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.
After Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. built a defense establishment designed to prevent another Pearl Harbor. America spent trillions of dollars spying on potential perpetrators of a surprise attack, building a security establishment to deter or defeat it, and engineering equipment to fulfill those missions.
Though the U.S. and U.S. allies suffered severe surprise attacks -- for example, Korea in 1950 and Tet (Vietnam) in 1968 -- in terms of protecting military capacities from pre-emptive attack, that effort has been successful.
We failed to protect American soil from attack, however, which is the hard shock 9-11 shares with Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11 was another egregious failure of imagination linked with dismissive assumption. Al-Qaida declared war on the U.S., but American leaders preferred to treat the threat as criminal rather than military. Violent cults waging long-term cultural and theological struggles with the terms of social and technological modernity aren’t new. Their ability to employ massively destructive power at strategic distances is, however.
Al-Qaida used jumbo jets as ICBMs; all it lacked was a nuclear weapon. U.S. strategists had wargamed suicide aircraft attacks, but the conventional wisdom labeled the plot too Hollywood. Like Pearl Harbor, post-911 attack examination revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had clues and facts, but failed to assimilate the data into a design -- the design of an audacious enemy.
Surprise will occur, but the acme of preparedness is limiting its effects. Dispersal of forces is a commonsense military discipline, even in peace time. Neat lines of anchored battleships in Pearl Harbor are a photo op, not common sense. A violent organization that announces it has declared war on America is no mere criminal problem.
As for improving America’s imagination? Eight years ago, former CIA Director James Schlesinger said that CIA needed to recruit “people with insight.” He basically said that CIA needs to hire artists who can enter an enemy’s designing mind. That is a rare gift, one leaders must identify, encourage and reward.