Sunday, June 13, 2010

Japan and the U.S.: Ad Hoc War, Ad Hoc "Recovery"

Japan had no real plan to win World War II, or for its "recovery" from its 1989 bubble. The U.S. has no real plan to "win" in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for this "recovery." It's all ad hoc, and the consequences are predictably catastrophic.

Through a bit of luck, I recently viewed an NHK TV program (in translation) on the origins of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy which launched World War II. To my great surprise, the war was all ad hoc.

The program was based on 400 hours of taped conversation between former mid-rank Japanese Naval officers who had gathered to privately discuss the war in 110 informal meetings in the early 1980s.

The Japanese are circumspect in the best of circumstances about matters of national "face" and responsibility for the war and Japan's policies of horrific brutality against civilians and enemy combatants alike.

The reluctance to speak the truth was evident in some of the voices of those who were front and center in the Imperial Navy Staff and the Combined Fleet throughout the war.

Other voices were angry, and their anger broke through the cultural restraints which had bound them to secrecy all those decades after the war. "Didn't you think of the 3,000 men who were sacrificed?" "Why didn't you go directly to Admiral Nagano and try to convince him not to approve the war?"

This was not the "official history" or even the history these participants had revealed in debriefings after the war. According to this program, the connection of the Imperial family to the Navy (via a celebrated Admiral who was chief of Staff between 1932 and 1941) had never been openly discussed.

The transcripts and audio recordings revealed a truth which I had never encountered in all my 40 years of reading about Asia, Japan, and the Pacific War: the entire war was essentially ad hoc, as much the result of the Navy's fear of domination by the Imperial Army as it was about the U.S. embargo on oil exports to Japan which had been imposed after Japan invaded Indochina in 1941.

Bureaucratic infighting between the services, the influence of a key Admira

l over the Emperor, jousting between the Naval General Staff and the leaders of the Combined Fleet, and ultimately, fear of losing domestic power led the Navy's General Staff to recommend war against the U.S. as the "only possible response" to the oil embargo.

The "official reasons" given for the war--a "greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere", even the U.S. embargo on oil--played no part in the actual decisions to wage war on the U.S., or in planning to win such a war.

One would think the Naval General Staff or the Imperial General Headquarters would have formulated a rigorous, well-conceived plan to actually win the war before launching it; one would be wrong. The Japanese "plan" was based on two fantasies: the first, that quick strikes at U.S. bases in the Philippines and Pearl Harbor would induce the U.S. to promptly negotiate a peace favorable to Japan (i.e., the war would be short), and then, when that was revealed as fantasy, to force a "decisive battle" which would effectively destroy U.S. Naval power in the Pacific.

In effect, the decision to wage war on the U.S. was the outcome of domestic politics and pride, not strategic considerations. The consequences of war were not thought through, and accountability was poor. The entire chain of command was riddled with ad hoc thinking and decisions based on domestic political rivalries, glossed-over realities, fear of losing face, and misplaced deference to forces within the Imperial family.

There are hundreds of websites on the Imperial Navy and the Pacific Theater of World War II, and the Imperial Japanese Navy Page is remarkably thorough. I especially recommend its economic analysis of Japan and the U.S., which contains this telling conclusion:

In the end, however, the Tojo government chose the path of aggression, compelled by internal political dynamics which made the prospect of a general Japanese disengagement in China (which was the only means by which the American economic embargo would have been lifted) too humiliating a course to be taken.

This dogmatic fantasy of a "decisive battle" led the Japanese Combined Fleet to launch an ill-planned invasion of the island of Midway in June 1942, with the express goal of drawing out and then sinking the last three remaining U.S. aircraft carriers. The officers taped in 1981-83 bemoaned the lack of planning, and recounted that the General Staff had recommended against the Midway assault. Others said they had begged for more time to plan the invasion and been rebuffed.

Unbeknownst to the Imperial Navy, the U.S. Navy had, by extraordinary efforts, broken the Imperial Navy's secret radio-signal codes. Thus the U.S. Navy had forewarning and could position itself accordingly.

Nonetheless, the battle was sprawling mess of chance sightings at the extreme range of carrier aircraft, good and bad luck on both sides and a suicide attack by U.S. Navy torpedo bombers (41 out of 42 shot down).

The end result was a "decisive battle," but not the one Japan had "planned"; the core of their Naval aviation was lost--four aircraft carriers and their most experienced pilots.

Here are two authoritative books on the battle: Miracle at Midway and Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway .

Despite this catastrophic defeat (unreported to the Japanese civilian populace, of course), the leaders of the Japanese Navy stubbornly held to the fantasy of a "decisive battle" even as their strategic and tactical situations deteriorated. This fantasy led to them throwing the last of the Imperial Navy into a climactic attack on U.S. forces in the Leyte Gulf off the Philippines. Part of that story is told in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The U.S. Navy's Finest Hour .

Despite initial success, the "decisive battle" of Leyte Gulf turned against the Imperial Navy.

With all hope of a decisive battle gone, the Japanese Navy resorted to suicide attacks on a scale that was unprecdented in warfare: thousands of young Japanese pilots were ordered to fly their planes into American ships: kamikazes, the "divine wind" which, it was hoped, would save Japan just as a "divine wind" had arisen to sink the invading Chinese Fleet hundreds of years before.

Thousands of pilots were sacrified and hundreds of U.S. warships were damaged or sunk. Strategically, the kamikaze campaign changed nothing.

The Japanese were incapable of admitting that their war was impossible to win.Instead, they ratcheted up to ever-higher levels of sacrifice and fantasy. We know from elderly Japanese friends that the Japanese were prepared for an unprecedented sacrifice of their civilian population to counter the coming American invasion; suicide aircraft were parked at the end of streets and camouflaged, young girls were sent deep into mountain caves to assemble munitions (our friend was one of them), and students were trained en masse to become suicidal "human waves" who would rush the invaders with whatever weapons were available.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this same stubborn refusal to admit strategic failure is evident in Japan's two "lost decades" of failed "recovery." A series of prime ministers come and go, many not even lasting a year, as the same ad hoc "strategy" of endless Keynesian "stimulus" is ratcheted up, year after year, with less and less effect, except to increase the debt burdens of the nation to the point of no return.

Japan's leaders had no real "plan" to escape their bubble bust, the structural changes of their economy and demographics, or the resulting deflation. For 21 long years, their response has been a dogmatic embrace of an ad hoc policy of maintaining the status quo at all costs.

Japan grew rich after the war via a massive reconstruction project and a disciplined mercantilist policy of limiting imports and ramping up exports. The "plan" for "recovery" was a continuation of these same policies which had worked so well in the 1946-1986 era: build and export.

But the world economy had changed, and Japan had already built out its infrastructure. Rather than submit to a "defeat" of the interlocking status quo domestic political fiefdoms, Japan embarked on a disastrous two decades of building bridges to nowhere, even as its rural population shrank and its demographics reversed from growth to decline.

The cost of this ad hoc policy of enabling the status quo, at whatever cost and sacrifice, is now apparent, though the Japanese are generally as circumspect about it as they are about the atrocities and stupidity of the war their nation launched in 1937 against China and in 1941 against the U.S.

Once again, the Japanese leadership is incapable of admitting that its ad hoc Keynesian "plan" to escape deflation and engineer a "recovery" have failed. Once again, domestic politics trumps reality, accountability and transparency, and once again the lack of rigorous strategic planning dooms a rigidly embraced ad hoc policy to ruin.

Does this story of ad hoc waging of war remind you of the Iraq war? It should, for it is the same story: a stubborn refusal to execute a rigorous, realistic strategy to win a war cavalierly launched on abjectly fantastic premises (the Iraqis will welcome us as liberators, etc.), and the suppression of any voices in the U.S. Armed Forces who questioned the ad hoc decisions and assumptions (for instance, U.S. Army General Shinseki, who was cashiered for insisting that it would take 300-500,000 troops on the ground to control Iraq, rather than the 120,000 the planners sent).

Sycophants and yes-men were rewarded, voices of experience and skepticism were ignored or sent packing; rather than admit the "official reasons" were mere propaganda to mask domestic political machinations, hubris and misplaced fear of losing "face," the ad hoc policies were simply ratcheted up to higher levels of sacrifice. The anger of the mid-ranking Imperial Navy officers who saw their men sacrificed for an ignoble ad hoc war to cover up the sins and stupidities of their leaders is now rising in the U.S. officer corps as well, though just as in Imperial Japan, the internal restraints of loyalty to the service and the nation stifle many voices.

Even now, there is no strategy for "winning," and the word itself has been lost from the official vocabulary. It's not a "war," so there's no "winning." The sacrifice of the troops is not a consideration to the U.S. leadership, anymore than it was in the Imperial leadership. The trillions of dollars of national treasure squandered on an ad hoc war is also no consideration; every sacrifice will be demanded of the Military and civilians to avoid admitting the war was a tragic mistake, the result of hubris, heedless dogmatism, and a preference for domestically attractive fantasies rather than strategic imperatives and rigorous planning.

The "recovery" engineered by Bernanke and his cronies is just as ad hoc as the Japanese policies of the past 21 years. The same disastrous reliance on endless borrowing and Keynesian "stimulus" to prop up a failed status quo which is no longer aligned with global or domestic realities is now the "policy" of the U.S. leadership.

Just as Japan has squandered two decades and trillions of yen to prop up its zombie banks--insolvent in any true audit--so too is the U.S. squandering trillions to prop up its zombie banks and construction/real estate lenders. There is no "exit plan" for either Iraq/Afghanistan or the "stimulus" of borrowing $1.5 trillion each and every year to prop up the failed status quo fiefdoms.

Japan has failed to admit the Grand Failure of its stubborn ad hoc indulgence of the status quo. Every year, the same tired "solution" is trotted out: borrow more money, spend it unwisely but in ways which satisfy domestic political powers.

Isn't this precisely the path the U.S. has chosen? Every year, the Japanese government borrows and spends 40% of its total Federal budget in the vain hope that the "organic demand" which has been missing for 20 years will magically appear. Two decades of failure has done nothing to dislodge the dogmatic embrace of pure fantasy.

Now the U.S. is on the same treadmill to disaster, borrowing 40% of its Federal budget every year just to keep the status quo from imploding. Take in $2 trillion in tax revenues, borrow $1.5 trillion and spend $3.5 trillion. Does anyone think this is sustainable?

Of course not. But just as the mid-rank officers in the Imperial Navy were too busy with day-to-day operations to question the obvious flaws in an ad hoc strategy, so too are the players in the U.S. "machine" too busy, too cowed, and ultimately too fearful of losing their positions and perks to question the obvious flaws in the ad hoc war and economic policies being pursued by the Empire.

It is human nature to want to believe in a cause and in future victory, even when the war or policy is totally ad hoc. Once the nation and Empire is committed, even when the decisions to commit were poor and based on fantasy, those in service to the nation and Empire obediently support the doomed policies, even as they see that victory is impossible and the nation is careening into inevitable ruin.

The Japanese citizenry own 93% of their government's debt; regardless of the consequences, they loyally cling to their government bonds. The Japanese government can foist off trillions more in debt on its populace, until some final breaking point when there are no longer enough old people with disposable income to support the failed policy of ever-rising debt.

For the younger Japanese are opting out, not just of buying government bonds but of the entire status quo; young Japanese women are deciding not to have children, and young Japanese men are refusing to become heavy-drinking "salarymen" in servitude to the nation's export machine.

Young Japanese are refusing to buy and own autos; they are deciding not to get married. They are opting out of the entire failed status quo, while their seniors, who have sacrificed so much to prop up the pride of the nation and of the Powers That Be, are befuddled and angered by the younger generation's refusal to carry the same burdens of ad hoc dogmatism and fantasy.

The U.S. is not quite so well-placed to endure two decades of ad hoc dogmatism in service to a failed status quo. We rely on non-U.S. players to buy our ballooning debt, and to accept miserly rates of interest on top of the bargain.

There is no "exit strategy" from today's ad hoc Keynesian debt binge, nor any "exit strategy" from Iraq and Afghanistan. The "policy" is to cling to the fantasy that if we just keep doing the same things, in 10 or 20 years then it will all sort itself out: "organic demand" will return to the domestic U.S. economy, and we can declare "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is not a strategy for success or victory; it is only a guarantee of catastrophic consequence.
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