Fewer living Americans remember this event every year, and its echo through the generations grows weaker. This morning, a 13-year-old had no answer as to why the flags downtown were at half-staff. Worse, he thought the Chinese — our allies in that war — were the perpetrators. To the extent the battle is taught, the instruction often is so laden with political correctness that the message coming through is that, as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum once set up to illustrate, we had it coming and the poor Japanese were just defending themselves. Lord love a duck.
The historical background to the battle is clear. A United States obsessed with economic disaster and mismanagement at home allowed its armed forces to decline both in technology, so that American arms lagged the state of the art, and numbers, so that they were stretched unbearably thin. As it was, the weakness invited a knockout blow from a nation with a third our population and a tenth or so (as the .pdf link shows, comparing these data is non-trivial) of our GDP.
Only Divine Providence (if you’re Mikey Weinstein, blind luck) had the Japanese strike when two US aircraft carriers were out of port, so the thunderous Japanese victory was a victory over the obsolete half of the Navy: the battleships and those admirals who clung to them in bitter denial of what Mitchell, Arnold and others had accomplished two decades earlier.
Despite Japan’s economic weakness vis-a-vis the mid-20th-Century USA, by ordering her society along Spartan, militaristic lines, Japan was able to punch above her demographic and economic weight for quite a span of time. Less than a century after Japan opened to the outside world and began to adopt modern technology, she was able to field complex weapons (aircraft carriers, aircraft, submarines) that were competitive with (and occasionally superior to) those of her enemies.
But any hope of a Japanese win depended on a fast win, because the Japanese forces were not resilient, or in Nassim Taleb’s elegant neologism, antifragile. Their logistics systems, particularly, were dependent upon a web of international, interisland, and coastal shipping that was vulnerable to submarine and aerial attack. In contrast, American logistics were robust and antifragile. Even most of the wrecks and hulks that the celebrating Japanese fleet left behind in Pearl would rise to rejoin the battle. Indeed, some of the sunken battleships only sank because of failures in the antifragility that should have been designed into their systems or trained into their crews.
In the end, Pearl Harbor, the great Japanese victory, sealed the doom of Japanese militarism — not for years, and not without a great deal of blood, tears, sweat and toil (sometimes a phrase can’t be improved upon, can it? It can only be pilfered from Churchill). But the attacks of 7/8 December 1941 and the campaigns that immediately followed them in Malaya, Singapore and the Phillipines were the apogee of the Japanese Empire’s ballistic trajectory, and a fiery and steep re-entry was coming.