Doesn’t take a Genius. . . . As a self proclaimed military historian, no doubt you can guess what today’s blog will discuss. This is “Pearl Harbor” day, the day which lives in Infamy, and one that we should never forget. What we have to remember is that December 7th, 1941, is more than just an historical event or collection of facts in a dusty old book, it is even more than just the event that launched us into World War II, and thus changed our world completely. This event, aside from September 11, 2001, is one of the most seminal events in American History, because it took our nation from a blissful childhood to a very tough adulthood. So, what is the real lesson to take from these events? It should serve as a reminder of how a national mind set, coupled with complacency, can lead to disaster. The concept that “it can’t happen here,” or “it won’t happen to us,” looms large over most disasters of this kind. When this type of even takes place, we will argue it was just “intelligence failures” or that someone “missed the clues” and that is what led to the event. While much of this is true, the more fundamental question to me has always been, WHY did they miss those clues? Why were there failures? My study leads me to believe that most often those failures are based on faulty premises or assumptions. Pearl Harbor is the most studied and actually, the most classic of those failures, as are the assumptions made leading into the event. In 1940 and 1941, the commanders in the field, as well as some in Washington, missed the clues because of their entrenched thinking, and the assumptions that came from that thinking. We are all guilty of this type of thought, since we seldom feel comfortable asking the tough “what if” or “why” questions. In short, we hate stepping outside our “mental box.” Pearl Harbor is that perfect example because, everyone “knew” that the fleet at Pearl Harbor, prior to December 7, 1941, was so strong that only an idiot would dare approach the Island for an attack. Everyone “knew” that with so many ethnic Japanese on the Island, the real threat was from sabotage. Everyone “knew” that the real combat threat was either in the Philippines or in Malaya, and most certainly, not in our own back yard. (We had oceans to protect us!) We also “knew” that the Japanese just didn’t have the temerity to come that far to attack something, when there were too many targets closer to their home. Finally, we just “knew” that the Imperial Japanese Navy, didn’t have enough combat capability to attack several places at once, much less a place like Pearl Harbor while still going after the Philippines or Malaya. Some would claim that this was racial or racist thinking, and I’m sure with some it would be true; however, the leadership indisputably did not hold a racist view. Instead, to their credit, they all knew that the enemy was capable of reaching Oahu, and capable of a raid that could come from the air. The most chilling evidence of this was the Martin-Bellinger report that predicted the type of raid in their “worst case” scenario. Unfortunately, the senior officers in place discounted capability, and started chasing the probability. In 1941, throughout our military, the question of probability won the analysis battle, hence the “surprise” when it actually happened. Herein lies one of the most common and fundamental errors in military intelligence. The give and take or tension between capability and probability. The questions boil down to: “Can they?” “Will they?” Some argue that the job of Intelligence agencies is to report the facts, in some Dragnet fashion, while others state that the “best guess” should accompany this information. The examples of this battle can be seen in other events. Another good example didn’t happen in our country, but instead, in Israel. The Yom Kippur War for Israel was a “surprise,” even though some intelligence officials had identified that the “capability” indicated that it was very plausible that something was “up” and they were about to be attacked. The leadership of that intelligence sat on it, since he didn’t think it probable, at least until he had it confirmed by “his” source. Needless to say, he was wrong, his staff was right, and it became a very near thing for all involved. As we reflect on today, and the history it represents, let us also reflect on the inside the box thinking we use to analyze the world around us. Let us face it, and then look at it closely from a different perspective. Can we prevent another Pearl Harbor, or 9-11, with 100% surety? Probably not, but we can do our best to try, and we can achieve better results if we start questioning our “pre-conceived notions.” To me, the need to think outside our mental box is the real lesson from Pearl Harbor. ~ Michael S. Pauley
Michael S. Pauley is a Navy brat and an old soldier who served in all three components of the United States Army. Living in Lexington, South Carolina, Michael is now a practicing attorney and member of the United States Naval Institute and the American Legion, Post 154, Tybee Island, Georgia.