Austin Bay

Imagination, deception and audacity, in combination, are the deadly acme of warfare. Japan’s Pearl Harbor ambush of America’s Pacific Fleet, which occurred 70 years ago this week, displayed these traits. So did al-Qaida’s 9-11 savaging of American cities.

Despite clues and suggestive bits of intelligence, both attacks caught America by surprise and thrust the nation headlong into ongoing global wars that it either tried to avoid or ignore. In other words, both imaginative and deceptive attacks, executed with audacity, leveraged American self-deception and lack of imagination.

Both attacks spawned critical re-examination of intelligence data and grim reflection on the complex process of intelligence assessment and political decision-making.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration understood the strategic context in the Pacific. Japan was an imperialist state engaged in a land war in China that needed raw materials to supply its war effort. The Japanese government chafed at economic sanctions imposed by Washington for Japanese depredations in China. Restrictions on oil and scrap metal exports hampered Japanese war materiel production.

FDR’s security agencies had cracked the Japanese diplomatic communications code. America knew Japan was mulling an attack to the south, perhaps on the Dutch East Indies. Seizing the Indies’ oilfields to ensure energy supplies for Japan’s industry and armed forces made eminent strategic sense.

An “attack to the south” became a powerful interpretive pattern.

Operational and tactical intelligence data, however -- in 1941, 2001 and in 2011 -- arrive in fragments. A useful analogy is a pointillism painting or a Jackson Pollock drip painting. In the process of creation, the painting is random dots or disjointed splashes. Over time, a lucid pattern emerges; the viewer can step away from the canvas; what looked like chaos appears as a coherent design.

In the midst of events, the significance of an intercepted coded Imperial Japanese Navy radio transmission indicating a fleet can be missed, especially if it didn’t fit a logically convincing (though preconceived) pattern. American strategists knew an attack on Pearl Harbor by carrier aircraft was possible, and they believed Japan might well expand its war. Their imaginative insight, however, was incomplete. They underestimated Japanese imagination and audacity.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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