Truth and Strategy, Part II: Port Arthur

The bulk of the attack force departed the skies over Pearl Harbor, returning to the waiting Japanese aircraft carriers steaming into the wind northwest of Hawaii. Thus it was left to the flight leader, Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, to remain overhead the target area, flying in circles and making what damage assessment was possible through the fire and smoke far below that obscured his view. Eventually, Mitsuo’s declining fuel reserves prompted him to head north over the Pacific Ocean to join his comrades.

Mitsuo was astounded at the scope of what he had just witnessed, which was the initial act of war by Japan upon the United States of America. In his diary, Mitsuo later would describe the lines of battleships tied to the piers, perfect targets for what he and his fliers intended to accomplish on that morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Based on his knowledge and observations, Mitsuo was convinced that Japan had scored a signal victory due to the skill and bravery of his worthy group of able pilots, and this was no doubt true for as far as it went. But in another passage of his diary, Mitsuo touched on a different aspect of the Japanese success of that fateful Sunday morning. “Had these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?” he asked.


Port Arthur and Its Meaning

Had they never heard of Port Arthur? What student of military history has not heard of the place? It would be as if one had never heard of Aegospotami or Cannae, Hastings or Salamis, Waterloo or Gettysburg. But hearing the name, if not the legend of a particular place, does not necessarily mean knowing the battle. And even knowing a battle in its most intimate details is not necessarily the same thing as understanding a battle in its larger context. Every battle means different things at different levels, to different people and for different reasons.

One can look at the tactics of a battle. This includes the specific time, place, and manner in which the battle was fought, the circumstances under which one group of warriors fought another. Was it nighttime or daytime, warm or cold, ashore or afloat, flatland or mountains, farmland or forest or city? Looking at tactics involves studying the troops involved and their units, weapons, uniforms, and supplies on hand, and the means of employment and engagement. It includes learning and considering the details of terrain and close maneuver, command and control, and the dynamics of the human encounter ranging from abject cowardice to supreme heroism.

At a broader level of analysis, one can look at the operational features of a battle. This kind of operational analysis takes in wider vistas of time, space, and force. That is, how does one or another single battle, or perhaps a series of battles in parallel or in sequence, fit into a larger plan or campaign? Why, for example, would the commanders send their forces to advance and join in a particular engagement with a particular opponent at a particular time? What did each side know, and how did they know it? Just as important, one must review the logistical train that supports an operation. That is, can a victory be sustained, or do the limits of supply lines define a point of culmination and foretell withdrawal, if not retreat? What is, at root, the military or political goal of any given operational maneuver?

This last question from the operational level moves us into the next level of analysis. At an overarching level of military review, one looks at strategy. How do groups of battles or a series of operations fit into the theme of a major operational campaign? When a nation sacrifices its blood and treasure in battles and operations, what is the desired end state that the generals and admirals are seeking? One cannot know this without asking what the political masters hope to achieve by employing their military means. That is, what is the national policy that the military strategists are being tasked to implement? And is there a process of continuous assessment of goals and means, of strategies and resources?

“Strategy,” said Karl von Clausewitz, “is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose…The aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it.”

There is no end to strategy, and one operation leads to another. Peace transitions to war, which in due course transitions back to peace. Thus is the origin of the famous statement by Clausewitz that “War is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” And perhaps because of this aspect of human dynamics, there may never be an end to war.

Command the Adjacent Seas

Port Arthur is part of the northeast coast of China, just to the west of the Korean Peninsula. At Port Arthur on the night of Feb. 8, 1904, 10 Japanese destroyers made a surprise attack with torpedoes on an idle and unprepared Russian fleet, lying at anchor. It was the opening round of the Russo-Japanese War that would last well into 1905 and that in turn would change the course of human history.

The Japanese had determined to fight Russia over control of Korea, and beyond that unique land, to contest control over the resources of Manchuria. The geographic and political levers of Korea and Manchuria would, in turn, alter the destiny of China in a struggle between the two great powers of Europe and Asia. This was the Japanese plan, and from it came the national policy that controlled strategy.

Leading up to opening night of the fateful war, which some scholars have called “World War Zero,” the Japanese planners knew that any hope of prevailing in a land conflict with Russia, certainly one fought on the ground in Asia, required that the Japanese command the adjacent seas. Thus, the Japanese determined that it would be necessary to reduce Russian naval power at the outset of any war. This was the operational implementation of the strategic plan.

“Two basic principles…underlie all strategic planning,” wrote Clausewitz:

“The first principle is: Act with the utmost concentration [trace the ultimate substance of enemy strength to the fewest possible sources; compress the attack on these sources to the fewest possible actions; and subordinate minor actions as much as possible].

“The second principle is: Act with the utmost speed [every unnecessary expenditure of time and every unnecessary detour is a waste of strength; take the shortest possible road to the goal].

“The first task, then, in planning for a war, is to identify the enemy’s center of gravity, and if possible trace it back to single one.

“The second task is to ensure that the forces to be used against that point are concentrated for a main offensive.”

These two tasks, of course, change but only over time. First one thing must happen, and then that first thing leads to another, and then another. According to Clausewitz, a “center of gravity develops” based upon the national characteristics of the opponent. This center of gravity is “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.” Although the center might shift over time, it always remains “the point against which all [one’s] energies should be directed.”

Initially, the Japanese identified the Russian center of gravity as the Russian naval forces in the Far East. These forces were based at both Port Arthur in China and Vladivostok in the far Russian northeast. The Port Arthur naval squadron possessed the immediate and proximate combat potential to interrupt the flow of Japanese troops and supplies to the Asian mainland. This flow of Japanese troops and supplies was, at the outset, the Japanese center of gravity. That is, movement of Japanese forces from the Japanese home islands to the Asian mainland was the critical operational act necessary to support the supreme strategic requirement of Japan’s expansionist policy. Any interruption of the sealift of troops and materiel from Japan to the mainland would be intolerable, and risk utter failure of the entire Japanese policy. Thus, the Japanese determined that the Russian fleet had to be neutralized.

“Never Think of Victory or Defeat”

The Japanese operational plan was to hold in check the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur while Japanese troops landed in Korea and advanced northward toward Manchuria.

From the Japanese perspective, it would have been unthinkable to alert the Russians that hostilities were imminent. In fact, the element of surprise at the outset was considered so critical that the Japanese operational planner, Adm. Heihachiro Togo, counseled his political masters against the otherwise traditional, if not legal, requirement of issuing a declaration of war against Russia by the Japanese government. It would have been “criminal folly,” in Togo’s estimation, to signal the Japanese intention by issuing such a formal declaration.

Still, however, should the arguably tactical necessity of surprise ever dictate the strategic implications of the legal regime in which a war is conducted? This is a question of the most profound implications. “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make,” wrote Clausewitz, “is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

True to Clausewitz’s comment, Togo’s determination in 1904 was to embark on the military campaign against the Russians and throw the weight of his forces against the opponent at full bore with no prior warning. In Togo’s view, the desired end state would justify the means. Japanese policymakers and war planners knew that the conflict they would make in Asia would determine the fate of Japan for the next century, and thus it was a matter of national survival. The Japanese could afford to give the Russians no advantage and no concessions. To the Japanese way of thinking, ruthlessness was a necessary component of strategy and policy.

Just before the attack on Port Arthur, Togo assembled his staff and other senior officers aboard the Japanese battleship Mikasa. After reviewing the plans of attack and the other entire myriad of issues that supported what was about to ensue, Togo stood up and spoke to his subordinates:

“Thoughts of victory or defeat belong, properly, to the time before the fighting takes place…Once you cross fire with the enemy, you should never think of victory or defeat. Those who are desirous not to be defeated shall undoubtedly be defeated.”

Thus in high spirits, and with sailors literally singing battle songs while standing behind their blazing guns and hissing tubes, did the Japanese navy attack the unsuspecting Russian fleet, then moored in Port Arthur.

The result of the Japanese attack was that the Russian fleet was crippled, and all but bottled up in Port Arthur. Japan had what it wanted and required, command of the seas between its islands and the Asian mainland. Later in the war, the Japanese would assault Port Arthur by land, and the Russians fought like lions, causing the hills overlooking the harbor to run red with Japanese blood. But it is a safe assessment to say that the Russians never recovered from the initial shock of the Japanese attack, and the war went on.

Russian forces fought bravely in 1904 and 1905, but lost key battles both ashore and at sea, culminating in the naval rout of another Russian fleet by the Japanese navy, under Togo, at Tsushima in May 1905. “The aim of war should be the defeat of the enemy,” wrote Clausewitz. “But what constitutes defeat?” he asked. “The conquest of his whole territory is not always necessary, and total occupation of his territory may not be enough.” After Tsushima, domestic politics and military necessity dictated that the Russians negotiate a peace with the Japanese. The Russo-Japanese War ended, and the “political intercourse” of nations continued by other means.

“And Now This Day Has Come”

“Had these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?” asked Mitsuo as he flew over the wreckage of Pearl Harbor. Some of “these Americans” had, of course, heard of Port Arthur. But it did them little good on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, because Port Arthur was viewed as a historic event and an object of detached study, far more than it was a tactical warning, let alone a source of gut-level emotion. Still, after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. perception and historical memory was that the Japanese had again commenced another war without forewarning or declaration. Pearl Harbor was, in this respect, a victory that doomed Japan.

As I wrote earlier in this article, every battle means different things at different levels, to different people and for different reasons. Someone else had heard of Port Arthur, as well. His name was Joseph Stalin, the man who eventually became the supreme leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In a radio address to the Soviet people, delivered on Sept. 2, 1945, and in the aftermath of the end of another war with Japan, Marshal Stalin had this to say:

“Japan began her aggression against our country as far back as 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War. As is well known, in February 1904, while negotiations between Japan and Russia were still in progress, Japan took advantage of the weakness of the tsarist government and unexpectedly and treacherously, without declaring war, attacked our country and assaulted a Russian squadron in the Port Arthur area in order to disable several Russian warships and thus to place her own navy in a position of advantage. For 40 years we, the men of the older generation, have waited for this day. And now this day has come.”

The tactic of surprise attack, thought to be so essential in 1904, had become a festering wound over two more generations. The perception of Japanese treachery crossed political bounds from tsar to commissar. Thus, Port Arthur illustrates the point that the memory of mankind is long, and emotions can run deep.

The warning in all of this is that a nation must think for the long term and be careful of what policies it pursues and what strategies it follows. Because a nation must beware of what enemies it makes.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
May 24, 2006