11th Grade: Victory and Defeat Rest on Culture


This week we continued with W.W. II, and put a special focus on the impact a culture has on its army, and how that impacts the fighting itself.

When we think of qualities that an army needs to succeed, we would probably list

  • Unity
  • Order
  • Obedience
  • Hierarchical control

All of these qualities dovetail nicely with totalitarian societies.  Examples abound of the extreme sacrifices of individual Japanese soldiers in W.W. II.  They rarely surrendered.  They threw themselves on top of barbed wire and let fellow soldiers climb on top of them.  Surely any commander would prize these qualities.  And yet, democracies have a very favorable historical record in war against totalitarian regimes.  In fact, democracies get in much more trouble when they fight each other, i.e. The Peloponnesian War, The Roman Social War, World War I, etc.

What values, then, do democracies give their armies, and how does this help them win?  We looked at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 to help us understand this.  Both Japanese and American armies had brave soldiers, but their actions were byproducts of their cultures, and the values of Japanese society put them at a relative disadvantage.

For example:

  • Intelligence

Historians of all stripes universally agree that American military intelligence far outstripped Japans.  Is this coincidence?  Code breaking requires an extreme level of mathematical and analytic ability, and many people who possess that ability would not easily fit into a military lifestyle.  The U.S. army let these code breakers work independently.  Sometimes they showed up in uniform, sometimes they showed up in a bathrobe and slippers.  Sometimes they worked 9-5, sometimes they worked 24 hrs. straight and then took the next day off.  The U.S. tolerated all of their individual eccentricities, and it paid off with sterling results.

By June of ’42 we had broken the Japanese naval code and knew that they had planned a major assault on Midway.

In contrast, Japanese code breakers worked within a much more rigid structure.  They could not work independently, but had to take specific direction from superiors at all times.  They never achieved any measurable result.

  • Battle Plan and Strategy

All armies have a hierarchy, with orders that require obedience.  But different armies allow for more independence from their soldiers than others.  As we might expect, Japanese leadership insisted on strict, uniform control of all aspects of the battle.  To help achieve this level of control they grouped their air craft carriers all together, ostensibly to prevent free-lancing.  But it went both ways, for Japanese soldiers, not having been trained to act independently, could not do so.  The Americans, by contrast, spread out their ships.

The turning point of the battle came when an American dive-bomber squadron located the carriers (grouped together) they just happened to all be refueling, leaving tons of fuel exposed to attack.  The Americans needed only a few direct hits to essentially sink three carriers in six minutes.

Again, whatever role you assign to “chance,” it was no coincidence, especially when we consider that dive-bombers found the carriers when the squadron leader made a “best guess” of his own, and did not act on any specific order.  The military culture of the American army had some distinct differences from that of the Japanese, and this difference emanated from the society at large.

  • The Fate of the Commanders

When the Japanese carriers were hit, all of the Japanese admirals and captains gathered below deck to commit ritual suicide.  This action emanated directly from their code of “Bushido,” which penalizes failure and dishonor with death.

We can contrast this with General MacArthur of the U.S., who, when he suffered defeat and humiliation in the Philippines in 1942, fled the scene.  In 1944 he came back to liberate it.

Most historians I have come across argue that Japanese Generals and Admirals were at least the equal, if not superior, to their Allied counterparts.  Japanese privates had just as much, if not more, fighting spirit as the Americans.  All agree that the real difference between the armies could be found in their respective sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.  Allied soldiers of this rank could lead and adapt to changing conditions on their own, and their Japanese counterparts could not.

Interestingly, Hitler also had an obsession with “honorable” suicide, though few of his generals took him up on the idea.  Rommel eventually ignored Hitler’s “Victory or Death” order at El Alamein, though he later regretted he did not disobey even earlier than he did, for Montgomery’s artillery inflicted so much damage the Nazi’s never recovered in Africa.

A common theme running through all these factors is the honor given to individual life, something that totalitarian societies do not value.  In the end, such values not only don’t help your society, they don’t help your military either.

Have a great weekend,

Dave Mathwin