Hindsight is always 20/20…

Article about new Pearl harbor book coming out just in time for the 70th anniversary this Wednesday compares Roosevelt’s lack of adequate preparations for the raid with Clinton and Bush both missing “clear signals” of the Sept 11 attack.

Three days before the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was warned in a memo from naval intelligence that Tokyo’s military and spy network was focused on Hawaii, a new and eerie reminder of FDR’s failure to act on a basket load of tips that war was near.


The smoking gun in the new book is a new 20 page memo detailing the activities of Japanese intelligence in the months prior to its publishing on Dec 4th warning:

“In anticipation of open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.”

Well that certainly narrowed it down for ole’ FDR…but not to Hawaii as the article lead in states. Author and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley doesn’t blame FDR directly, but simply impunes him with “does suggest that there were more pieces to the puzzle”. Yes if it was narrowed to down to a few million square miles what makes us think that sometime in the 2 days after the memo was published they narrowed it down to Pearl Harbor? Shame on Paul Bedard for narrowing “the West Coast,, the Panama Canal and Hawaii” to “Hawaii”.

This sort of flawed reasoning and breathless – if measured – innuendo about “who knew what when” plays into the notion that our leaders, like doctors, should be able to anticipate and prevent all mal-outcomes. IF something BAD happens, somebody should have known and prevented it and if not we want our scapegoat to hang out to dry for it.

This social pathology comes from our absurd notions about the degree of control we have over the world.

The connection to wargaming comes form some of the responses I’ve gotten from the group of engineers, analysts, and scientists I’ve been introducing to wargaming. The theme of many is along the lines of “This game is so complicated, how do you figure out how to win?”

Indeed if after a handful of game plays of moderately complicated games (We are talking Dominant Species, Race for the galaxy and Dominion here, not “Campaign for North Africa”) people are taught the realities of dealing with a simple competitive landscape of 4-6 players, many quickly extrapolate to the problems war fighters face out in the Fleet, and gain a new perspective on such things.

Never mind the perceptive critique here at Chicago Boyz by Shannon Love pointing out that Pearl Harbor (and I would add 9/11) were not surprises of INTENT but surprises of CAPABILITY. Alan Zim’s recent detailed analysis of the attack points out that even the Japanese were not sure they could pull of sailing the requisite fleet of aircraft carriers to within the meager range early WWII carrier aircraft had. They even toyed with the notion of making it a one way trip and scuttling their carriers after the attack (since they anticipated much of the air wings would be lost).

She concludes with the following, that applies to much about life, but particularly about wargaming and its uses (and abuses):

Most historical works conflate the surprise of the general public at Pearl Harbor with the surprise of the military. The Roosevelt administration worked tirelessly to downplay the risk of attack from Japan because FDR didn’t want attention distracted from Europe. Negotiations were still underway, and Americans of that era assumed that no one would attack during negotiations. The military, however, was actively preparing for war with Japan and was not particularly surprised that it broke out. They were only surprised by a radical change in Japanese doctrine and capabilities.

All the conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor hinge on the idea that all the warnings about Japanese attacks should have made it obvious that a carrier strike on Pearl Harbor was imminent. Such theories ignore that the best intelligence estimates of the time said that Japan could not carry out such an attack, and even if they could would not as a matter of doctrine. Nothing in the bits and pieces of intelligence that in hindsight indicated a possible carrier attack on Pearl were interpreted as such, because a carrier attack was thought (as a practical matter) operationally impossible.

The specter of technological surprise has haunted US planners ever since Pearl Harbor. The US military did learn to never underestimate the technical ability of an enemy to strike. Some would argue the US has systematically over estimated such abilities.

We learned a lot from Pearl Harbor but we really didn’t learn not to attempt to read the minds of people from other cultures and ideologies We haven’t learned to plan for the appearance of exceptional individuals changing the rule of the game.

Most importantly, we haven’t learned to plan for things we can’t possibly plan for or to admit that such scenarios even exist. Instead, we assume that all eventualities can be and should be planned for.

No doubt future historians will write “books” about how everything we will blunder into was in retrospect so obvious that the only reasonable explanation was some grand incompetence or conspiracy. In the end, we just really don’t understand most of what is going on and never did or will. Life is about surprises good and bad.

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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