It is a curious thing that the Pacific campaign in World War II is not nearly as famous as the European campaign, even though the Japanese were the reason America entered the war. June 6, for example, will always be the anniversary of D-Day, not part of the Battle of Midway, which is also curious because comparatively D-Day mattered not at all.
I mention this now, 73 years after the Battle of Midway ended, because so much has changed in the intervening years — and because, despite those changes, Midway and World War II era battles like them have shaped our approach to armed conflict in the generations since. In too many ways, they still color our perceptions of the war against ISIS.
First, the history. Although by 1944 the war’s outcome was never in doubt, if all efforts failed the Soviet Army would eventually have crushed the Reich by itself. Victory at that point was a national and industrial effort, and would belong to the countries with the most steel plants and masses of citizens under arms.
Midway was different. It was not a national effort but instead a battle of individuals, a rickety shootout by a few highly trained people under extremely confused conditions, and — incredibly — the underdog won. There’s no reason the United States, with a second-string commander, green troops and two-and-a-half aircraft carriers, should have been able to defeat the Japanese with their four carriers and the most experienced planes, pilots and admirals in the world.
Had Japan annihilated the rest of the Pacific Fleet carriers, it would have taken Midway. With land-based planes on Midway, it would have taken Hawaii. With Hawaii…well, who knows? Maybe San Francisco, maybe Alaska. Maybe pause in the Pacific and knock out the British in India. And then maybe peace, under a new Pax Japania.
Logically, that’s how it should have turned out. But unlike Stalingrad or El Alamein, Midway hinged not on numbers but on chance. On June 4, with both the Japanese and American fleets closing in on Midway, neither really sure where the other was, at a nearly suicidal range for his planes, Admiral Spruance launched his dive-bombers and torpedo planes at the Japanese.
American carrier doctrine at that time was fairly complicated. The dive-bombers would go in first and attack at a high altitude, and while the enemy fighters were distracted the torpedo planes would lumber along close to the water and try to sink the enemy ships. Even in theory, it required a good deal of coordination and practice.
When the attack began, it wasn’t complicated at all. It was a disaster. The dive bombers immediately wandered off on their own, hoping to find the Japanese in an area of water roughly the size of Oklahoma. The torpedo squadrons did the same, but each squadron decided to look for the enemy individually. Since nobody could use their radios, it was essentially up to each individual squadron commander to find four Japanese carriers in the Pacific.
The first to do so were three torpedo squadron pilots from Hornet around 9:20 AM. They were unescorted, flying low and slow, and were promptly slaughtered by Japanese Zeros. After a few minutes another carrier torpedo squadron wandered into view, and was slaughtered, and then yet another wandered into view, and then they were slaughtered.
Midway, like the other Pacific battles so far, was running true to form. Nagumo, the Japanese carrier admiral, now landed the planes that had been bombing Midway atoll, refueled them and prepared his entire strike force for an attack on the American ships that he had finally sighted.
And then — at that moment, with bombs, planes and fuel scattered on the decks of the Japanese carriers, with no defensive planes in position, with a century of dominance hanging in the balance and Shogun Tokugawa screaming out from the grave — with absolutely dumb Yanqui luck and perfect timing, the hopelessly lost American dive bombers staggered out of the clouds and attacked.
The planes, fuel and bombs went up immediately. So did the carriers themselves. Two were sunk the first day, two the second, and the Japanese fleet never recovered. The Pacific War was over, though it would not end for three more years.
In the long run, the Battle of Midway and other boldface WWII names like D-Day and the Bulge have perhaps warped America’s national memory of conflict. War in the public consciousness — the right wars, anyway — became a mostly clean duel of professionals, what we are pleased to call the “American way of war,” rather than the extended contests of national will and resources they more accurately resemble.
World War II erased every memory of the groaning exertion of the Civil War, which was something similar to what the Soviets were fighting against the Nazis.
When the next contests came — Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan and two in Iraq —we would try to fight them the same way, usually disastrously. And today, nothing is more Midway than America’s war against ISIS, led by a handful of troops and Pentagon press conferences, dueling America’s enemies with drone strikes and air sorties from on high. It’s a good style of war. It’s just too bad that it doesn’t work anymore.
Top Reads in The Fiscal Times: