Thursday, July 14, 2005

"I so want to believe that. So I do!"

I've said before that - following Colin Gray - while historical illustration and awareness can be one of the strongest items in our toolkit, bad history is worse than no history at all.

Daniel Nexon has links to and commentary
regarding this takedown of this post.

The takedown, by Robert Farley, is very valuable. That said, Farley does overstate - at least as a matter of course - the role of technological and material superiority in victory generally. To go back to the old John Boyd cliche (which has the very real benefit of being true), "People, Ideas, Hardware - in that order!"

But beyond that he's absolutely correct that it's a pretty miserable misinterpretation of the naval action off Guadalcanal on almost every level.*

Wretchard tries to make out that the American naval victory a) demonstrated American superiority of spirit over the Japanese and b) that the Japaneseconceded defeat not due to material but to some sort of existential spiritual crisis brought about by the sudden realisation that the Americans were, well, just fabulous. He then tries to link this to events current in Afghanistan.

The historical record bears none of this out.

Let's look at the whole and then take it from the top:

Bin Laden understood and accepted that American logistics, technology and science would be superior to his own. What he was less prepared to believe was the possibility that their fighting spirit would be equal or greater than his. Sixty two years ago the Imperial Japanese Navy fought the USN for three straight days and nights in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal, from November 12-15, 1942. Both sides fought at point-blank range in some cases. Two USN Admirals, Scott and Callahan, died in a single night. Still the IJN and USN came on. Only after the USS Washington sank the battlecruiser Kirishima on November 15th did the Japanese break off. But it was not the material loss that shocked the Japanese: losses were about even on both sides; it was the realization that USN would not give up.

First of all, this is partly true but largely misleading:

Sixty two years ago the Imperial Japanese Navy fought the USN for three straight days and nights in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal, from November 12-15, 1942. Both sides fought at point-blank range in some cases.

The image given is one of some form of naval Stalingrad or Imphal and Kohima, opposite sides grinding each other down in a non-stop hell until sheer American grit and willpower won the day, overawing the Japanese, who were suddenyl forced to realise that the men they thought were pygmies were, in fact, giants. In fact this was not the case, or it is, at least, only part of the story.

In reality, the main moments of two-sided combat came in two main blocks - the first was on the night of 12th-13th November and was a nighttime contact engagement between a Japanese troop convoy led by two capital ships (the battleship Hiei and the modernised battlecruiser [generally characterised as a battleship but in reality significantly under-armoured] Kirishima) and an inferior American force composed of cruisers and destroyers. This engagement did take place at point-blank range, close enough, as H.P. Wilmott has noted, that some of the ships involved were unable to depress their main guns sufficiently and torpedos were rendered useless as they could not be fired far enough to arm. However, it also lasted less than twenty minutes.

The Japanese pulled back (more on this in a moment) and the Americans deserve due credit. However, a few rather prosaic, unglamorous factors need to be added to the mix for understanding. First, the Japanese' major prioirty was to protect their troop and supply transports. When they became seriously endangered, withdrawing was the sensible option. Second, although the Japanese force was superior, the close range at which the engagement took place actually favoured the Americans, as the Japanese capital ships found their main armamaent substantially hindered in what was, by naval standards, nose to nose fighting. Third, the Hiei and the Kirishima both had a substantial proportion of their arsenals composed of flechette shells designed for bombarding American infantry positions on shore and which was unsuitable for a serious naval engagement.

A few notes on the result. The Americans lost more ships - one cruiser lost to friendly fire, four destroyers sunk and three cruisers so badly damaged as to be hors de combat. The Japanese lost only one destroyer outright. However - and this is the kicker - the Hiei also took substantial damage. Here we encounter another key, deeply non-existential factor, that of air support. The Americans enjoyed complete air superiority, both from carrier air power and from land based air support. Because of this, the Japanese could operate only at night and then had to be away by day. The Hiei's damage meant that it couldn't make it away and by sun-up it was still maundering around aimlessly in the open.

At this point, US power was able to operate unfettered. One Japanese ship was sunk by naval fire, one by airpower and the Hiei took multiple bomb and shell hits which further damaged her and killed a substantial proportion of her crew. On the morning of the 14th she was finished off by land and sea airpower - the remaining crew scuttled her, most going down with the ship.

The second substantial naval engagement took place on the night of the 14th, in which the remains of the Japanese convoy was sent in led by the Kirishima, backed up by two elderly heavy cruisers. The Americans had a scratch force of two battlsehips, the South Dakota and the Washington.

As noted earlier - and as noted by the critics Daniel links to - the Kirishama was virtually obsolete. Although often classified as a battleship, she was in reality a somewhat modernised battlecruiser of early Great War vintage. In terms of speed, firepower and, crucially, armour she was, in theory, badly outclassed by either of the American battlships alone, never mind both. Both were newly commissioned and cutting edge fighting vessels. To provide an (somewhat rickety I admit, please use this only as a vague scene-setting piece) historically based illustration, it was something like the equivalent of HMS Hood going up against two Bismarcks.

The Kirishima went head to head with the South Dakota and inflicted substantial damage - perhaps surprisingly so given the disparity in quality. This gave the Washington an opportunity to work herself into an advantageous firing position - from which she proceeded to batter the Kirishama into scrap metal in under ten minutes.

So much for the narrative. In reality, then, the naval action at Guadalcanal was actually a number of seperate and fairly distinct engagements, with a certain amount of letup in between. In the first engagement the Japanese enjoyed material superiority, although it should be noted that this engagement lasted less than twenty minutes and the disposition of the ships reduced some of the advantage the Japanese should have otherwise enjoyed. The second engagement, conducted in daylight, in essence involved that Japanese floating around getting bombed with virtual impunity by American land and sea based airpower, with the admixture of some smaller scale naval fighting. The third engagement, viewed clinically, involved a much depleted Japanese force headed by an obsolete capital ship engaging in a virtual death ride against two of the most powerful and modern surface ships in the Pacific. None of this detracts from the American achievement - the US Navy's destroyers and cruisers fought with extreme courage, especially in the first engagement. But to portray it as some sort of spiritual engagement is guff. With the exception of the first 20 minute engagement, the Americans enjoyed substantial meterial superiority and won through skill, both in fighting but perhaps more thoroughly through logistics and flexibility (both in planning and in being able to relocate the South Dakota and the Washington to the area with great speed and efficiency).

OK, the endgame...

Only after the USS Washington sank the battlecruiser Kirishima on November 15th did the Japanese break off. But it was not the material loss that shocked the Japanese: losses were about even on both sides; it was the realization that USN would not give up.

In laymans' terms this is nonsense, or what historians call, "Making Shit Up". Feeling within Japanese military circles was split from the very beginning of the war over how the Americans would react, though a surprisingly large number believed the Americans would fight to the bitter end, but felt it was worth fighting anyway. As to the immediate results of Guadalcanal it was very much the material loss that was uppermost in Japanese minds. First, the Japanese had lost their two main capital ships in the area, while the Americans had two gigantic meat-axe battleships cruising about (albeit one damaged). Second, their troop and supply convoy was broken up and largely destroyed. All in all, the Japanese lost 70,000 tons of shipping in the course of a single day, a tenth of the total committed to the SW Pacific (on top of over 150,000 tons lost in the month before). This simply represented an unsustainable, irreplacable (indeed, the Hiei and the Kirishama were never replaced) level of attrition and the decision was made that they were facing a gap between ends and means and throwing good money after bad. As H.P. Willmott notes, in a judgement echoed by Milan Vego in his in-depth study of the dynamics of operations in narrow seas:

"Neither the losses of 13/15 November, nor a shipping committment of this magnitude, could be borne, certainly not indefinitely and in waters commanded by enemy land-based air power."

Indeed, if anything it could be argued that the moral, staying power victory was had by the Japanese, who kept coming after their material advantage evaporated and having spent an entire day under intensive and completely one sided bombardment.Certainly, though this line of argument can be stretched rather too thin, Evans and Peattie, in their "Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941" (the concluding chapters deal with Guadalcanal, even though it lies outside the scope of the main book) argue that the Japanese were able to make up with moral committment what they lacked in material superiority and were able to turn this into a distinct (though inadequate) slice of "value added".

Anyway, the bottom line is that, both thematically and in particular, the Wretchard Version in this case is pretty fanciful. I imagine he has a highly lucrative career ahead of him.

*Please note, this post would be better, but unfortunately a substantial chunk of my book collection dealing with these issues is sitting in my flat in London.


Blogger Grant Jones said...

During all this the Yamato was sitting in Truk's harbor as a floating hotel for the Admirals. Why?

Yamamoto, the gambler, never did totally commit the way Halsey did.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous AJ said...

Excellent analysis Anthony! What I love more though was the complete lack of discussion about the butt-kicking USN took on night of 8-9 Aug in Ironbottom Sound off Savo Island.

Or the fight to a bare draw between IJN and USN carriers at the Battle of Santa Cruz.

And what about the "long lance" torpedoes that in American eyes did not exist?

Fortunately, unlike our friend Wretchard, the USN actually LEARNED from its mistakes (even in the "victories") and could rely upon an unfettered naval construction program to replace losses and free-flowing fuels to get them to the battle. An advantage the IJN never held at any point in the war.

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