August 18, 2011

Kantai Kessen

As I mused previously, we human beings have a hard time believing anything we're not predisposed to believe until we are forced to believe it. By the same token, we have a hard time not believing what we used to believe—when the evidence turns against it—until we are forced to stop believing it.

This is no more true than the military doctrine of Kantai Kessen, that doomed the Japanese navy almost from the start the Pacific War (and that ironically owes a great deal to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. Navy officer and historian).

Kantai Kessen posited a winner-take-all contest between battleships that would result in uncontested command of the seas. The problem was, Nimitz declined to engage in such a contest, and the one man capable of shifting strategies with the tides of war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was killed in 1943.

Thereafter, all Kantai Kessen achieved was the systematic destruction of the Japanese navy as scarce military resources were mustered to create one "decisive" contest after the next. This only allowed the U.S. navy to dominate each increasingly lopsided battle and eat away at conveniently concentrated Japanese assets.

Kantai Kessen reached its apotheosis during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, an engagement so one-sided that American airmen called it "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." Ten months later, in the Battle of the East China Sea, the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, was destroyed in a few hours by carrier aircraft.

The Japanese military leaders couldn't stop believing in Kantai Kessen because it had proved so effective during the Russo-Japanese War.

Or at least they thought it had.

The Japanese navy did indeed crush the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, compelling the Russians to sue for peace. The brilliant Admiral Heihachiro Togo twice executed the classic naval maneuver known as "crossing the T," positioning every ship in his fleet to fire full broadsides at the enemy.

The "underdog" victory was hailed around the world (despite the fact that it began with a "sneak attack"), and the Japanese government was quick to believe its own press, conveniently forgetting that the land war going on at the same time had been anything but decisive, with the Japanese infantry taking as many casualties as the Russians.

Togo had fought an exhausted navy that sailed halfway around the world to engage them. The Japanese were fighting in their home waters and had a greater mastery of wireless telegraphy and torpedo technology. The Russian government was already weak, the loss further destabilized it, and it would fall apart a dozen years later.

Bizarrely, the victorious Japanese subsequently came away from the Treaty of Portsmouth claiming: "We was robbed!" This combination of aggrievement and overconfidence set the stage for the next forty years of accumulating disasters.

The real problem with history is not that nobody learns from it, but that we learn the wrong things. And having studiously learned them, the "facts" supporting those beliefs become almost impossible to dislodge from the collective consciousness.

Related posts

Twilight of the Zero
The known unknowns
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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