Truth and Strategy, Part I

“IF I AM TOLD TO FIGHT the Americans,” said Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943) to Japanese Premier Fumimaro Konoe in 1940, “I shall run wild for the first six months. I can promise to give them hell. But I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.”

Here was Yamamoto, wounded veteran of the incomparable Battle of Tsushima (1905), graduate of the finest Japanese military staff colleges as well as Harvard University (1921), and as of 1940 an admiral of the fleet and commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, speaking truth to power. But unfortunately for Yamamoto and his Japanese nation, power did not hear his truth.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” says the Bible at John 8:32. But it is not as though truth is always obvious, let alone clarion. For example, every lawyer who has ever tried a case can explain why. At the end of a trial, there is the plaintiff’s version of truth, there is the defendant’s version of the truth, there is what the judge or jury found as fact, and then there is what really happened. Why is this so? Different people look at the same things and see them in their own ways, from their own perspectives. And different people hear the truth in different ways, filtered through the depths of their minds and molded by their own experiences and understanding.

Truth and War

In the case of the Japanese national leadership in 1940, the “truth” was that their nation had been at war for nine years. Since 1931, Japan had been involved in a brutal and expensive military campaign in China. Japanese casualties were well over 150,000 and material costs were simply astronomical. (Chinese casualties were in the millions.)

The expedition into China was part of a long-term Japanese expansionist effort that dated back almost 50 years, to the 1890s. Japan was a resource-poor island nation, competing with other nations of the world in an industrial age. Yet Japan harbored imperial dreams, the fulfillment of which required adding to its sphere of control the resource-rich areas of Korea, Manchuria, and parts of Siberia. The Japanese believed that with these additional territories living under the flag of the chrysanthemum, if not the flag of the rising sun, Japan would lead Asia to prosperity.

In the 1890s, Japan had fought a major war with China to ensure Japanese access to the resources of Korea and Manchuria. The Chinese had capitulated and paid a massive indemnity to Japan. A decade later, in 1904 and 1905, Japan and Russia fought another major war over the control, if not the destiny, of northeast Asia. The war with Russia was, broadly speaking, a military victory for Japan, although there were certainly elements of the land combat that were close fought. And the war had also been enormously expensive for Japan in terms of blood and treasure.

After hostilities between the two nations came to an end, with the assistance of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia and Japan had made a sort of “peace” with each other along their mutual borders in Asia, the offshore islands and at sea. Unfortunately for the tsarist government of Russia, by losing the war with Japan, the Romanov dynasty found itself on an accelerating descent into political revolution. Japan, in turn, was victorious, but economically exhausted. The Japanese people, especially the families of the casualties, were bitter not to have received indemnification from defeated Russia, whose tsar had told his negotiators “not one kopek for Japan.”

Still, the fighting between Russia and Japan ended, while the underlying Asian rivalry continued. Despite the nominal “peace,” Russia and its successor state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), continued to maintain a very large troop presence along its ill-defined frontier with Japanese power. The Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 brought Japanese and Soviet armed forces eyeball to eyeball along a 3,000-mile border.

A Little-Known Place Called Nomonhan

In the spring and summer of 1939, Russia and Japan came to blows in the Mongolian desert, in a little-known place called Nomonhan. “A Strange War,” observed The New York Times in a headline published July 20, 1939, over an article commenting on the fighting between the Soviet Red Army and the Japanese troops on the Mongolian steppes.

A strange war, indeed. Despite lacking much in the way of firsthand information, the Times editorial did not allow its ignorance of the situation on the ground to stand in the way of snobbish armchair commentary. The Times article derided both combatants’ claims as “exaggerated.” But just as a blind squirrel may find an acorn, the Times inadvertently touched on the distinctive feature of the fighting when it described the battle as “raging in a thoroughly out-of-the-way corner of the world where it cannot attract a great deal of attention.” Would that this so-called “strange war” might have attracted more attention.


The New York Times notwithstanding, Soviet troops were under the command of a brilliant up-and-coming general named Georgi Zhukov. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the name of this general and his future title — as the fearsome Marshal Zhukov — would become household words across the world in just a few years. The Red Army employed over 1,000 tanks during the fighting, making Nomonhan the largest armored engagement in military history to that time, and still one of the largest armored engagements of any time. Revealing a military characteristic that would become all but genetic in the Red Army of the future, Soviet command and control evidenced remarkable skill and sophistication at mechanized warfare. And 1,000 tanks? Evidently, the Soviets had some logistical skills as well.

Against the 1,000 Soviet tanks, the Japanese army fared poorly. These Japanese troops, essentially an infantry force, fought with uncommon bravery and excellent small-unit skills. One young Japanese officer became something of a national hero when he single-handedly charged a Soviet tank assault, waving nothing but a sword. The astonished Russians had retreated.

But in the end, the Japanese troops could not make up for the fact that their advances had outrun their supply lines. The Japanese fought literally to the last of their bullets and shells. Then they fell victim to a Soviet double envelopment, in which the major Japanese formations were surrounded and smashed. Soviet T-26 tanks vastly outnumbered and completely outclassed the minimal Japanese contingent of armored vehicles. Soviet artillery outranged the Japanese guns and, adding to the scorching summer heat of the Mongolian desert, more than lived up to the historic reputation of Russian artillery as “hotter than hell.” Several Japanese units were all but annihilated, with casualty rates approaching 90%. It was a phenomenal victory for the Soviets and a resounding defeat for the Japanese.

Nomonhan was no minor border skirmish. It was an operation to which the Japanese army committed over 60,000 troops, of whom more than 45,000 were killed and almost 4,000 captured. (Many of the prisoners were taken to camps in the USSR and thoroughly indoctrinated into Communism. Many would return to Japan at the end of World War II and constitute a key segment of Japan’s Communist Party.) The Red Army admitted to losing near 10,000 as casualties, but the actual number could have been twice that. And the raw numbers, large as they may be, do not tell the whole story. Zhukov could lose 10,000, or even 20,000 men and his patron Joseph Stalin would send him more. The Japanese, on the other hand, simply could not afford their body count by any meaning of the term.

Certainly, it was an overwhelming level of Soviet materiel superiority and combat efficiency that ultimately defeated the Japanese at Nomonhan. But the Japanese defeat cannot be ascribed to materiel deficiencies alone. In a flawed warfighting process that crossed service boundaries within the Japanese military, and would be revealed again and again in the years to come, Japanese combat doctrine stressed offensive action to achieve a quick victory. This had its roots within Japanese society itself, which did not possess an economy that was geared to fight a massive conflict that would continue over a long time, let alone require a detailed measure of interservice cooperation. For as much of Western martial equipment and doctrine as Japan had incorporated into its military structure over many decades, the nation’s leaders had neglected to emphasize the fine points of operational art.

By 1939, and after the previous eight years of fighting in China, albeit against a relatively unsophisticated foe, at Nomonhan, this flawed Japanese warfighting doctrine met more than its match against a Soviet combat doctrine that emphasized combined arms and protracted warfare.

The Mongolian Crystal Ball

Nomonhan was a crystal ball, revealing many things about the future. On the steppes of Mongolia, the Japanese were attempting to fight a war of attrition against the far superior resources of the Soviet Red Army. This was, in retrospect, a Japanese mistake, if not a reflection of a strategic blunder.

At the very highest strategic levels, the Japanese were involved in a contest that they may not have understood clearly in any event, and certainly not at the time. Why did the Soviets move Zhukov and his army to Mongolia in the first place? Why did Stalin choose to fight the Japanese in this “thoroughly out-of-the-way corner of the world,” as The New York Times called it? And in a place where it would not “attract a great deal of attention,” at least from the likes of the Western press?

Why did the Soviets fight the Japanese at Nomonhan? Sometimes, the end of a conflict illuminates its beginnings. After the Japanese army was thoroughly routed, Stalin contacted the Japanese ambassador in Moscow and offered relatively liberal (for Stalin) peace terms, to include a “nonaggression” agreement in the Far East. On August 22, 1939, the Japanese government accepted the offer to settle the matter. Certainly not coincidentally, on August 23, 1939, Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov signed another pact with his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the secret protocols of which included the eventual occupation and division of Poland by both parties (Germany and the USSR). A few days later, Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War commenced. But Stalin had secured his Far Eastern frontier against any further warfare with the Japanese, at least for a while. By fighting at Nomonhan, Stalin had spared himself a war on two fronts.

In a remarkable, but at the same time chronic, lapse of strategic judgment and operational planning, the Japanese Army based its operational decisions to fight the USSR upon self-styled perceptions of how the Soviets could and would fight. It was more than a failure of intelligence concerning the opponent. Had the Japanese avoided defeat at Nomonhan, the Soviets would probably have reacted differently both in Asia and in Europe. But the Japanese were captive to their stereotypes of Soviet power, of Soviet operational doctrine, and even of Red Army tactics. Viewed another way, the operational preparations of the Japanese reflected something like a mirror image of their own military values and flawed presumptions about Soviet capabilities. Thus, Japanese preparations foundered and were neutralized when the Soviets did not fight according to Japanese expectations. Nomonhan was more than a military operation. It became a strategic event of historic proportions.

This small bit of a larger history clearly shows how strategy must be made with an open mind and considerate of many options. Nomonhan should have revealed to the Japanese that their process for formulating strategy, doctrine, operations, and even field tactics was flawed, lacking dynamism in both formulation and application. While only the iron hand of battle can truly expose what later generations might regard as self-evident truths, Nomonhan should have revealed to the Japanese that their theoretical strategic and operational processes were not relevant to the reality of their goals.

The Ghosts of an Earlier Victory

It was bad enough that the Japanese had suffered over 150,000 troops killed or wounded in China during the 1930s. The defeat and rout of Japanese arms upon the land at Nomonhan, and by none other than the adjacent Soviet Red Army, shocked Japanese strategists. It was, of course, a comeuppance to raw Japanese militarism. But strategically, Nomonhan was also a grim reminder of the costs of the war with Russia early in the century. It was as if the ghosts of the Imperial soldiers lost in the battles of 1904 and 1905 had formed ranks on the parade grounds of the Japanese War Ministry.

Nomonhan in 1939 brought back to the leadership in Tokyo many bitter memories of the casualty lists of the Russo-Japanese War. The siege of the Russian enclave at Port Arthur had made for a butcher’s bill in and of itself. The subsequent Japanese winter campaign of 1905, along the axis of Sha-ho and Mukden, had added to the numbers of lost troops, numbers of biblical proportions. At the same time, as they recalled the gut-wrenching losses of their land actions against the Russians, the Japanese leadership recollected, with an air of sentimental fondness to be sure, the momentum toward ultimate victory that came with the success of the major Japanese naval engagements of the earlier war. From the initial surprise attack on the Russian fleet, lying at anchor at Port Arthur, to the final destruction in May 1905 of the Russians at Tsushima by the all-but-sainted Adm. Togo Heihachiro, it was the Japanese navy whose victorious arms had controlled the final outcome.

There are many reasons why the political leadership of any nation considers going to war. In Japan in 1940 and 1941, the hands of the Japanese leadership were tied by the outcome of the fight at Nomonhan, and the “nonaggression” agreement with the USSR. And thus, the eyes of the Japanese leadership came to be fixed firmly on a victorious and glorious past brought about by the storied efforts of their mighty navy. Cognizant of the costs of the war on land with Russia in 1904 and 1905, and now considering the astonishing repulse at Nomonhan by the Red Army, the Japanese leaders evaluated the strategic risks of pursuing a land war with the Soviets. It was perhaps not such a difficult process for the emperor’s strategists, in their own worldview, to turn their attentions and desires elsewhere in the world.

And when Yamamoto spoke his words of caution to the Japanese premier in 1940, did the man of politics not hear the military truth, or was he simply not able to listen or understand the wise counsel of his great admiral? “Six months,” said Yamamoto. This is not much time to accomplish anything, let alone to wage a major war to conquer Southeast Asia and in the process fight against the United States. But would Yamamoto’s truth make these Japanese leaders free? Could it? Or to the contrary, were the leaders of Japan all captives of their history, their own views of the truth?

Adm. Yamamoto received his instructions from his leaders, and in due course would order the bows of his ships to cut water in the direction of Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific. Japan had chosen a course of action. Truth or no, Yamamoto’s ships would sail to their destinies. His crews would meet their fate.

Dutifully, Yamamoto planned an operation whose main thrust involved an attack on the American Navy, which his planners expected to be lying at anchor at Pearl Harbor. On the one hand, the Pearl Harbor attack was a classic form of Japanese combat doctrine, stressing offensive action to achieve a quick victory. In a manner eerily reminiscent of what occurred at Port Arthur in 1904 against Russia, the Japanese would catch the U.S. fleet all but asleep, unprepared for combat. And at a time and place of the choosing by the military planners of Japan, in 1941, the war with America would come.

But if the coming war with America turned into a long-term war of attrition, Yamamoto knew that it was not one that Japan could win. “I shall run wild for the first six months,” said Yamamoto. And so he did.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
March 29, 2006