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the battle of midway

8 october 2012

Craig L. Symonds's Battle of Midway is tautly-written, analytical, and critical military history. Symonds doesn't surround his topic with much philosophy or theory: there are no cosmic contexts or world-historical speculations, and not much human-interest drama aside from the odd anecdote here and there. But he tells you what happened, in terms of what was known to the participants as it happened, as far as current scholarship can reconstruct it. The book appeared last year in a series called Pivotal Moments in American History, and argues that Midway really was a key contingent moment in the Second World War. But not a long-shot miracle moment of goofy chance, either. It was inevitable that American industry would win the war, but hardly inevitable that four Japanese aircraft carriers would be sunk in a single day, greatly hastening that victory. And for all the significance of those sinkings, they were not just some bizarre random event, either.

Instead, Symonds shows how multiple random contingencies can build into a large event with a shape and a narrative, one that alters the course of future intentions, wherewithals, and possibilities. "For want of a nail" is a powerful but misleading cliché. More often, battles are lost because somebody's forgotten to order a whole box of nails.

So it was, nearly, with U.S. naval aviation at Midway. The torpedo bombers that made up a large portion of American air strength in the battle were equipped with faulty torpedos, and were somewhat useless in combat, fatally dooming many of their crews. Their failures were due to poor planning, not to bad luck. By contrast, the American dive-bombing Dauntlesses were the key to the victory. They had their problems too, including windshields that fogged if the pilots tried to do what precisely the planes were designed for – dive-bombing – but the planes were tough and well-armed. Most of their bombs missed their targets. Most bombs do. But on aggregate, the Americans were able to drop enough bombs from enough planes to wreck the heart of the Japanese navy.

The people behind these weapons are, for Symonds, a rather uniform bunch of steely warriors, with some aw-shucksy humor to leaven their images. We see many more Americans than we do Japanese. Symonds makes good attempts to explain the strategic thinking of the Japanese high command, but we learn little about the crews of the ships and planes they commanded. Such is perhaps inevitable from the perspective of an American historian. And Symonds is not just any historian, but a naval historian, and indeed the principal naval historian of the Naval Academy. His favorite background story is to tell how a particular officer faired in Annapolis as a cadet.

By contrast, apart from a few great admirals, the Japanese are portrayed, somewhat stereotypically, as a cruel bunch of inscrutable people who torture and kill prisoners. And perhaps some of them did. But there is little attempt to see the "enemy" as human here, and some attempt to brand them as inhumane.

In terms of pure technical history of naval doctrine and combat, The Battle of Midway is hugely informative (as well as vivid and suspenseful). Midway is famous as a great carrier battle, one where one party's ships never saw the other's. We get an astonishing sense of how useless heavy cruisers and battleships – the heart of First-World-War navies, and the subject of so much diplomatic obsessing between the war – proved in such battles. The big capital ships that embodied so much money and employed such huge crews were little better than floating targets in the fight.

Midway was a battle fought by planes from one side's carriers seeking to destroy the carriers and planes of the other side. As such, it was a battle fought in more than the usual "fog of war." Reconnaissance flights missed entire fleets. Sightings of the enemy were almost never accurate; damage reports might as well have been fictional. Neither side ever got much of a grasp of where the other side's forces were, except for the few pilots who actually managed to bomb ships. Technical malfunctions were the rule of the day. But when a single thousand-pound bomb falls on a carrier's deck, an unlikely event is transformed into a historical moment.

The Japanese defeat can in part be traced, Symonds establishes, to a curiously self-contradictory battle plan. Admiral Yamamoto wanted to use the great Kidō Butai, the Japanese carrier fleet, to destroy the American carrier fleet. Yamamoto had four carriers available, the Americans three. But the element of surprise was crucial, and Yamamoto couldn't just sail towards Pearl Harbor in 1942 inviting ambush. Instead he (or rather his operational commander Admiral Nagumo) had to pretend to attack a target, Midway Island, and thereby draw out the American fleet. Japanese planners' wargames, keenly described by Symonds, assumed that the Americans would simultaneously hold back cautiously and sail blithely into a trap. The action on 4 June 1942 began, therefore, with the Japanese carrier planes actually attacking the island of Midway, a place nobody much wanted, and where not much damage could be done. The Americans were unimpressed. And they had broken the Japanese codes, and seized the initiative. The American carriers were waiting where nobody in power in the Japanese command expected they could possibly be, and the Japanese carriers, having launched their planes, were trapped in an ambush of their own devising.

It's a glorious story. Symonds conveys its scale and its explosions impressively. He conveys less of its human element. But perhaps that's for some other kind of book to do. It takes many kinds of contributions to make a great naval battle, and just as many to tell its story.

Symonds, Craig L. The Battle of Midway. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [Pivotal Moments in American History]