a naval force, which the pic above demonstrates. In light of severe logistical difficulties, loss of Port Arthur, destruction of the Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, AND the Bloody Sunday which would trigger the 1905 Russian revolution, Russia ultimately decided Korea was not worth jeopardizing the Romanov dynasty's existence and sued for peace. To sum up, in the two wars that proved to Japanese naval thinkers the soundness of Mahanian strategy, battles were decisive only because there were factors not related to battles (logistics, internal rebellions, war goal ultimately not worth the horrific losses) which sapped the enemy's capacity and will to keep fighting. Moreover, in none of these battles did the enemy have the means nor method to significantly disrupt Japanese commerce. So while there was a brief scare during the Russo-Japanese War over the Vladivostok squadron sinking some military transports and merchantmen, it ultimately changed nothing and Japanese naval strategists could safely ignore the issue.

However, when it came to the Pacific War, all the underlying assumptions and factors were different. The U.S. had a much, much bigger industry and manpower which Japan had no realistic way of crippling. This meant that if Japan were to have any chance of winning against the U.S., the U.S. would have to be convinced that it was in its best interests not to fight a protracted war. But the U.S. knew that Japan was an oil-poor country who relied massively on U.S. oil imports (Japanese navy itself thought it was screwed if the war lasted even 3 years). So if you have a larger industry, more troops, AND you know your enemy is running low on oil, why the fuck would you ever quickly sue for peace? And if you were the president of a democratic nation whose people had been humiliated and enraged with a surprise attack you described would live in infamy, why the fuck would you ever sue for a humiliating peace? In short, any battle the Japanese navy could realistically fight would never be "decisive" when up against an enemy that was the complete opposite of Qing China or Romanov Russia. The U.S. would likely have had a strong capacity and will to fight even if they suffered 3 Pearl Harbour attacks.

Nonetheless, leading Japanese strategists thought the decisive battle was still a thing in the planned Pacific War. Their obsession with seeking out a decisive, set piece battle with battleships as a means to quickly end the war meant they failed to realistically consider two key strategical questions which pop up over and over again in the history of war:

1) How would winning battles help me win the war? (see above)
2) What if the enemy won't fight on terms I found favourable?
Intelligence is focusing on tactics. Wisdom is focusing on strategy.
In the context of the Pacific War, point 2 meant that the U.S. could simply decide not to seek a quick, decisive encounter with all their shiniest and most expensive toys conveniently concentrated in one place. The U.S. ultimately decided on a slower approach of blockading and leapfrogging islands to bring their aircraft to deliver the finishing blows to a starving Japan. But Japanese strategists preferred to think, "This is how we wage war, so how could our enemies possibly wage war in a different way?" And so Japan embarked on the most disastrous case of min-maxing I've ever encountered. You see, Japan knew that the U.S., with her larger industry, would put up a numerically superior navy in the "inevitable" decisive battle for the Pacific. Japanese strategists, seeing that they could no way in hell compete in quantity, decided to focus on quality. And since they all accepted a short, limited war ended by a decisive battle as dogma, they could also sacrifice endurance for superior range which would be far more useful for any single battle. This emphasis on quality and range at the cost of quantity and endurance guided the entire Japanese naval doctrine, from their naval production, recruitment, design, and usage of ships, submarines, and naval aircraft.

To give an example... Ever heard of the Zero? The plane that the main character of The Wind Rises designed? Like most Japanese WW2 planes, it flew and turned like a dream but was fragile as hell. Japanese naval aviator recruitment? Extremely high requirements to enhance pilot quality. Not too hard to imagine how aircraft fragility and small numbers of pilots fared in a long, drawn-out war...

Another example is how merchant fleets were handled. Like Mahan who dismissed the idea that commerce raiding could be more effective than a decisive battle between capital ships, Japanese strategists gave little thought to sacrificing production of warships in favour of merchant ships in dockyards, forming convoys, providing military escorts, or developing anti-submarine warfare to counter the possibility of an unrestricted submarine warfare. In their mind, unrestricted submarine warfare didn't count as "real war." Real war was about cool-looking battleships like the Yamato and Musashi firing their sexy guns, not worrying about maintaining supply lines back to the Japanese islands. And so, despite the focus on capturing oil fields in Southeast Asia, hardly any fucks were given to the problem of actually delivering the oil to Japan and critical places.

Long story short, Japan was hyped up to play checkers and realized it was screwed when U.S. forced it to play chess instead.
Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941
P.S. Reading Kaigun inspired me to write this post. What I wrote here is really, rank amateur stuff compared to the wealth of information in this book. So if you found this post interesting, I highly recommend this book.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that history should be presented in a broad view (not so much referring to particular dates, but encompassing the actual politics, culture, economic etc. reality of the time.

    While you really like military history, i certainly also take a interest in it but only so far, i enjoy it if the focus is spread out among different perspectives.

    The youtube video about the civil war dates made me laugh.
    Really goes to show the difference, those were certainly very interesting years for anyone interested in history, the rise of lincoln, the rising question of the black emancipation , the economic/technological progress/change of the times(railway, telegraph) and many more interesting topics.

    Anyway, my view on the topic of long term strategy is, although not counting as a war rather than an intervention, aside from the NATO intervention in bosnia, which kind of forced a peace treaty and i would argue to think it managed to achieve what it was planned to do, a lot of other wars/interventions in the 20th century seem rather obscure/aimless concerning their long term goals.

    The golf wars, vietnam war,afghanistan intervention, irak war, lybia etc. it seems to me that in any of those there was no real long term strategic goal, apart from disposing of some foreign regime ("lets get rid of the bad guys"), at all .

    I would even go so far as to think that its the rule rather then the exception to think that the political/military leaders have a sensible long term strategy in mind at all.

    1. Yeah, I mainly started this series of posts because on the internet, I see too many people obsessing over the minutiae like how an individual warrior fights or how good his weapons/armour were. I'm actually interested in those topics as well, but it's easy to get carried away and lose sight of the bigger picture.

      A good example of this is how frequently the Battle of Carrhae is brought up as an example of how strong horse archers are, while completely failing to consider how specific kinds of war hamper the strengths of horse archers. The Parthians repeatedly lost their capital, Ctesiphon, to Rome because even though they heavily relied on horse archers, at the end of the day, they were ruling over a traditional sedentary empire with fixed cities and towns to defend. So when Parthians lose to Romans, it's not in ANY WAY proving that the Romans had the logistical or strategical capability of beating steppe nomads, despite what some people claim.

    2. Regarding strategy, I think what's often lacking is grand-strategy, which is how to coordinate military, economic, diplomatic, and other means to achieve a specific goal.

      For instance, the U.S. military is set on fighting a war on terror, but the top civilian U.S. leaders have no qualms in supporting countries that export Salafism, or various radical Islamists in order to bring down a regime they dislike. Of course, there is the more cynical view (that I partly share) that most politicians don't actually care about fighting terror or anything. They only care about winning votes and raising campaign funds, not their nation's grand strategy.

  2. Fascinating post, Hox. I study history in university and I must admit that the only name I got was Clausewitz. Really good stuff, and you made it really easy to understand.

    I gotta say, the general consensus of the academia is not quite the absolutely retarded view displayed on the video (I came to hate John Green's history series; it could have been so much better), but it's not that far away either. War is generally seen as a very niche thing to study - why would anyone want to study 'pointless killing' when you could research social customs, political structures, economic systems or the ideas of an era? (This is part of the reason why academia has lost appeal to the general public).

    What it is that both students and historians fail to grasp is that war is a key component of all of these elements of a society (people who study the ancients generally get that better). And military doctrine plays no small part in it - how many societies have structured themselves around the ways war is thought to be fought (aren't we the perfect example of that)?

    All in all, just my thoughts on the matter. As always, really good content Hox; keep it up (though don't neglect the news posts, I like those too!)

  3. Was expecting ship girls hentai, and got yaoi instead...

  4. I just finished reading sangokushi and it really gave me more perspective on the art of war. After all, wars are won with politics, not battles and a poor general fights the walls of cities while a good general fights the hearts of men.