Skip the Movie: We Can Tell You Why Japan Was Crushed at the Battle of Midway

Skip the Movie: We Can Tell You Why Japan Was Crushed at the Battle of Midway

James Holmes


The end of World War II.

Key point: Groupthink can kill a military.

A devil’s advocate is a precious commodity. That has to be one of the takeaways from revisiting the Battle of Midway seventy-five years on, and it should be etched on the internal workings of any martial institution that wants to survive and thrive amid the rigors, danger, and sheer orneriness of combat. Despite Japanese mariners’ tactical brilliance and élan, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) leadership was prone to such ills as groupthink and strategic doublethink. Worse, the IJN fleet was cursed to be led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto—a leader of such stature and mystique that subordinates deferred to him out of habit. Never mind whether his ideas concerning operations and strategy made sense.

As they sometimes didn’t. The result of Japanese seafarers’ deference prior to Midway: the needless loss of the Kidō Butai, the IJN’s aircraft-carrier fleet and main striking arm. Worse from Tokyo’s standpoint, Midway halted the Japanese Empire’s till-then unbroken string of naval victories. The Kidō Butai had rampaged throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans for six months following its December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor, only to come to grief at the hands of a ragtag three-carrier U.S. Navy force composed of USS Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet and commanded ably by admirals Ray Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.

Japanese industry was unable to construct enough new flattops afterward to replenish the fleet, at the same time that American industry was laying the keels for—among other things—the seventeen-ship Essex class of carriers. Japanese naval aviation never recovered fully from Midway. A tactical defeat entailing strategic repercussions of such import constitutes a grave price for foregoing debate about contending courses of action. Such debates are a must—and the more rambunctious the better.

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