Sunday, April 05, 2009

Losing the War

I just read the most amazing piece. It's called "Losing the War" by Lee Sandlin, and it was published in an anthology called "The New Kings of Nonfiction."

The piece is ostensibly about World War II, and how the reality of its horror and its banality has been lost to our generation. It is one of the best essays I have ever read. What it's really about, though, is much harder to grasp.

Most of us don't know much about the war, but even if you do, you might find this fascinating. For instance, here is his description of the "battle" of Midway. It's a long excerpt, but totally worth reading.

There was a battle soon after Pearl Harbor that may, better than any other, define just what was so strange about the war. Unlike most of the war's battles, it was contained within a narrow enough area that it can be visualized clearly, yet its consequences were so large and mysterious that they rippled throughout the entire world for years afterward. It happens that no American reporters were around to witness it directly, but it has been amply documented even so. From survivors' accounts, and from a small library of academic and military histories, ranging in scope and style from Walter Lord's epic Miracle at Midway to John Keegan's brilliant tactical analysis in The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare, it's possible to work out with some precision just what happened in the open waters of the Pacific off Midway Island at 10:25 AM local time on June 4, 1942.

In the months after Pearl Harbor the driving aim of Japanese strategy was to capture a string of islands running the length of the western Pacific and fortify them against an American counterattack. This defensive perimeter would set the boundaries of their new empire -- or, as they called it, the "Greater Asia Coprosperity Sphere." Midway Island, the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, was one of the last links they needed to complete the chain. They sent an enormous fleet, the heart of the Japanese navy, to do the job: four enormous aircraft carriers, together with a whole galaxy of escort ships. On June 4 the attack force arrived at Midway, where they found a smaller American fleet waiting for them.

Or so the history-book version normally runs. But the sailors on board the Japanese fleet saw things differently. They didn't meet any American ships on June 4. That day, as on all the other days of their voyage, they saw nothing from horizon to horizon but the immensity of the Pacific. Somewhere beyond the horizon line, shortly after dawn, Japanese pilots from the carriers had discovered the presence of the American fleet, but for the Japanese sailors, the only indications of anything unusual that morning were two brief flyovers by American fighter squadrons. Both had made ineffectual attacks and flown off again. Coming on toward 10:30 AM, with no further sign of enemy activity anywhere near, the commanders ordered the crews on the aircraft carriers to prepare for the final assault on the island, which wasn't yet visible on the horizon.

That was when a squadron of American dive-bombers came out of the clouds overhead. They'd got lost earlier that morning and were trying to make their way back to base. In the empty ocean below they spotted a fading wake -- one of the Japanese escort ships had been diverted from the convoy to drop a depth charge on a suspected American submarine. The squadron followed it just to see where it might lead. A few minutes later they cleared a cloud deck and discovered themselves directly above the single largest "target of opportunity," as the military saying goes, that any American bomber had ever been offered.

When we try to imagine what happened next we're likely to get an image out of Star Wars -- daring attack planes, as graceful as swallows, darting among the ponderously churning cannons of some behemoth of a Death Star. But the sci-fi trappings of Star Wars disguise an archaic and sluggish idea of battle. What happened instead was this: the American squadron commander gave the order to attack, the planes came hurtling down from around 12,000 feet and released their bombs, and then they pulled out of their dives and were gone. That was all. Most of the Japanese sailors didn't even see them.

The aircraft carriers were in a frenzy just then. Dozens of planes were being refueled and rearmed on the hangar decks, and elevators were raising them to the flight decks, where other planes were already revving up for takeoff. The noise was deafening, and the warning sirens were inaudible. Only the sudden, shattering bass thunder of the big guns going off underneath the bedlam alerted the sailors that anything was wrong. That was when they looked up. By then the planes were already soaring out of sight, and the black blobs of the bombs were already descending from the brilliant sky in a languorous glide.

One bomb fell on the flight deck of the Akagi, the flagship of the fleet, and exploded amidships near the elevator. The concussion wave of the blast roared through the open shaft to the hangar deck below, where it detonated a stack of torpedoes. The explosion that followed was so powerful it ruptured the flight deck; a fireball flashed like a volcano through the blast crater and swallowed up the midsection of the ship. Sailors were killed instantly by the fierce heat, by hydrostatic shock from the concussion wave, by flying shards of steel; they were hurled overboard unconscious and drowned. The sailors in the engine room were killed by flames drawn through the ventilating system. Two hundred died in all. Then came more explosions rumbling up from below decks as the fuel reserves ignited. That was when the captain, still frozen in shock and disbelief, collected his wits sufficiently to recognize that the ship had to be abandoned.

Meanwhile another carrier, the Kaga, was hit by a bomb that exploded directly on the hangar deck. The deck was strewn with live artillery shells, and open fuel lines snaked everywhere. Within seconds, explosions were going off in cascading chain reactions, and uncontrollable fuel fires were breaking out all along the length of the ship. Eight hundred sailors died. On the flight deck a fuel truck exploded and began shooting wide fans of ignited fuel in all directions; the captain and the rest of the senior officers, watching in horror from the bridge, were caught in the spray, and they all burned to death.

Less than five minutes had passed since the American planes had first appeared overhead. The Akagi and the Kaga were breaking up. Billowing columns of smoke towered above the horizon line. These attracted another American bomber squadron, which immediately launched an attack on a third aircraft carrier, the Soryu. These bombs were less effective -- they set off fuel fires all over the ship, but the desperate crew managed to get them under control. Still, the Soryu was so badly damaged it was helpless. Shortly afterward it was targeted by an American submarine (the same one the escort ship had earlier tried to drop a depth charge on). American subs in those days were a byword for military ineffectiveness; they were notorious for their faulty and unpredictable torpedoes. But the crew of this particular sub had a large stationary target to fire at point-blank. The Soryu was blasted apart by repeated direct hits. Seven hundred sailors died.

The last of the carriers, the Hiryu, managed to escape untouched, but later that afternoon it was located and attacked by another flight of American bombers. One bomb set off an explosion so strong it blew the elevator assembly into the bridge. More than 400 died, and the crippled ship had to be scuttled a few hours later to keep it from being captured.

Now there was nothing left of the Japanese attack force except a scattering of escort ships and the planes still in the air. The pilots were the final casualties of the battle; with the aircraft carriers gone, and with Midway still in American hands, they had nowhere to land. They were doomed to circle helplessly above the sinking debris, the floating bodies, and the burning oil slicks until their fuel ran out.

This was the Battle of Midway. As John Keegan writes, it was "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare." Its consequences were instant, permanent and devastating. It gutted Japan's navy and broke its strategy for the Pacific war. The Japanese would never complete their perimeter around their new empire; instead they were thrown back on the defensive, against an increasingly large and better-organized American force, which grew surgingly confident after its spectacular victory. After Midway, as the Japanese scrambled to rebuild their shattered fleet, the Americans went on the attack. In August 1942 they began landing a marine force on the small island of Guadalcanal (it's in the Solomons, near New Guinea) and inexorably forced a breach in the perimeter in the southern Pacific. From there American forces began fanning out into the outer reaches of the empire, cutting supply lines and isolating the strongest garrisons. From Midway till the end of the war the Japanese didn't win a single substantial engagement against the Americans. They had "lost the initiative," as the bland military saying goes, and they never got it back.

But it seems somehow paltry and wrong to call what happened at Midway a "battle." It had nothing to do with battles the way they were pictured in the popular imagination. There were no last-gasp gestures of transcendent heroism, no brilliant counterstrategies that saved the day. It was more like an industrial accident. It was a clash not between armies, but between TNT and ignited petroleum and drop-forged steel. The thousands who died there weren't warriors but bystanders -- the workers at the factory who happened to draw the shift when the boiler exploded.

Find the entire essay here.


The McGuffin said...

Serendipity...WWII style. Funny enough, I just caught most of the 1976 "Midway" with Chuck Heston this weekend. Terrible 70's disaster flick, but the story is and was pretty remarkable.

dave starry said...

Interesting and colorful, but taken strictly as a history lesson the essay is atrocious. Of course, that may not be the author's intention and I only read selected portions. By the way, the Great War is normally a label associated with World War I (which was commonly referred to by that moniker before there was a second world war so that they could be consecutively numbered).

One's feelings about the film "Midway" may be somewhat biased by one's views towards 70s cinema. I can still remember seeing this at the old Fox Theater in Sensurround during its original run. As a movie it's saddled with excessive stock footage and a silly romantic back story (which does manage to throw Japanese internment into the mix however), but the actual events are told fairly accurately in a basic historical sense.

Eric said...

Dave, what do you mean that the history lesson is atrocious. Is it wrong?

dave starry said...

Big picture-wise, Sandlin has some of the general facts correct, although many of his conclusions are subject to debate. It's in the details of the events (e.g., Midway or the Battle of the Bulge) that his history begins to break down, often through selective omission. What happened to the American carriers at Midway? One might incorrectly surmise from the essay that they escaped unscathed. That is just one small example. And when he states that Midway was the first major naval battle involving aircraft carriers he is flat out wrong.

As I said, his premise may not simply be a strict retelling of events. But if one is truly interested in learning, for example, the unfolding of the battle of Midway, one would be better served to read the Wikipedia entry.

MC said...

Fascinating essay, but I think it clearly tries to seek out the answer to the question "What was WWII like?" /"What was it like to be in battle during that time?"

I was recently in Saipan and I have been to Okinawa-so I'm interested to learn more about the destructiveness of the Pacific campaign. I just received Max Hastings' book Retribution about the war with Japan-so I should be dipping into it fairly soon, still working on a couple of other books at the moment though.