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Oct 27 2008

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Analogies of Victory

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It has become obligatory in the last days of a campaign to buck up staff and volunteers of underdog political campaigns with analogies of come-from-behind success. Dewey-Truman is only one of the most famous where conventional assumptions were shattered by the underdog.

Duffy adds to this lore with a different type of tale; a military success story that mirrors many elements of today’s campaign. With a hat tip to Senator McCain’s military service, this story is about a naval battle that changed history. By any reasonable expectation of the forces at work, the US should have lost. That the US won is a useful example for the McCain campaign.

The Case for Improbable:

For the leaders of Japan, the strategic balance of forces in Asia in May 1942 far exceeded their wildest expectations. The December attack on Pearl Harbor had wrecked the American battle line and main fleet support center. The Japanese task force that attacked Pearl Harbor had sailed across the Pacific from Hawaii to Ceylon, sinking allied ships along the way and attacking land installations, all without losing a single ship.

In the intervening period, American forces on Wake Island and then the Philippines had surrendered. Current day Indonesia and Indo-China were occupied by the Japanese and Australia was dangerously exposed. The Pacific, which had once been a virtual American lake, had seen its power pushed back to the Hawaiian Islands enclave with even the West Coast potentially exposed to attack. All that was required by the Japanese was a final, decisive battle to bring the remaining elements of the U.S. fleet to battle and destruction.

The Commander in Chief of the Combined Japanese fleet, Admiral Yamamoto, had designed such a plan; to use his colossal fleet to attack a place the US Navy would have to defend, forcing the Americans to give battle. Yamamoto chose Midway Island, at the very top of the Hawaiian Islands chain, and within flying distance of Pearl Harbor, as the target. The Japanese plans were elaborate and included a substantial diversionary attack on Dutch Harbor and the islands of Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutians chain of Alaska.

To take Midway and Dutch Harbor and bring the US fleet to battle, Yamamoto put together the largest concentration of naval power ever assembled in the Pacific until that time. More than 150 ships including 8 aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 16 cruisers and 68 destroyers. Moreover, the point of the sword – the 4 carriers that would attack Midway and deal with the American fleet – were stocked with aircraft which had proven operationally superior to similar American models and with experienced, battle hardened pilots.

Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the American Pacific Fleet was not oblivious to the Japanese plans. US intelligence had broken the Japanese fleet code, and Nimitz knew the broad outlines of the Japanese operation.

Nimitz had taken over command of the fleet after the Pearl Harbor attack and inherited a psychologically traumatized officer corps.  They had been surprised and humiliated at the Japanese attack in December and were unsure of their own abilities to counter the Japanese, though still spoiling for a fight to avenge their honor.

The war engine of the American economy would not field the massive number of new ships and planes that would lead America to victory in the Pacific for another 18 months. To defend against the Japanese onslaught, Nimitz would have 3 carriers, 8 cruisers, 15 destroyers and 12 submarines.  38 ships in total to take on the huge Japanese fleet.

What happened next represented one of the finest moments in US military history, where intelligence, persistence, courage and luck combined to change the course of the war in the Pacific.

Nimitz positioned his carriers northeast of Midway, a place from which they could respond to an attack on Midway proper, or, potentially, a Japanese lunge for the Hawaiian Islands. On June 4th, the Japanese naval air forces from the 4 carriers, positioned northwest of Midway, bombed Midway Island.  Having located the Japanese carriers from search aircraft, both the American fleet and Midway based bombers launched attacks. Inexperienced in carrier warfare, the American formations lacked organization with torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters proceeding in an uncoordinated fashion.

This lack of coordination forced instances of extraordinary individual courage and dedication that was ultimately instrumental to the victorious outcome.

One of the first American units to engage the Japanese was Torpedo Squadron 8 from the carrier Hornet. Equipped with an older and slower model plane and with many of its pilots never having actually dropped a real torpedo, let alone in battle, the squadron was handicapped from the beginning.

Having found the Japanese carriers, but lost contact with the American fighter planes that were to provide his group cover, Commander John Waldron still ordered his 15 planes to begin their low, slow attacks without air protection.  Japanese fighters made small work of these easy targets, along with ship board anti-aircraft fire. All planes continued in, despite the carnage. All 15 planes were shot down without inflicting any damage on the Japanese ships. Only one of the 29 crew survived. In total, the US launched 41 torpedo planes against the Japanese during the Battle of Midway. Only 6 survived the ordeal.

On board the Japanese carriers, Admiral Nagumo, in charge of the task force, had recovered from initial confusion after the strike on Midway and was prepared to act against the American fleet. The attacks from so many American planes that morning suggested that there were American carriers in the area in addition to Midway-based bombers, a fact confirmed by air intelligence mid-morning. Nagumo had ordered his planes to be readied for fleet action and that all 4 aircraft carriers be brought to bear against the Americans.

At 1020 on June 4th, the Japanese fleet was on the verge of regaining the initiative, its flight decks full of the best equipped and trained naval air forces in the world, concentrated for a blow against the American fleet.  Nagumo, who had led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor six months before, stood on the precipice of a victory as great as Nelson at Trafalgar.

By 1030 the course of the battle – and the war – had changed decisively.

Dive bombers from the American carriers, flying at high level, had found the Japanese fleet as its planes prepared to launch. With Japanese fighters now at sea level after attacking American torpedo planes and with the fleet preoccupied with launch operations, the American dive bombers were free to attack virtually unimpeded. By 1030, 3 of the 4 Japanese carriers had been severely damaged and were out of the fight, their planes destroyed and their pilots and flight crews killed or wounded. All three would later sink before the following morning.  The 4th carrier, the Hiryu, managed two attacks on the US fleet, but was found in the late afternoon by American dive bombers and was destroyed as well.

From a position of overwhelming superiority, Yamamoto now faced an entirely different strategic equation. Without Nagumo’s carriers for air support, the entire invasion force and the main body of the fleet was vulnerable to air attack by the Americans. Further, remaining Japanese naval air forces were too disbursed between the Aleutians campaign and the components of the Midway invasion force to be brought together in time protect the fleet and engage the Americans. Based on the new strategic facts, Yamamoto called off the invasion and ordered the Japanese fleet to retreat. The destruction of four ships turned back the operations of 150.

The Grand Comparisons:

A great and stirring story for sure, but enquiring minds wonder about the relevance to today’s presidential campaign:

Perceptions: In 1941, the US Navy thought it impossible for the Japanese to organize an attack in Hawaiian waters. Popular misconceptions of the era caricatured the Japanese as backward, tradition bound with limited capability. In the six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had taken on the image of “super men”, with a superior war fighting organization in both men and equipment. The truth was some place in the middle. Naval leaders who recognized that fact was a key to US success.

Barack Obama started in 2007 as a young and inexperienced long shot for the nomination, challenging the heir to the Democratic Party. Having beaten the Clintons, created an impressive organization for fundraising and Get Out the Vote, he too has gone from under estimated to over estimated.  The truth of his strength is in the  middle, and exploitable.

The Strategic Terrain: in May 1942, the Pacific War looked grim for the US Navy. The Japanese had won each significant military engagement, US land forces had surrendered in Wake and the Philippines, and vast territories of Asia had been occupied by the Japanese.  After so many defeats and setbacks, the Americans watched as the Japanese set in motion the largest attack in Pacific history, until that time.  That the US Navy could survive, let alone win, was conventional wisdom for the great supporting cast of naval and political leadership, and citizens at large that spring.

Barack Obama represents something new. He has created a disciplined campaign that has beaten the Clintons, raised record sums of money and registered millions of new voters. By most accounts, he won the three debates against John McCain. The issues seem to favor Obama. The polling data creates an increasing air of inevitability about an Obama victory, not just the victory, but by how much.  The physics of a McCain victory seem implausible.

Victory Disease: when questioned after the battle, many Japanese blamed their defeat on “victory disease”; a sense that after six months of uninterrupted, confidence-building victories, that they became sloppy and cavalier in their operations thinking that the Americans and their allies were inferior fighters and worthy of only contempt. That success would come easily and importantly, that the Americans would react exactly as the Japanese believed they would.

The Obama campaign is deluged in “victory disease.”  The candidate believes he has a “righteous wind” at his back. Obama is drawing up plans for a Cabinet. Democrats in Congress are planning new legislation based on a President Obama and stronger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Even Teddy Kennedy is apparently working on a health care proposal from his sick bed in anticipation of an Obama victory.
The Obama forces are acting like the election is over, but the voters haven’t voted.

The many changes of leadership in the McCain campaign, weaker fundraising and the sense of inevitability has many Obama supporters thinking the McCain operation contemptable.

Strategic Plan: in putting together his plan for victory, Yamamoto diluted his goal by dividing his forces into feints and separate, non-reinforcing segments. In laying out the mission for Nagumo’s carriers in particular, Yamamoto never solved the problem of whether the mission was the destruction of Midway or the engagement of the American fleet. Everything ultimately depended on the Americans acting exactly as the Japanese believed they would.  When the Americans had their own plans, the Japanese plan fell apart.

With tremendous resources, the Obama campaign seems undecided about simply winning or winning big. Instead of focusing on a number of key states that will lock the election, Obama keeps seeking opportunity in new states to create a sweeping electoral mandate. But as the Japanese did not know where the residual American strength was, leading into the battle, Obama is in diluting his focus on sketchy polling in a volatile electorate.

Keys to Victory: in 1942 Nimitz realized that the US could not be strong and contest the Japanese everywhere. He accepted the likely loss of the two Aleutian bases so that the Navy could focus on the Midway operation.  Nimitz also correctly delineated the impact and importance of the forces he faced, and the outsized importance of the Nagumo carrier strike force to the whole operation. Without those carriers, the invasion collapsed upon itself, if the US was able to get their first.

Today, with his limited resources, McCain cannot be strong everywhere. New states in the traditional Republican coalition are trending Democratic. Going after each is like plugging holes in a breaking dam, diluting his power to generate an outcome. He is going to have to quietly give up on certain states, such as New Mexico and Iowa that are beyond reach

In 1942, Yamamoto believed that the power of his force was with his Main Body of battleships and cruisers that would destroy the American ships in a fleet action after the Midway invasion had begun, never realizing they were out of place if the assumptions of their strategy failed.

Today, by opening up states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia, Obama is betting on new states to add to the Democratic coalition, while assuming that the existing Democratic coalition will stay intact.

This is the McCain opportunity. n threading the needle, McCain needs to turn the Obama assumptions on their head by turning a blue state red – Pennsylvania.

It is the only state demographically within reach of McCain with enough electoral votes to change the Electoral-College math. If McCain turns Pennsylvania red, holds Florida, Ohio and Nevada, Obama can win in Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia and he will still lose the election, 273-265. More on the Way to 270 in another post.

The Conclusions:

The core analogy here is that perception is not always reality. Superior numbers and material cannot make up for a flawed strategy, or in this case, message. Dedication and courage are part of battle, political and military, and at Midway individual acts of courage and dedication made the difference.  They can do so today for John McCain.

So today look past the money, polls and ads. Dismiss the Fourth Estate and its attempt to call an election before a vote. Go toe to toe with the Obama grass roots, because a paid staffer will never have the heart or determination of a volunteer.

Victory is always possible, with bold leadership, committed troops and a little bit of luck.  Trust your convictions and stand up and be counted. Personal fortitude is force multiplier in unexpected triumph.

It was at Midway and it can be on November 4th.

1 comment

  1. Aslan

    There’s nohnitg like the relief of finding what you’re looking for.

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